THEY provide legal aid, but they are not an NGO. They accept paid work, but they do not work for profit.
The Samreth Law Group, Cambodia’s first public interest law firm, is a new feature of the local NGO landscape, pioneering a funding model for legal advocacy that lawyers say could reduce the sector’s dependence on donor funds.
On the surface, Samreth is a private firm and does much of its work for private clients. But instead of pursuing the profit motive, funding from the private practice is reinvested in public interest legal advocacy.
“We want to show other lawyers in Cambodia that even though we are a private law firm, we can still help the poor community,” said Ith Mathoura, a managing lawyer at the firm, which was founded in 2008.
Because the Cambodian government does not provide legal aid, that role is filled by a handful of NGOs, which depend on international donor agencies – such as USAID and AusAID – to fund their operations.
Earlier this year, two of Cambodia’s largest legal aid organisations – the Cambodian Defenders Project and Legal Aid of Cambodia – were forced to tighten their belts after donors slashed their budgets.
The donors “changed their strategy”, said LAC’s Executive Director Run Saray. “There was nothing we could do.”
Though Samreth is not as large as CDP or LAC, in some important ways it is fundamentally different. Whereas those groups were established to provide legal aid for those accused of general criminal acts, Samreth’s public interest work usually focuses on high-profile land disputes, fuelled by a new model for legal aid funding that that could prove more sustainable than reliance on donor funds.
Ly Ping, a senior lawyer at Samreth, said the firm uses a sliding pay-scale fee structure that takes into account its clients’ ability to pay, meaning that they often work pro bono.
Though Samreth does receive some donor funding and is happy to get it, the firm makes enough on its own that it could soldier on if that funding disappeared.
“Without funds, we can still make this happen,” Ly Ping said.
Both CDP and LAC have flirted with paid work in the past, but neither made it a permanent fixture. Both organisations adhere strictly to the policy that their lawyers are legal aid lawyers only and are not to take on private cases.
Samreth was founded in 2008 by Ith Mathoura, Ly Ping and Sao Kagney, who knew each other from their time at the Lawyer Training Centre, the two-year programme that precedes membership in the Cambodian Bar Association.
In the two years since, the firm has taken on an additional three lawyers.
Their monthly salaries are capped at several hundred dollars and fluctuate depending on how much money the organisation brings in. Though they don’t make as much as they could in a purely private practice, their salaries have always been sufficient.
“It’s about commitment,” Ly Ping said. “We want to help. It is an obligation, it is the common sense of human beings. The money is enough.”
On the public interest side, Samreth takes on one or two time-intensive, high-profile cases a year. Those operations are supported through services such as consultation, research and training, some private case work, some of which are supplemented by donor funds on a case-by-case basis, he said.
In public interest work, the firm looks for anything in which their involvement can support the cause of justice, Ly Ping said.
They recently represented some sellers at Boeung Chhouk Market in Battambang province, who had been accused of defamation by a contractor with whom they were having a dispute.
At the moment, lawyers are donating their time to a land dispute involving 26 families in Kampot province who are at odds with a rich woman from Phnom Penh, Ly Ping said.
An alternative model?
Part of the group’s motivation for starting Samreth was the deficiency they saw in the institutional structure of most NGOs.
CDP and LAC exist specifically for legal aid and are run by lawyers, but for other NGOs, legal aid is usually just one part of what they do. In a mixed institution, Ly Ping said, lawyers can be subject to the legal decisions of non-lawyers, and the institutional structure may compromise client-lawyer confidentiality.
But Samreth’s funding structure comes with challenges of its own.
The biggest issue for the firm is the potential for conflict among the private interests they depend on and the public interests they serve.
Because working on high-profile land dispute cases can put them up against powerful interests, the firm must ensure that it treads carefully in order to preserve the flow of private work it depends on.
“So, the strategy of case selection is important,” Ly Ping said. “We try to take medium-level cases, ones that are not too big.”
Despite some early success, one observer said, it remains to be seen whether Samreth’s model can serve as a viable alternative to that which preceded it.
“It’s way too early to tell,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
“I think legal aid could be privatised somewhat, but Samreth hasn’t been playing a key role in the legal aid field yet,” he said.
“The real question is always the bigger picture. Are you going to be able to change the judiciary in the long term?”