Underprivileged individuals facing court cases once grappled with constant worry, lacking financial means for a defence lawyer and unsure where to seek help.

Despite the assistance of the Legal Aid Department (LAD) of the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia (BAKC), concerns persisted. 

The BAKC has played a pivotal role in extending the reach of legal aid services, contributing to social justice and streamlining the defence process. Awareness of legal aid availability has grown, prompting individuals to seek assistance at BAKC offices in the capital and provinces when facing legal issues.

LAD director Kim Rothnarong mentions the association’s commitment to enhancing the reputation of Cambodian lawyers. Particularly focused on those defending the impoverished, additional policies were introduced to facilitate pro bono legal consultations and defence services. This initiative was implemented through a directive issued in February 2021.

He said the BAKC, through a directive issued in January 2018, established mechanisms for task delegation. This empowers the association to allocate and assign cases within its jurisdiction, ensuring easy access to defence services for impoverished individuals.

“We have representatives and offices in courts nationwide. This facilitates easy access to legal consultation and services directly at the courts. BAKC delegates operate a hotline [1281], allowing the public to call and obtain information for free,” he explained.

Rothnarong shared that between 2021 and 2023, more than 16,500 cases involving the defence of underprivileged individuals were handled, benefitting more than 26,000 clients, including 2,256 women and 7,570 children. The predominant cases were related to criminal offences, aggravated theft and drug-related crimes, with almost 1,950 legal consultations provided.

He highlights that among the 16,500-plus cases, over 15,650 received support from government-sponsored projects, involving more than 25,000 clients and almost 700 volunteer lawyers. There are ongoing plans to expand legal assistance to nearly 560 cases concerning impoverished women and girls who are survivors of violence, reaching a total of 588 clients with 168 volunteer lawyers, the majority of whom are women.

Pro bono services

Additionally, a project involving volunteer lawyers offers legal consultations and defence services to impoverished individuals, in line with a policy from February 5, 2021.

This initiative has addressed 375 cases for nearly 550 clients, involving a team of more than 200 volunteer defence lawyers and 310 volunteer consulting lawyers, conducting in excess of 900 consultation cases.

Furthermore, the child justice project sponsored by UNICEF has played a crucial role, addressing 60 cases for almost 90 clients, with the support of approximately 90 lawyers specialising in children’s issues.

Mao Sary, a BAKC representative in Ratanakkiri province, said impoverished individuals seek voluntary lawyers as their primary choice for legal advice. The defence attorneys in the province consistently offer assistance to clients, even without compensation for their services.

“Deprived of our assistance, they would face difficulty securing legal representation. Accessing lawyers in Phnom Penh can be challenging. However, our defence lawyers for the underprivileged are easily accessible in Ratanakkiri. Different lawyers have diverse areas of expertise,” he said.

With over six years of experience as a defence lawyer for the underprivileged, Sary noted that annually, the defence attorneys in Ratanakkiri handle around 200 to 250 cases, offering free legal assistance to those in need. These cases mainly involved charges of drug-related offences, violence, murder, rape, robbery and related matters. Besides relying on the support of BAKC representatives in the province, some people seek assistance from organisations like rights group LICADHO and lawyers from Phnom Penh.

Lawyers from the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia (BAKC) are seen with people seeking legal assistance, in photos released by the BAKC in November. BAKC

Providing free legal services has significantly eased the hardships faced by many, especially in provinces distant from the capital, such as Ratanakkiri, where financial constraints and difficulties accessing even the provincial town are prevalent. Challenging road conditions in certain areas also further hinder their ability to travel, and as some are members of ethnic minority groups, they may not speak the Khmer language.

Defence lawyers support

Sary added that offering assistance to the underprivileged is entirely free of charge. While handling the necessary paperwork, the defence lawyers receive some funding from the BAKC, streamlining the process. Assisting people in defending their legal cases also contributes to promoting legal awareness among the general population.

“Supporting underprivileged individuals extends beyond discerning right from wrong; we also provide education, ensuring that upon returning home, they comprehend legal matters and prevent the recurrence of similar issues in the future. In society, it is a common reality that some people may make mistakes while others do not, so we have to assist one another,” he said.

Sok Nil, a resident of Veal village in Preah Sihanouk province’s Kampong Seila district who was involved in a land dispute case, shared that he learned about the defence attorneys for the poor through media reports, during his personal court hearings. 

He mentioned, however, that he did not enlist their services as he had the financial means to afford a lawyer.

“I acknowledge that having such lawyers can relieve the burden and financial challenges faced by underprivileged individuals. Now, reaching out to them is easier as they are available in every court, with emergency contact numbers provided for immediate assistance,” he said.

Am Sam Ath, director-general for Public Affairs at LICADHO, noted that the ratio of lawyers to individuals relying on voluntary defence lawyers remains disproportionate with an insufficient number of lawyers to meet the people’s needs.

He states that providing lawyers for the defence and legal consultation of the poor is positive. However, there are cases where lawyers cannot defend everyone. Lawyers from civil society organisations (CSOs) often step in to assist individuals facing legal issues related to land disputes, particularly when companies file lawsuits against communities or individuals for various criminal offences. Nevertheless, the availability of CSO lawyers to provide free legal aid in these cases is limited, he added.

Non-discriminatory legal services

Sam Ath noted the importance of increasing the number of lawyers defending the poor in provinces, ensuring it is beneficial. However, he stated the need to prevent any financial burden on the people and advocates for non-discriminatory treatment in providing legal defence services to the underprivileged.

“If a lawyer upholds their professional ethics, experiencing both victories and losses is inherent, provided they exert their utmost efforts. I believe the caseload for a lawyer hinges on the demand for assistance from the people. Higher demand leads to an increased number of cases, while lower demand results in fewer cases,” he said.

Sam Ath noted that CSOs operating in provinces with land disputes and numerous lawsuits still handle a significant number of cases where people seek assistance for resolution.

On this matter, Rothnarong points out that the challenge is not a lack of response to people’s needs but rather the delayed notification given to lawyers to participate in court proceedings. Frequently, these notifications arrive close to the day of the proceedings, providing inadequate time for lawyers to thoroughly study the case. Incomplete copies of court cases and difficulties in obtaining verdicts further compound the issue.

Following the BAKC policy on free legal consultation and defence for the poor, focus is placed on individuals experiencing economic hardship or inability and confronting criminal charges. This encompasses cases involving minors charged with either a felony or a misdemeanour. The priority extends to providing volunteer lawyers for economically disadvantaged individuals entangled in civil cases, victims of criminal cases struggling to secure legal representation and workers facing challenges finding lawyers for civil cases.