U.S. Ambassador William Todd said this week that the Cambodian bar association’s threats to fine and jail foreign lawyers working here without a license could violate the country’s World Trade Organization (WTO) commitments and scare off much-needed investment.
In December, the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia (BAKC) put out a statement saying all foreign lawyers at work in the country without a license were doing so illegally. Drawing on the 1995 Law on the Bar, it said they could not represent clients but could still practice with the association’s approval—so long as their home country extended the same rights to lawyers from Cambodia.
At the time, association spokesman Yim Sary said foreign lawyers who continued to work without getting their home bar associations to clear the way for Cambodian lawyers “could be sent to jail or face cash penalties for continuing their illegal operations.”
But in his latest column for The Cambodia Herald, published on Sunday, Mr. Todd said the Cambodian Bar was out of tune with international opinion.
“A number of foreign legal advisors have said that the BAKC’s actions violate Cambodia’s World Trade Organization (WTO) commitments, which specifically permit foreign legal advisers to provide legal services relating to Cambodian law when in a commercial association with a Cambodian law firm on international/foreign law even without any commercial association,” he wrote.
WTO rules, Mr. Todd said, forbid any provisions defining how foreign and local lawyers can work together.
“By preventing companies from working with the law firms of their choice, BAKC’s actions discourage foreign companies from investing in Cambodia.”
The warning was part of the ambassador’s thoughts on what the country could do to bring in more foreign direct investment, which last year totaled $1.7 billion—roughly 10 percent of gross domestic product —according to the World Bank.
Foreign lawyers have been working as consultants and legal advisers in Cambodia since its economy opened in the 1990s and, often alongside local lawyers, have helped attract much of the outside investment in the country.
But Bun Hun, president of the bar association, on Tuesday rejected the ambassador’s claim about potential violations of WTO rules.
“We always respect the WTO commitments, but that doesn’t mean foreign lawyers can practice their profession here without respecting the laws of Cambodia,” he said. “They are just required to be registered, like in other countries, and the U.S. Embassy should reconsider and do some…legal research.”
As for luring foreign investors, he said there were plenty of capable and qualified local lawyers to do the job.
Mr. Hun said the Bar called in about 15 foreign lawyers between November and February to gauge their legal standing and found that none were registered.
“Cambodia has never banned foreign lawyers from practicing their profession here, but based on our law on the bar, they are required to be registered with the Bar Association,” he said. “Yet they have never come to register with us.”
He said the lawyers were not given a deadline but were asked to register “as soon as possible.”
Mr. Hun confirmed that part of the process will involve proving reciprocity, “which means that if the foreign bar association where the foreign lawyer is registered lets Cambodian lawyers practice their profession then the Cambodia Bar Association will do the same.”
Mr. Hun made no threats to sue any of the lawyers if they failed to follow through, except for one U.S. attorney whom he declined to name but said had made a great ruckus about having to register.
“If it is necessary to take legal action, I will file a suit,” he said.
One foreign lawyer who has worked here for the past five years said he was called to the Bar a few months ago but was not asked to register and left the meeting confused about what exactly was expected of him.
“They sort of assume you’re practicing law here illegally and they’re just asking questions to confirm that,” said the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “But it’s not really clear what foreign lawyers are supposed to do.”
As for why the association was now getting tough with a 20-year-old law, he said some Cambodian lawyers may have started complaining about the pressure from foreign competitors. He estimated that there were no more than 50 foreign lawyers working in the country, not including at NGOs or the Khmer Rouge tribunal, a fraction of the nearly 1,000 Cambodian lawyers currently registered with the Bar.
The lawyer agreed with the U.S. ambassador that the local laws were probably “inconsistent” with Cambodia’s WTO obligations and that forcing all foreign lawyers to meet the Bar’s strict interpretation on registration would hurt investment.
“They do a lot of work in selling Cambodia as an investment environment,” he said, and having foreign lawyers here “makes them [investors] feel more comfortable.”
Foreign firms already have to weigh the costs of investing in one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Convincing them to come here just as the government is getting tougher on collecting corporate taxes, he added, could make the work of foreign lawyers all the more important.
While foreign investment would not collapse without them, he said, “I think there would be some effect.”