The Cambodian Bar Association (CBA) will meet soon to discuss lifting restrictions
on the rights of foreign lawyers to practice here. The move comes as the country
prepares to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO), a move that could take place
as early as September.
The Post understands that the CBA will meet as soon as June 13 to debate the issue.
The restrictions breach the conditions on services in the WTO's rules, but changing
them has until now been resisted by the CBA.
As recently as last month, the CBA and others had rejected that possibility. In a
May 19 interview with the Post, Sok Siphana, the secretary of state at the Ministry
of Commerce (MoC), maintained that the CBA would not need to change its rules.
"The Bar does not have to kneel down and welcome foreign lawyers," Siphana
said at the time.
One item on the agenda at the CBA meeting is the status of several outstanding cases
against foreign lawyers. An ongoing lawsuit against law firm Dirksen, Flipse, Doran
& Le (DFDL) has reportedly been postponed, and cases brought by the CBA against
other foreign lawyers will also be reviewed.
The Bar Law currently states that foreign lawyers must be associated with a Cambodian
lawyer, and may not advertise their legal services. The lawsuit against DFDL came
after the firm was accused of advertising.
A source at the CBA, who did not want to be named, said the cases had been brought
by the Bar's former president, Ang Eng Thong, but would not comment further as the
lawsuits would now be reviewed.
The CBA's approach has had foreign lawyers here worried. One observer of the country's
legal system, who declined to be named, said it looked as though the CBA was coming
to grips with reality as the country's accession to the trade body looms.
"The Bar Association sees the facts on the ground," he said.
Under WTO rules, trade in goods and services must be liberalized, although there
is provision for some aspects to be retained. Cambodia would be entitled to insist
that foreign lawyers associate with local lawyers, but would not be allowed to restrict
the advertising of legal services.
Foreign embassy staff have also been concerned at the lack of openness in the service
sector. A Western embassy official, whose government is involved in the WTO negotiations,
said opening the service sector would be on the table.
"Services such as lawyers, doctors, investment bankers are part of the negotiation
for Cambodia's entrance to the WTO," he said.
The Ministry of Commerce is tasked with negotiating the country's entry into the
trade body. However the Post was unable to contact either Minister Cham Prasidh or
Secretary of State Sok Siphana to confirm whether the rules regarding legal services
would now be amended to conform with the WTO.
The observer noted that it would be vital for Cambodian and international lawyers
to work together even after the service sector was opened up.
"A Cambodian lawyer needs a foreign lawyer, and a foreign lawyer needs a Cambodian
lawyer," he said.