About of half of Cambodians charged with a crime do not have legal representation during their preliminary detention due to a shortage of lawyers working with the poor, local rights advocacy group Adhoc said in its annual report.
Ny Chakya, head of Adhoc’s monitoring section, said his organization found that most suspects were unable to pay for a lawyer.
Compounding their problems was a shortage of lawyers provided by local NGOs and from the legal aid department of the Cambodian Bar Association (CBA), he said.
“The number of lawyers compared with the number of criminal cases is not balanced,” Chakya said. “When a suspect doesn’t have a lawyer, the court will delay the hearing and they will continue to be detained.”
In addition to the CBA, free legal aid is mainly provided by NGOs Legal Aid of Cambodia, Cambodia Defenders’ Project and the Community Legal Education Center.
Chakya said most lawyers preferred working in cities so some lawyers appointed by courts to rural areas were not putting sufficient effort into investigating cases or interviewing witnesses in the countryside.
“I think it violates the suspect’s rights,” he said, adding that, “If the court tries a case without a lawyer, sometimes the decision is not fair.”
In its 2007 report, released January 30, Adhoc said that in some cases suspects resigned themselves to accepting a court’s ruling without having a defense lawyer present because they wanted the matter resolved quickly. Waiting for legal representation likely meant remaining in custody for at least another month, Adhoc said.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders’ Project, said about 50 percent of serious crimes and more than half of minor crimes were tried without lawyers, mainly because
those charged did not understand their right to legal representation. In criminal cases, defendants are required to have a lawyer present during trial, although those charged with minor crimes can waive that right.
“Suspects are allowed access to a lawyer from the time they are arrested until the trial period,” Sam Oeun said.
“The decision from the court will not be fair if the trial takes place without a lawyer. It’s like the scales are tipped to one side and the longer this goes on, the more people will lose confidence in the court system,” he said.
Not surprisingly, funding issues are closely linked to the availability of lawyers.
Sam Oeun said lawyers working for NGOs typically left after a short time to set up their own practices, through which they could earn much more money than by providing free services to the poor.
Ly Tay Seng, secretary general of the Cambodian Bar Association, said on February 1 he had not seen the Adhoc report but would look into its findings.
He said the association’s legal aid department had established offices in all cities and provinces and provided regular legal services to the poor. Each provincial court has at least two defense lawyers who provide representation free of charge, he said.
“We have enough lawyers but we do not have a big enough budget to send them to defend cases in the provinces,” Tay Seng said. “I think the CBA assists in about 70 percent of cases when defending the poor, and we are determined to provide full service.”
According to the CBA, there are 578 registered lawyers in Cambodia, all but 55 or whom are practicing. In 2008, 44 new lawyers are scheduled to complete their training.
Tay Seng said the government provides 200 million riel ($500,000) annually to the CBA to provide legal services to the poor.