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Bar members bemoan low payment for pro bono work

Attorneys from across the Kingdom attend the Bar Association congress yesterday in Phnom Penh.
Attorneys from across the Kingdom attend the Bar Association congress yesterday in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

Bar members bemoan low payment for pro bono work

The Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia (BAKC) yesterday said it would receive around $222,000 to provide pro bono services to poorer defendants in 2018, though many members said the influx of cash – while an increase – was still not enough to defend the thousands of clients bar members are charged with representing each year.

The announcement came from Soun Visal, the association’s president, at the body’s 22nd annual congress, with the BAKC head saying the government-allocated pro bono budget had been increased from $148,000 and as many as 200 lawyers were signed up to provide such services.

According to Visal, the BAKC had represented clients in around 5,000 cases since his taking over the association in October 2016. If the number of cases remains approximately the same next year, even the increased funding would allow for only about $44 for each case.

“We need more money, maybe double or triple the amount. We are now using the government’s money and our own Bar Association’s savings,” Visal said.

He added that the BAKC had so far lobbied for funding for pro bono services mostly in Phnom Penh and larger provinces, but next year would ask that at least five lawyers be funded in each province.

Despite Visal’s assurances of increased funding in the future, lawyers present at yesterday’s meeting were not happy with the compensation levels. One lawyer said the diminished services lawyers were able to provide on so little were an “injustice” to their clients.

As other lawyers started airing grievances, a Post reporter was asked to leave the meeting.

Yung Phanith, the lawyer assigned to defend political analyst Kem Ley’s murderer, Oeut Ang, said lawyers would get around $40 for Phnom Penh cases, with the figure going up to $75 for provincial trials that required travel.

However, this was supposed to only cover two court hearings – to inform the court of their assignment and the actual trial – and lawyers were left in the lurch if there were any delays or postponements.

“So when the court suspends [a hearing], we need to pay with our own money since there is no money covering that,” he added.

Not only is the pro bono compensation too little, he added, the cases prevent lawyers from taking on paying clients.

Choung Choungy, who frequently represents the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and its members, said it was unsustainable to expect lawyers to dip into their own pockets to fund a client’s defence, and resulted in sub-par representation to boot.

“Then we cannot meet their demands, or we cannot fulfil what our client wants. There are limits.”

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