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 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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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."