A national legal aid system is imperative and must be established to offset a widening gap between those who can afford justice and those who cannot, the representative for the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia said on Friday.
In a bid to address the problem, the Ministry of Justice and the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia held a national legal aid conference in Phnom Penh, during which the OHCHR’s Wan-Hea Lee appealed to the assembled prosecutors, judges and lawyers to take an active part in establishing such a system.
“[L]egal aid is an essential equalizer of justice,” Ms. Lee said.
“It places poor and rich defendants on a more equal footing, improving their chances for equal protection to the full extent of the law. Without it, justice in Cambodia will only be for the rich, powerful and the well-connected.”
According to research carried out by the OHCHR, “the number of legal aid lawyers is small and diminishing,” Ms. Lee said.
Data shows that there were 119 such advocates in 2010, but that the number has since fallen to 76. In several provinces, there are no legal aid lawyers at all.
“Access to lawyers in police stations is extremely limited, especially in rural areas. The provision of legal aid services in the country is neither effective, nor sustainable. For many Cambodians, justice is a luxury that they cannot afford.”
The benefits from such a system are many, she said. Legal aid gives people—particularly the poor—the right to be fairly tried, but may also prevent mistreatment during detention and reduce wrongful convictions.
Ms. Lee also said particular attention needs to be paid to children who find themselves in the criminal justice system, and that they should be prioritized when it comes to legal aid.
She spoke of meeting a minor inmate at Prey Sar prison’s Correctional Center 1 last year who was poor and lacking proper legal advice.
A legal aid lawyer was found to defend the boy, who was released from prison shortly afterward.
“There is no doubt that a more effective legal aid system would increase protection for children within the criminal justice system,” she said.
Bar Association President Bun Honn told attendees at the conference that his legal body has such a department, which employs 48 legal-aid lawyers and is run on a budget of about $50,000.
Up to October this year, the Bar Association received request for free legal aid in 798 cases involving 1,169 clients, 88 of whom were minors, Mr. Honn said, adding that assistance could only be provided in 95 of these cases.
Mr. Honn also told the conference that the Bar Association in the second half of the year began to collect data on the legal needs of the poor. That research has shown that legal aid is needed in 54 percent of all criminal cases in the country.
Kem Santipheap, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, said the Constitution states that “access to justice and equal rights before the law are guaranteed…regardless of social status.” However, the cost of legal aid could not be borne by the government alone.
“Legal aid needs to be contributed to by everybody,” he said.