A Legal Education Clinic for Cambodia

When I was asked, in late 2003, to help create a legal clinic in Cambodia, I jumped at the chance. My earlier experience there working as a law professor and drafter for the National Assembly, had made me keenly aware of the vital difference a legal clinic could make. No such program existed in any of Cambodia’s law schools. Law students graduated without hands-on training, entering the field of practice with a theoretical grasp at best of legal issues and processes. At the same time, indigent Cambodians were deprived of a possibly crucial source of legal aid and counseling.

Cambodia’s criminal code mandates free legal representation for any accused who cannot afford a lawyer, as do the international human rights treaties ratified by Cambodia. However, funds to meet these obligations have never been forthcoming. To this day, the majority of criminally accused are prosecuted and tried without access to counsel. Most of the population is indigent, with per capita purchasing power equivalent to US$1,500, placing the country among the world’s poorest. Where defendants in Cambodian criminal trials receive help, it is not generally from the government, but from international organizations.

In fact, low public funding is only a symptom of the fragility of Cambodia’s legal order as a whole. The justice system suffers from the vestiges of a former communist structure, despite a liberal 1993 constitution; from the havoc wrought by years of civil war—only ten lawyers remained in the country by 1979—and from a persistent lack of government will to institute reform, a result of entrenched hierarchical networks of loyalty and patronage. Government expenditure on the entire justice system currently totals a mere 0.23 percent of the national budget—compared, for example, with 0.92 percent of the much heftier budget in neighboring Singapore.

The Pannasastra University of Cambodia, my former place of work, was interested in hosting a clinical program. Pannasastra University of Cambodia is well-known in Cambodia for its innovative and progressive approach to learning. It had jettisoned the rote-learning system common to many Cambodian universities, in favor of a more critical approach, delivered through the English language. Pannasastra University of Cambodia’s partners in setting up the clinic were the Cambodia Defender’s Project, a local nongovernmental organization, and the Open Society Justice Initiative. Clinical legal aid would be free of charge, as government-sponsored aid ought to be, and administered to people who would otherwise be unable to afford counsel.

I was no novice in public interest law or clinical legal education, having worked as a public defender in Florida for eight years. Still, I tried to meet as many clinical experts as possible, in order to get a range of perspectives on the underlying philosophy. The Georgetown University Street Law Clinic in Washington D.C. was particularly helpful: its directors offered to provide clinical materials for the prospective clinic. I learned much about how good clinics work. For example, the optimal number of students in a clinical class, I was told, is five to eight: any more may impede effective learning and an individual approach to each student.

The program, which had a launching ceremony in May, has two components: a “Live Client Criminal Law Legal Aid Clinic” and a “Street Law Clinic.” Student curriculums allocate 12 months to the live clinic, conducted in conjunction with the Cambodia Defender’s Project. Courses take place in a two-term period where classes meet two times a week, for instruction by practicing lawyers. This is followed by two further terms of classes combined with live client assistance and representation conducted at Cambodia Defender’s Project. The Street Law Clinic runs for two terms and involves both classroom training in substantive law and procedure, and hands-on experience, where students teach persons in Cambodian communities about their legal and human rights.

Prior to the clinic’s opening in January, the Pannasastra University of Cambodia law program began running a course on Professional Responsibility/ Legal Ethics in late 2003. This is the only course in legal ethics at Cambodian university level. The course focuses on the lawyer-client relationship and the lawyers’ code of professional conduct, from a critical perspective. The legal ethics course is required for the clinical program and, indeed, for the law program as a whole.

It would still be premature to evaluate the clinic’s performance. Yet early signs are that approval and appreciation are already forthcoming from students. The university too is increasingly accommodating to the clinic—the administration recently granted tuition waivers for the extra credit hours students earn through the program. The Pannasastra University of Cambodia clinic is a pilot that, if it proves successful, could become a working model for other institutions of higher learning across Cambodia, and even the region. Indeed, the word is out—requests are already coming in from other institutions expressing an interest in setting up similar clinics.

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