Government to Offer Digital Legal Advice to the Poor

3 min read
A hearing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court (UNOHCHR)

A newly launched government service for free legal consultations could be part of the solution to the country’s judicial woes, experts said, though they also cautioned that the committee overseeing it would need to be transparent and take further steps in the future.

The digital service, announced by the governmental Human Rights Committee on Tuesday, plans to have 37 lawyers on standby every day to answer legal questions from members of the public.

Chin Malin, the committee’s spokesman, said the aim was to reduce barriers to people getting access to justice, such as having to travel long distances for legal advice.

People have struggled to get justice in Cambodia in the past because they do not understand legal procedures, he said.

“When they have a dispute, they don’t know how to deal with it through legal means, and sometimes they go to court without a lawyer,” Malin said.

There were already some legal aid providers, but it simply wasn’t enough, he said.

“There is still a scarcity of this type of service for them. Even though there are other institutions, it is not enough,” Malin said.

The digital consultations would complement existing options so fewer people miss out on getting their due hearing in court, he added.

The country’s legal system has been frequently criticized, with one monitoring report issued in October noting that people’s rights to legal representation and being present at trial; to understand court charges and judgments; and to be presumed innocent were among several fair-trial rights not fully respected.

The report, by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), also found that most people facing prosecution faced the same predictable outcome. Among cases the group monitored in the Appeal Court, just 5 percent — or seven cases out of 138 — reached a not guilty verdict. Ninety-four percent of cases ended in a guilty verdict, and in just one out of 138 cases a reinvestigation was ordered.

Moreover, defendants had no lawyer in 24 percent of hearings, the report said. CCHR monitored Appeal Court hearings from November 2017 to October 2018.

Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager at rights group Licadho, said many people suffering human rights abuses in the country struggled to get legal representation.

“Currently, people who are victims of human rights issues face a shortage of lawyers in their search for justice,” Sam Ath said.

The Human Rights Committee’s digital service could help people better understand legal issues, he said. He intended to monitor the quality of the service offered and see whether it provided a real benefit, he added.

However, people would still need better access to lawyers who could actually represent them in court, Sam Ath said.

“Legal consultation is a good thing, but what is even more important is if the Human Rights Committee would provide lawyers for free to people who are victims of land disputes, victims of human rights issues,” he said.

For legal expert Sok Sam Oeun, the potential pitfalls of the new system include consulting lawyers who might push callers to become their own paying clients.

He said the Human Rights Committee would need to guarantee a high level of transparency to prevent such corruption from creeping into the system and affecting the reputation of the committee.

“When we offer advice to poor people, we have to give ideas honestly,” Sam Oeun said. “Sometimes we could give advice that turns into an idea that attracts the poor to seek private services. This is a conflict of interest, and this will make the lawyers who provide the advice become biased.”

People will quickly turn on the service if they suspect it of simply peddling paid services, he said.

“If we decide to help people, we have to clearly delineate between personal work and commercial work,” Sam Oeun said. “If we are providing consultations to people, it needs to be clear.”

(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)

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