New figures expose absence of legal aid for child offenders
A new law on juvenile justice is being drafted by the Ministry of Justice, which aims to protect child victims and children in conflict with the law. However, there is no confirmed schedule on when the law will be handed to the National Assembly to vote.
ALMOST a quarter of children on trial for crimes in the first eight months of 2008 did not have access to a lawyer, new figures from court monitors have revealed.
According to the Centre of Social Development (CSD), 23.6 percent of the 230 juveniles in court between January and August this year were left undefended.
This, despite a new criminal procedure from 2007 giving every accused child the right to legal representation.
Pen Rany, head of CSD's Legal Unit that monitors seven provincial and municipal courts, as well as the Appeals Court and Supreme Court, is urging the government to take action.
"Most of the minors always confess, and we do not know whether they confess intentionally, or if they have been forced to confess physically or psychologically," she said.
"Only the presence of a lawyer can help defend the accused minor."
Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana disputed the CSD's data, saying to not have a lawyer went against the rules of the court.
"The criminal law stipulates that minors must have lawyers for serious crimes like rape and murder ... so it is not right for CSD to say there are no lawyers for minors," he told the Post last week.
But he admitted the court sometimes has difficulties finding lawyers for young offenders.
"Sometimes the trial must continue without a lawyer because the court is busy," he said.
"Also, the cases cannot be postponed, similar to cases [where people are judged] in absentia," he said, adding that it was the judge's decision whether or not to continue a trial.
Most of the minors always confess, and we don't know if they have been forced to confess.
Denial at municipal court
In the Phnom Penh Municipal Court alone, 19 of the 81 minors put on the dock this year did not have a lawyer at their trials, according to CSD figures.
But Ke Sokhan, the court's deputy chief, adamantly denied an absence of lawyers and told the Post that his court always provides legal aid.
"I deny the CSD figures saying that our court sometimes does not find a lawyer for minors. They are not true," he said, calling the claims a "slandering of the court".
Pen Rany was not surprised by the court's reaction. "The message is always the same, some deny and others try to find an explanation," she said.
She believes that there is a general lack of lawyers, especially for poor people and minors. When a judge notes that the family cannot pay for an accused child's lawyer, he appoints the Cambodian Bar Association to find one.
But Sunong Chanthan, a former director of the Bar's Legal Aid Department, confirmed the lack of lawyers.
"We have five lawyers for juveniles in the whole country. It is not enough," he said, adding that the government gives $US50,000 each year to assist poor people in hiring lawyers, but that an additional $40,000-50,000 from Unicef ended last year.
"I will be requesting the new president of the Bar Association to find partner organisations to give financial support to lawyers, as well as setting up a special bureau for juvenile defendants," he added.
Holes in the law
Whereas the code of criminal procedure in Cambodia states that adults who are charged with minor crimes may not be appointed a lawyer, the law mandates that children "always" have the right to a lawyer, regardless of their crime.
The law itself, however, does not define what a "child" is considered to be.
Pen Rany said the CSD takes the definition from the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says that a person under the age of 18 is a minor.
She added the situation in the courts was improving, but it was hard to tell by how much.
But, she said, it is the principle at stake.
"Even if there was only one percent who was without a lawyer, it is still a violation of a child's right to be defended," she said.