In the latest chapter of the Cambodian Bar Association’s crusade to clamp down on foreign lawyers practising in the Kingdom, a high-ranking court official has informed all city and provincial prosecutors to “eliminate the anarchy” stemming from non-native lawyers’ activities.
“To protect the professionalism of the bar association, we have to cooperate to respect the rule of law, especially the law on the legal profession, and work together to eliminate the anarchy from foreign lawyers who are practicing without registering in Cambodia,” a letter from prosecutor general of the Court of Appeal Ouk Savuth reads.
The letter, which was signed on April 2 and posted on the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia’s website yesterday, does not specify how the action would be taken.
According to the Law on the Bar from 1995, foreign lawyers cannot represent clients in the Kingdom as long as their countries of origin do not reciprocate the arrangement, although they can work in commercial association with Cambodian lawyers.
The Bar Association has long quarrelled with foreign lawyers working in Cambodia, appealing to various government institutions to clamp down.
In a February 17 letter from the association sent to the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the body said 12 firms in Phnom Penh each had one to 10 foreign lawyers working for them, decrying their impact on the rule of law.
“A study from the inspection authority of the Bar Association shows the continuing [operation] of foreign lawyers in Cambodia can cause negative impacts on rules and regulations, politics, economy and social society,” the letter read.
In practice, many foreign firms operate as legal advisers or consultants, often working with foreign investors eying or operating in Cambodia.
But many local lawyers say that those operating without bar registration put Cambodian lawyers at a disadvantage.
“If you’re not part of the bar, you cannot practise,” said lawyer Sok Sam Oeun of the Cambodian Defenders Project, citing the time and costs involved with becoming a member of the bar.
“The problem is [that] it is unfair for Cambodian lawyers.”
In a post to his blog last weekend, US Ambassador to Cambodia William Todd wrote that the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia had “issued notices to foreign legal advisors operating in Cambodia, summarily declaring their services to be in violation of Cambodian law.”
Todd noted that under the World Trade Organization, which Cambodia joined in 2003, foreign legal advisers can provide services when working in association with a Cambodian law firm.
“By preventing companies from working with the law firms of their choice, BAKC’s actions discourage foreign companies from investing in Cambodia,” the ambassador wrote.
According to one source at a foreign-owned legal firm, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivities of the issue, the Bar Association has this year called on representatives of various international legal firms to justify the nature of their work, without offering clarification on the rules governing foreign lawyers.
“Rather than calling in foreign lawyers like criminals to account for themselves based on some vague references under their archaic rules, why doesn’t the Bar Association actually provide some clear guidelines as to how foreign lawyers can register and practice law in Cambodia?” the source said.
The Bar Association has accused foreign lawyers of operating illegally for well over a decade, even pursuing lawsuits against firms such as DFDL in 2003 on similar grounds.
But recent efforts appear to have ramped up as the number of foreign lawyers has increased in country, with the bar publicly accusing foreign firms of illegal action five times since 2013, according to its February 17 letter from this year.
In one instance from 2014, it sent out a notice urging the public to “be aware” of “foreigners who call themselves lawyers or anyone not registered with the BAKC.”
Bar Association officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.