In early February, the Battambang provincial court convicted seven people of killing a Sam Rainsy Party commune council candidate. Three of the accused found guilty in that case did not have legal representation.
That is not unusual. Observers say the Battambang case simply points out the low number of working lawyers in Cambodia and the need for judicial reform.
“There are only about 160 working lawyers in Cambodia now and there are 12 million people in Cambodia, so many of the defendants in criminal cases do not get legal representation,” said An Vireak, head of the Working Group on the Shortage of Lawyers in Cambodia.
An Vireak met with representatives from the World Bank Wednesday to discuss judicial reform and the lack of lawyers in Cambodia. She also discussed the Cambodian Bar association, which she says keeps new lawyers from being admitted into the bar. Without admission into the Cambodian Bar Association, an attorney cannot legally practice law in Cambodia.
An Vireak and officials from the World Bank refused to discuss Wednesday’s hourlong meeting.
A bar association official agreed there is a huge shortage of lawyers, especially in the provinces, where suspects accused of crimes such as murder, rape or assault often do not have any legal representation.
“When people have a conflict with the law [in the provinces] they often do not have any money to pay for lawyers or do not have access to lawyers,” said Bun Honn, the secretary general of the Cambodian Bar association.
There are currently 10 provinces in Cambodia where there are no working lawyers—Mondolkiri, Ratanakkiri, Stung Treng, Takeo, Kampot, Pursat, Kompong Chhnang, Pailin, Kompong Speu and Oddar Meanchey.
Bun Honn says the bar association shouldn’t be blamed. He criticizes donors such as USAID or the UN who he claims have failed to respond to the bar association’s repeated requests to provide funds for transporting attorneys to the provinces to try cases, and for funds to feed and house lawyers who are sent to the provinces.
Officials from both USAID and the UN said Wednesday they had not received formal requests for donations from the bar association.
One major issues tied to the lack of lawyers in the provinces is lengthy pretrial detention periods for suspects.
Cambodian law says courts can hold suspects charged with crimes for six months without a trial. There were an estimated 225 suspects nationwide in Sept 2001 who had been in prison more than six months without going to trial.
“More lawyers could push the judges to speed up the cases,” Bun Honn said. “But another problem is that there is no law that punishes the judges if they are late.”
There is no lack of graduates from law schools. At least 1,000 students have graduated yearly since 2000 from three law schools recognized by the Ministry of Education, Bun Honn said.
But the bar association has allowed only an average of 25 lawyers each year become new bar members. Bun Hohn says that number is so low because graduates either do not apply to the bar or are not qualified.
“The graduates from the law schools are qualified, but there is no standard to check because these schools are not accredited with any international law schools,” said Pok Than, secretary of state at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. “So we really have no yardstick to check their quality.”