Standing in front of a young man in a yellow T-shirt – identified as a prisoner – is another man in a black suit and a white T-shirt. The man in the suit introduced himself in a clear, even tone, paying close attention to the prisoner; he is Yong Phanith, a lawyer who defends the poor. He works for the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia (BAKC).
With a firm face and dark skin, the salt-and-pepper haired 58-year-old is firm in his commitment as a volunteer lawyer. He represents those who cannot afford to retain their own legal professionals.
Even though he knows that he could earn more money by taking on wealthy clients, he has chosen to use his wisdom, experience and iron will to focus on the less fortunate members of society.
Phanit describes how although he is now married with three children, his life began under much harder circumstances. Orphaned as a young man, he lived with his older sister while he studied hard in Tbong Khmum province’s Memot district. He went on to complete his studies at the School of Administration and Law’s Secondary School of Law, now known as the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE), graduating with a Secondary Certificate of Law in 1990.
In 1992, he volunteered to work as a clerk in Stung Treng province until 1995, when he returned to Phnom Penh and passed the bar, becoming a lawyer in 1996.
As a lawyer who chose to represent the poor, he first worked for women and children who were victims of domestic violence. He then defended clients who were involved in land disputes and criminal cases, while still finding time to assist those who were testifying at the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia, commonly known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
“I have experience defending the poor. I have to use psychology because often my clients require more warmth and intimacy,” he said, adding: “I understand them very well, and can usually put them at ease, because like so many of my clients, I grew up an orphan, and poor. Wealthy clients are often less distressed than my clients, so I have to balance their unfamiliarity with the legal system and my professional judgement.”
“Over the years, I have defended clients from all strata of society, but the poorer require a more careful psychological approach,” he said.
“In our roles as defenders of people’s rights, we have to believe that any problem can be resolved, but because we are lawyers, we must be careful to remain within the law as we seek resolutions. I often refer to the phrase ‘on the journey to success, there are no lazy footprints’. Lazy people cannot travel the path of success,” he said.
He added that since he began taking on cases for the impoverished in 1996, he has represented 12,480 clients. He has won many cases, but also lost some, depending on the circumstances.
He now runs his own law firm, Legal and Consulting Office. Anyone who is involved in a criminal case has the right to a defence lawyer, he said, as a matter of legal principle. If they cannot afford one, they can request a lawyer directly, apply to the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia (BAKC), or go through a representative of the capital-provincial courts.
BAKC president Ly Chantola told The Post that the Bar is actively involved in providing defence lawyers to poor people who are accused of criminal, misdemeanour or felony charges.
In addition, BAKC is actively involved in assisting women and girls who are victims of domestic violence or rape – or any circumstances which are detrimental to women or girls – through its work with the Cambodian National Council for Women.
Chantola said that in February 2021, he introduced a policy of offering free consultation and defence for the poor, as well as for women and girls who are victims. BAKC provides free lawyers who will defend them in both criminal and civil cases. For almost two years, he has been working to strengthen the Bar’s activities, as well as its mechanisms for receiving requests for assistance.
“We expanded our activities through our website and social media, as well as establishing a Telegram group for members. This has made it easier for us to share information and respond to requests from our colleagues. Lawyers can use these systems to communicate rapidly with the bar association, and we can intervene or solve problems for them very quickly,” said Chantola.