Lawyer Shortage Adds to Long Pretrial Detentions, Official Says

The Minister of Justice said yesterday that a lack of lawyers in rural areas was compromising legal procedures in courts serving these areas and leading to undue lengthy pretrial detention for defendants.

“There is some problem in pro­vinces in rural areas that are far away from the city. In some criminal cases there is no lawyer, so the court could not process the case,” Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana said during the launch of a project to train lawyers by the Cambodian Bar Association and the French NGO Lawyers Without Borders.

He added the absence of lawyers was particularly high in the remote provinces of Ratanakkiri, Mondol­kiri and Preah Vihear.

“Defendants have been jailed for six months and are on trial today, but their lawyers do not come to the hearing, [so their case] has to be delayed. It means the defendant has to stay in jail for another three months,” the minister said in a later interview.

“I want to avoid the problem and not let it take place,” Mr Vong Va­thana said, adding more support was needed to train lawyers and court officials in criminal procedure and the criminal and civil code.

Last year, the Center for Social Development’s Court Watch Pro­ject found around 40 percent of adults and more than 60 percent of juveniles in pretrial detention in Cambodia are being detained long­er than pretrial investigative periods stipulated in the 2007 Code of Criminal Procedure.

In the case of adult suspects, the legal time limit for a judge to investigate is four months for a misdemeanor and six months for a felony. Many, however, are held for far longer periods of time without standing trial.

Chiv Song Hak, president of the Cambodian Bar Association, also underlined the need for more law­yers, explaining, “We have only 712 trained lawyers in Cambodia serving the population of 13 million people,” adding that only some 500 of the trained lawyers were active.

Lawyers also often do not want to work in remote rural areas, Mr Song Hak said, due to the smaller income and travel and accommodation expenses if they live in an urban center.

Judges also do not inform the bar association about the need for lawyers, Mr Song Hak said, adding that the new program by the association and Lawyers Without Bor­ders would provide training for lawyers and pay lawyers an additional $300 per month to serve in rural areas.

Ros Saran, a deputy prosecutor in Ratanakkiri Provincial Court, said despite the statements of the minister, his court did not lack lawyers for defendants on trial.

“We don’t face a shortage since the people depend on lawyers from an NGO and some hire lawyers from Phnom Penh and from nearby Kratie and Kompong Cham province,” the deputy prosecutor said, adding that he could not remember the name of the NGO that provides such legal services in the province.

         (Additional reporting by Paul Vrieze)

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