Minister of Justice Keut Rith on Thursday sent a list of 124 volunteer lawyers to be stationed at Phnom Penh municipal and provincial courts to defend mandatory cases free of charge.

The move is part of a campaign to clear case backlog by the end of the year.

Rith sent the names to provincial court directors and prosecutors. He said the procurement was meant to address a lack of defence lawyers.

Justice ministry spokesman Chin Malin said on Thursday the 124 volunteer lawyers will take part in the campaign by defending cases.

“These lawyers are new. We assigned them as volunteer lawyers to help with the ministry’s campaign,” he said.

Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP) director Sok Sam Oeun said on Thursday there are not enough lawyers to handle cases. The courts have to tell defendants about the lack of lawyers and ask if the court needs to assign one.

“Lawyers are not only required to be present at a hearing. The important point is that lawyers have to defend cases,” he said.

Volunteer lawyer Thuon Sothea, who was assigned to defend cases at the Koh Kong Provincial Court, said the principle of the campaign is that volunteer lawyers listen to guidance from senior leadership at the justice ministry.

“We are just volunteer lawyers. As seen in the letter, we wait to follow the guidance of the leadership,” he said.

Soeung Sen Karuna, a senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, said on Thursday that assigning a new group of lawyers to help clear the backlog of cases is a positive development.

But as a civil society organisation representative, he called on the lawyers to defend cases for clients properly.

“They should not have lawyers to just do perfunctory work according to procedures. We want these lawyers to do whatever it takes to work professionally and carry out their duties properly to protect the interests of clients to get justice,” he said.

Rith announced the campaign on May 18 after it was found there was a backlog of 39,152 criminal cases at Phnom Penh municipal and provincial courts.

He said he expected the backlog would be reduced by 50 to 70 per cent within six months.