Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC) is a Khmer-run, non-governmental, independent and non-political organisation created in 1995 which provides quality legal services free of charge to Cambodia’s poor and advocate for their rights in both criminal and civil cases.
From 1975-1979, during the Khmer Rouge period, Cambodia’s legal system was completely destroyed. Prosecutors, legislators, lawyers and judges were executed by the Khmer Rouges or perished as a result of starvation, disease or forced labour. Law books were burned and courthouses were converted to slaughterhouses. By the time the Vietnamese-backed regime was proclaimed in January 1979, only a handful of legal personnel were known to remain in the country. In 1994, international non-governmental organizations began to train legal defenders to represent imprisoned Cambodians who could not afford to pay for legal services. These trained defenders provided the first public defender service in over two decades. As a result of the deaths and departures of Cambodia’s legal professionals, the country still faces a severe shortage of lawyers and trained professionals that can provide legal services to the indigent. In 1995, LAC started its activities in the capital Phnom Penh and through eight permanent provincial offices. In 1996, LAC staff handled over 690 criminal and civil cases. In 2000, LAC’s fourth full year in existence, LAC lawyers and staff handled close to 2 500 cases and its caseload and resources continue to grow.
LAC’s programs are as follows:
1. General Legal Aid Program LAC’s General Legal Aid program provides legal representation free of charge to Cambodia’s poor wherever need arises and resources permit. Specialist projects are also housed with the General Legal Aid program, including support to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, efforts to end labour trafficking and to provide legal services to other poor Cambodians in other areas of focus.
2. Land Law and Natural Resources Program Establishing and legally protecting property rights is a significant issue in Cambodia, following the abolition of private property during the Khmer Rouge regime and the subsequent destruction of property records, as well as the displacement of people from their traditional land both under the Khmer Rouge and the following civil war period. The objective of the Land law Unit is to extend legal representation, advice and information to disadvantaged groups involved in land disputes and relocations in provinces of Rattanakiri, Mondulkiri, and Kratie with a focus on two types of cases: high profile cases, such as land disputes between powerful, wealthy persons and poor communities; and cases which have become criminalized because the judge has charged the disadvantaged communities with a criminal charge such as trespassing or illegal destruction of property. From 2012, LAC broadened its focus to also consider cases involving environmental law, and the misuse of natural resources including forests, rivers and fisheries.
3. Child Justice Program Established in 1997, LAC’s Child Justice Program provides support to both children in conflict with the law and children victims of crime. The Child Justice Program works to protect the rights of children, both under the laws of the Kingdom of Cambodia and also through the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It focuses on different aspects : Juvenile Justice Law : drafting of a new law establishing the procedure for dealing with juvenile defenders, expected to be passed during 2013, Child Friendly Chamber : operation of a separate court system of juvenile offenders from 2013, Alternative Sentencing : establishment of alternative sentencing mechanisms including diversion programs allowing children to avoid prison for minor criminal acts, Children in conflict with the law: ensuring that children in conflict with the law are properly treated by various stakeholders in the pursue of their case (police, prison staff, justice...), Child victims of crime: victims of crime often struggle to bring the perpetrators of crimes to justice due to a combination of cultural and social attitudes towards violence against women, a culture of impunity, unfair legal and judicial processes and lack of governmental assistance to victims of this violence. LAC works for example to build children’s capacity to protect themselves from all forms of violence, strengthen the capacity of the Family Protection Networks to be more functional, form parenting group/caregivers and provide capacity building...
4. Women Justice Program LAC’s Women’s Justice Program provides legal representation for both women in conflict with the law and female victims of crime (particularly domestic violence and sexual crimes) to ensure that they can receive justice from the courts through the successful prosecution of their attacker as well as obtaining civil compensation. The Women’s Justice Program also provides community education on the rights of women, and campaigns against domestic violence and advocates for the protection of women’s rights as well as training to police, court and prison officials as to the rights of women upon entering the judicial system. It focuses on different aspects : Women in conflict with the law: provision of legal representation for women accused of crimes, ensuring that they are subject to correct arrest, interview and detention procedures and can receive a fair trial. LAC provides training on the rights of female detainees to police, court and prison officials... Women Victims of Crime: domestic violence and sexual crimes are rife in Cambodia and a culture of impunity can make it difficult for women to bring to justice the perpetrators of these crimes.
LAC works closely with women victims of crime and where appropriate assists women to press charges against their assailant as well as pursue civil compensation trough the court system. In an effort to reduce the incidence of domestic violence, LAC also provides community education on the rights of women to be free from violence and assists women in obtaining divorce in order to escape abusive relationships.
LAC is one of the few legal aid organizations in Cambodia to maintain a significant, permanent presence in rural Cambodia where 80% of the population resides, with offices in nine locations: Phnom Penh (Head Office), Kandal, Battambang, Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey, Kampomg Cham, Rattanakiri, Mondulkiri, Kampong Thom. LAC is supported by international donors such as USAID, Oxfam Novib, Save the Children, Unicef, UNDP, the European Union... and member of various committees at the national level (Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, NGO Committee on the Rights of the Child, Women’s Confederation of Cambodian Organisations...). LAC also cooperates with various NGOs and with the government, e.g. the Ministry of Women Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Interior and the Council for Legal and Judicial Reform in order to advocate the rule of law, implement capacity building and outreach projects. It employs 76 people (22 lawyers and 54 non-lawyers) and is supported by national and international volunteers.