​Legal arena stymied by lawyer shortage | Phnom Penh Post

Legal arena stymied by lawyer shortage


Publication date
02 February 2001 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Vong Sokheng and Stephen O'connell

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THOUGH Cambodia faces a desperate shortage of trained lawyers, the country's Bar

Association is making it all but impossible for law graduates to join the Bar and

therefore practice professionally.

Ang Eng Thong, the President of the Cambodia Bar Association, told the Post that

he could not provide an exact figure, but he thought no more than 10 people had been

admitted to the Bar since he became President in October 1998. One of those lucky

few was his son, Ang Eng Kimteng.

Kek Galabru, President of the human rights organization Licadho, said Cambodia had

less than 200 lawyers. Most worked in private firms while others were in Government

service and did not practice

She said lawyers with the Cambodia Defenders Project (CDP) and Legal Aid Cambodia

(LAC) - both legal NGOs that work with Cambodia's poor - had an impossible workload.

Lawyers working for these organizations accounted for most of the "active"

lawyers in Cambodia.

The lack of lawyers meant many people serving time in prison were tried without legal


"In Phnom Penh alone there are more than 100 people who have been in pre-trial

detention for more than the six months allowed by law, because there are no lawyers

to defend or help them," she said.

The Bar Association offers a number of excuses as to why it is not admitting new

members. Chief among these is that a center for post-graduate legal training has

not been established.

Article 31 of the 1995 Law on the Bar states that those admitted to the Bar must

have a Bachelor of Law degree, or an equivalent , as well a "certificate of

Lawyer's Professional Skill issued by a center for training of the legal profession.

The organization and functioning of the center shall be determined by sub-decree."

Nearly six years later, the sub-decree has yet to be passed.

Galabru strongly urges the international community to encourage the Cambodia Bar

Association to get the sub-decree passed by the Council of Ministers (CoM), as well

as commit to funding the center.

"It would be good for both the judiciary and the rule of law if law graduates

can receive this training and be admitted to the Bar," she said.

Ang Eng Thong, President of the Bar, blames the Government for the difficulties law

graduates experience entering the legal profession, saying it has not responded to

Bar Association requests to issue the sub-decree to establish the legal training


"I don't know about the sub-decree. Since 1999 I have sent about five letters

to the Council of Ministers asking that the Government issue the sub-decree, but

I never received an answer," said Eng Thong.

In December last year Eng Thong met with Minister for the Council (CoM) of Ministers,

Sok An, to discuss the sub-decree. Sok An told him that it was now being reviewed

at the Ministry of Justice, he said.

Heng Vong Bunchharth, Legal Advisor to the CoM, said he was not aware of any efforts

by Eng Thong to get the sub-decree passed by the CoM.

Bunchharth said the sub-decree must first be drafted by the Ministry of Justice before

the CoM can act, so if Eng Thong is indeed writing letters to the CoM then he is

wasting his time.

An official at the Ministry of Justice's Civil Affairs Department, who did not want

to be named, said Eng Thong submitted the draft sub-decree on the legal training

center to the Ministry on the morning of January 31 - the day after his interview

with the Post. The official said it was the first time the draft, written by Eng

Thong, had been submitted to the Justice Ministry.

Article 32 of the Law of the Bar provides a way around the need for a certificate

of Professional Skill from the training center which still does not exist.

It states that "those who have received a Bachelor of Law Degree and who have

been working in the legal or judiciary field for more than two years" will not

require this certificate.

Eng Thong said the Bar abides by a January 1998 decision of the Bar Council to interpret

work experience in the "legal or judiciary field" as meaning experience

in a Government ministry or the courts - thus excluding those who work in a legal

capacity for organizations like LAC or CDP.

Eng Thong said there had been no move to reform the internal regulations of the Bar

Association, or reinterpret the law, because theyAssociation had not received complaints

from failed applicants.

When asked by the Post whether he thought it fair that the Bar did not recognize

legal experience gained at LAC or CDP, he said: "To serve the interest of the

Bar Association, I think it is fair for us, but for the [applicants], I don't know."

But even if applicants to the Bar have two years legal experience at a ministry,

Eng Thong said they must quit their jobs before applying to the Bar so as to avoid

any conflict of interest issues.

Eng Thong said he was not president of the Bar Association when his son was admitted.

He became the president in October 1998. His son was admitted to the Bar on February

2, 1999, after his work experience with the UNDP was deemed to have met requirements.

"Kimteng was recommended by the Council of Ministers for his work experience,

therefore his experience met the regulations of the Bar Council," said Eng Thong.

Eng Thong said that once the Government passed a law on NGOs then the Bar would be

able to recognize legal experience gained at LAC or CDP. He could not say which law

allowed the Bar to recognize his son's experience at the UNDP.

Dr. Say Bory, a Member of the Constitutional Council and former president of the

Cambodian Bar Association, said he did not understand why the sub-decree establishing

the legal training center had not been passed. Bory said Eng Thong and Sok An must

both be encouraged to pass the sub-decree establishing the legal training center

as soon as possible.

However, it was during Bory's tenure as Bar Association president that the Bar Council

interpreted experience in "legal or judiciary field" as meaning experience

in "public institutions" only.

Bory told the Post he did not support the Council's interpretation. The decision

to change the rules was made because of a proliferation of false recommendations

stating graduates had obtained their two years working experience.

Though many of these false recommendations were issued by Government ministries,

the Bar Council decided to only recognize certificates of recommendation from the

ministries and courts because their validity could be more easily checked, he said.

There was "no justification" to prevent those whose "legal or judiciary

field" experience was obtained at organizations such as LAC and CDP, said Bory.

Meas Samnang, a 1997 law graduate and a legal assistant at LAC for more than two

years, is one of three applicants from LAC rejected by Eng Thong in July last year.

Samnang said he was never invited to appear before the Bar Council - as is stipulated

under Cambodian law - prior to the rejection of his application.

Samnang said the Bar Associ-ation's interpretation of the law on admittance to the

bar was far different from what the law actually stated. "This is why law graduates

are being blocked from becoming lawyers. This is not fair," he said.

LAC director Chin Sokha, and LAC lawyer, Lean Chinda, are both members of the Bar


In the case of the three LAC staff members, Chinda said their applications were never

forwarded to the Bar Council. These were simply rejected by Eng Thong.

The council is authorized by law to accept or reject applications to join the Bar.

When asked by the Post if in her role as a Bar Council member she thought the LAC

staff rejected by Eng Thong were indeed qualified, Chinda said, "I cannot judge

other peoples' knowledge."

So Munim, 26, a 1998 graduate of Phnom Penh University and a current student at the

Law Faculty of the National Institute of Management is worried about his professional


"The Government says we need justice and investment, but they don't think about

the important role of lawyers in society. What is the point of a law education if

you are not admitted to the Bar to practice as a lawyer? The Bar Association has

interpreted the law negatively and narrowly," he said.

Sok Sam Oeun, Director of the Cambodia Defenders Project, said in the past the Bar

Council was too loose with their interpretation of "legal and judiciary field"

and as a consequence unqualified people were allowed to join the Bar.

"The Bar Association has a duty to ensure that the quality of lawyers is very

high. But many lawyers now believe the Law of the Bar should be amended and improved.

"The law should be enforced properly and everyone should be treated equal before

the law," said Sam Oeun.

He said it was possible that working lawyers were guarding their market jealously

and did not want to see competition from a new batch of skilled professionals.

"In fact, there are not enough lawyers in Cambodia," said Sam Oeun, adding

that Cambodia's legal profession is noted for weak ethics and a lack of skill. "The

reputation of corruption [in the courts] is very high. The only lawyers who work

according to professional ethics are the ones employed by NGOs who have a regular


As Cambodia tries to establish a rule of law with a handful of legal professionals,

there are many aspiring lawyers waiting their chance to take the oath to "implement

[the] profession with dignity, conscientiousness, honesty, humanity, and with an

independent mind."

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