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Legal aid struggles to meet funding demand

Khy Sovuthy / Khmer Times Share:
Soun Visal , President of Bar Association. KT/Chor Sokunthea

The government budget to provide legal defence for poor people has been rising every year but still does not meet the needs of the Bar Association which administers the scheme.

Bar Association president Suon Visal, who was elected to the position a year ago, said at the association’s annual meeting at Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel yesterday that the government provided 400 million riel ($100,000) to the association to defend for poor people in 2016.

The figure went up to 600 million riel ($150,000) this year, and next year it will be 900 million riel ($225,000).

“This budget still is not enough yet,” Mr Visal said, though he could not estimate how much would be needed to defend poor people.

“In the year I have been president, we defended almost 500 cases of poor people,” he added.

Mr Visal said there were about 1,200 lawyers, but only 1,000 of them worked in the legal sector.

“Looking at the number, it seems to be a lot because most of the lawyers work in Phnom Penh – about 90 percent of them, but that number isn’t enough for us to provide legal services, with 15 million people around the country,” he said.

“If we think about the labour market for lawyers, there is not a shortage but if we look at the general picture, we still lack enough lawyers.”

Despite this, he said that lawyers’ ethics are improving constantly.

“I think that now if we compare with previous times, it is getting a lot better,” he said.

During his mandate, no lawyer had been disbarred. In the previous mandate, about three or four lawyers were struck off for breaching the code of ethics.

“The Bar Association only has value if all lawyers have value too,” he said.

Chuong Chuongy, a lawyer who often defends the opposition party, said he saw the budget for poor people increasing more and more, but the Bar Association spent up to the limit, so lawyers were not able to do what their clients wanted.

“I think that it is not as efficient as when clients spend their own money to hire a lawyer,” he said.

One lawyer spoke about problems defending poor people, saying some of these cases were delayed many times by the court and the Bar Association spent money twice for each case. If lawyers want to continue with the cases, they need to spend their own money, he said.

“I told the Bar Association I wanted to resign from defending one case because they provided money only twice,” he added, saying he did not have money to spend on a lot of travel in the case.

“I have asked the Bar Association to report to all provincial and city courts about this problem,” the lawyer said.

Eng Sothea, another Bar Association lawyer, said some lawyers do not provide value because in some cases, they do not turn up to defend their clients and do not ask the court to delay cases. Judges and clerks then spend time waiting for lawyers.

“This is problem that decreases the value of lawyers and makes the court look down us,” Mr Sothea said.

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