Kate Flower, 29, is an Australian trained lawyer and the program officer for International Bridges to Justice (IBJ), Cambodia. IBJ has been providing legal aid to poor Cambodians who would otherwise have limited access to justice since 2008. She tells us how important criminal legal aid is for prisoners in Cambodia’s justice system.
What is it in the prisoners’ situation that requires legal aid?
There is a lack of lawyers, and that has an impact on peoples’ access to justice. It causes delays and congestions in the court system. For a felony, for example, you have to have a defendant lawyer in Cambodian law otherwise your case cannot be processed. We want to get imprisoned people systematic and quick access to a defence lawyer.
What achievements in your work make you optimistic?
It’s the small ones. Up in Ratanakkiri for example the police have started calling our lawyers at the earliest stage possible. The lawyers turn up at the police station within 48 hours. Lately a couple of cases had already been dismissed at the police station due to a lack of evidence. But it is also a change in attitude among the justice stakeholders like police and prosecutors: they started trusting us.
How do you build this trust?
It requires understanding and patience to build trust between court officials and us and other justice stakeholders in general. They now welcome us because they understand the benefits of our contribution. But I think you can generally say that you have to build trust for any sort of working relationship.
As an NGO, donators also finance you. How do you gain their trust?
I do it by telling them success stories and providing them with statistics. Funding can be very challenging because we work in criminal law. Some people just hear the word criminal, are pre-judgmental, and assume the prisoners’ guilt. This problem may be less apparent in other areas of funding.
How do you persuade them to support your cause?
Regardless of guilt and innocence everybody has the inherent right to due process, the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. Culturally, this is a huge shift we are trying in Cambodia if we think back to Pol Pot, who held the view that “better 10 innocent men would suffer than one guilty man would escape.”
What made you come to Cambodia and work for a legal aid NGO rather than making money as a lawyer in Australia?
I came for a month in July 2010 and I fell in love with the people and the culture. When I was working in a slum in Siem Reap I thought my skill and time would be more useful here. My and IBJ’s goal is to have nationwide legal aid worldwide because I can see daily what a huge impact it has on peoples’ lives. And not just the lives of those accused but also their families. It is so basic and really strengthens the justice system.
Can you give an example of that?
We had a murder case where a client was abused by his violent and drunk uncle. Through a lawyer we were able to give him a voice and explain the circumstances to the court. In the end the young man got four years. I know of a case where the same crime resulted in a sentence of 10 years, probably because there was no lawyer present. A six year difference in the sentence is life changing on a young boy’s life in his early 20s. Just think of education or the capability to deal with the outside world.