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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Strengthening the long arm of the law

Strengthening the long arm of the law

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Future lawyers Uch Arun, 36, Marin Yann, 32 and Pich Kimsan, 30, ponder a legal lesson at FLE.

The country's law students spend their nights poring over books and their days paying

their way through school. Among the future lawyers studying in the capital are a

cargo manager at the airport, a customs official, and a radiologist at a city hospital.

While attorneys in other countries claim a prestigious calling, few here have the

acclaim, salaries or family connections that benefit the profession elsewhere.

Even more troubling, say law students, is the lack of opportunity in a justice system

that flouts the principles they spend years and thousands of dollars mastering.

"The law has to be the law. You cannot bypass it," says Chhem Sip, who

is studying for his bachelor's degree at the Faculty of Law and Economics (FLE).

Sip's family fled to the US after the Khmer Rouge came to power, but he returned

in 1997 to work for the World Rehabilitation Fund. He is critical of what he perceives

as the government's contempt for the legal system.

"When the system of law is the law, that's when economic prosperity will start

in Cambodia," Sip says.

A prominent legal professor and lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, says his students

are "very worried about their jobs in the future because the court does not

yet respect the law and demands money".

"Their experience and knowledge [mean] they can work as lawyers," he says.

"But for 'payments' [bribes paid to the court], they have no experience."

This new class of professionals, trained in newly created university and government

programs, will be among the first to take on the country's legal problems from within

the system itself.

The FLE has about 8,000 students. With around 2,000 of them studying law, the faculty

is minting a new generation of legal minds. The students understand they will face

corruption, weak enforcement of laws, and a disdain for equal justice when they enter

the field.

"The needs of the society and especially the legal system in Cambodia are well

known," says Channtha Muth, a law student set to graduate in 2005 who currently

works at the National Democratic Institute. "If we could contribute our knowledge

to the legal system, then we could really help."

When Muth's class graduates, the students will likely face an entrenched system of

corruption, nepotism and bribes, euphemistically described as 'payments', to judges

and clients.

"I have seen many people in the system, many innocent people, who were convicted

and nobody defended them," says Suon Visal, a 2000 graduate of the Bachelor

of Law program and chief counsel for local NGO, the Cambodia Defenders Project. "This

is the reason I joined the legal aid group. It's a problem I work with every day."

Visal, who also lectures at FLE, admits he has seen many improvements since his early

days as a lawyer in Sihanoukville during the 1980s. Back then, defendants were not

allowed lawyers since party leaders handed down arbitrary sentences.

Now he defends clients on principles of human rights that were not considered in

the courtroom. But, he says, the government still ignores many of its promises.

"The best way I can enjoy work every day ... is to make sure the government

knows its obligations under the international agreements that it signed," says

Visal. "Respect, protect and fulfill. They have three obligations under international

law and those have not been met yet."

George Cooper, a legal advisor at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning

and Construction, says the problem is not just a lack of law, but a "lack of

enforcement and will".

He feels that practicing the law here is as much about developing relationships with

judges and clerks as understanding what is in the law.

"It's improvised out of necessity," says Cooper. "Materials generated

by the government, that you wouldn't think of as law, are treated as law here. There

is no code of civil procedure. Disorganization and corruption of courts is a really

big problem."

Despite these failings, an increasing number of students are entering the legal field.

Bun Honn, the former head of the Cambodia Bar Association, says 275 lawyers are certified

to practice law in the Kingdom.

Another 60 lawyers were accepted into the bar this year and as many as 70 are expected

to take the entrance exam next year. Most will be graduates from FLE.

"For me, the number of lawyers is not enough," says Honn. He explains that

the shortage of lawyers and reasonable salaries contributes to a breakdown in the

justice system.

"The poor people cannot reach the lawyers themselves. If poor people come to

me, I have to spend out of my own pocket," he says. "Right now, some lawyers

go bankrupt."

Little has improved for lawyers' financial straits, but the Ministry of Justice (MoJ)

has taken one step to reduce the incentive for corruption in the courts.

Y Dan, an undersecretary of state in the MoJ, says the Judicial Reform Committee

decided to raise the salaries of judges from $25 per month to more than $250 this

year. The judges have already received their new paychecks.

But Visal feels that despite the advances, including a new School of Magistracy for

judges and a training center for lawyers established last year, problems persist

at all levels.

"It's sad to say, but I see many problems in the legal system," he says.

Among the most prominent are biased law professors and a rigged admittance system

to the Bar.

Although the Bar is theoretically open to anyone who satisfies its educational criteria,

he says its leaders "don't want other people to join" and have put obstacles

in place such as a $200 "registration fee" to discourage more people from

joining.

"As one of their members, I'm very disappointed," Visal says.

He also rails against an education system that instills ideals of conformity and

acceptance in students.

"Many law professors come from high profile government offices and don't want

to address good law or the needs of society," he says. "They just want

students to follow their ideas and control of the country. They don't want students

to have their own ideas and criticize the government.

"When the students react to me, they are afraid to follow my ideas," Visal

continues. "How can students come out and reform or change the system?"

But Dean Yuok Ngoy, who has presided over FLE since 1996, maintains the school has

tried to change the status quo. It has just gone forward at a slower pace than some

would like.

"In judicial reform, the government upgrades little by little," Ngoy says.

"We can not justify or correct [this situation] in a very short time."

Although Dean Ngoy's school prides itself on being the oldest higher learning institution

in the country, the FLE had to rebuild itself from virtually nothing after the Pol

Pot regime. Administrators looking to restart the university after 1979 found only

six graduates had survived from a pre-war total of 1,000.

"We started from point zero, especially for human resources," says Ngoy.

"Some problems [with the law] we cannot avoid, but we need time to fix them."

FLE began offering its own bachelor's degree in law in 1993. Last year, in a major

step, FLE started a program for a Masters in Business Administration, and further

courses in international, commercial and economic law.

Today the school has several PhDs, Fulbright scholars and prestigious alumni at some

of the best universities in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States.

"We have started to build a house," says Ngoy, tracing its modest outline

with his hands. "We can only see the foundation. We don't see the results yet

because it takes some time."

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