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June 01, 2009

Cambodia’s First Public Interest Law Firm Launches Operations

June 2009

In April, Cambodia’s first public interest law firm, a major innovation in the Cambodian legal profession, opened its doors. The firm is an out growth of the Public Interest Legal Advocacy Project (PILAP), which, supported by the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), brings together a dedicated group of Cambodian attorneys to file high-profile public interest litigation in cases primarily involving land issues.

The firm, Samreth Law Group (SLG), aims to establish public interest legal advocacy as a viable and sustainable undertaking in Cambodia by building support among stakeholders and by demonstrating legal advocacy’s benefit to society.

“It’s exciting to be a part of this firm,” said Sao Kagna, one of the SLG founders. “Nothing like it has ever been attempted in Cambodia. There is very little understanding or collaboration between government and non-governmental organizations in Cambodia. Our firm is going to try to bridge that gap while showing that respect for the law benefits all stakeholders.”

Given Cambodia’s human rights and natural resource abuses, and the longstanding culture of high-level corruption and impunity, SLG’s work will focus on high-profile issues affecting marginalized groups. Large scale land grabbing in both rural and urban settings is at crisis proportions, leaving thousands homeless and destitute, and tens of thousands of others at risk. Land alienation in ethnic minority areas is particularly ruinous, leading to the destruction of these indigenous cultures. The firm will also promote public interest advocacy across the justice sector, including among private lawyers, judges, prosecutors and the Cambodian Bar Association.

The firm’s outreach goals are also crucial. Ly Ping, senior attorney and another SLG founder said, “Private lawyers in Cambodia really have no understanding about public interest law. Our work, including not only casework but also trainings and collaboration with the bar association and government, aims to show public interest law is an important and necessary component of the legal profession.”

ABA ROLI has, since 2003, supported high-profile public interest legal advocacy. Through the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Program on Rights and Justice, implemented in partnership with the East-West Management Institute, ABA ROLI has trained and encouraged young non-governmental organization (NGO) lawyers to use sophisticated advocacy techniques to promote the rights of the poor through PILAP. In one instance, PILAP attorneys defended an urban community against an eviction at the hands of a bank with strong connections to senior officials. After threats, offers of bribes and other intimidating tactics, PILAP obtained a $3 million settlement for the community prior to its removal.

Currently, the PILAP team is suing the sister of the minister of economics and finance regarding her illegal acquisition of an indigenous community’s land. The case is proceeding despite death threats, criminal incitement charges and an investigation by the bar association.

The firm’s creation resulted from PILAP lawyers’ aspirations to strengthen their public interest advocacy work, which was conducted out of the offices of a local NGO. With its unique structure as a private law firm pursuing the public interest, SLG will dedicate approximately 10 percent of its workload to private clients who will pay market rate for services, while utilizing a sliding scale fee structure for its public interest clients. All income generated will help support the firm’s public interest work.

Initially, the firm will take cases that help demonstrate its capabilities and value to the government and private sector, as well as to NGOs and local communities. SLG is currently assisting a rural community to register its land to secure land tenure. It is also helping a rural development NGO revise its land ownership documents. In the future, the firm plans to assist local communities and provincial officials in implementing “social land concessions,” which will provide land to poor rural Cambodians and aid indigenous community villages in incorporating and registering their land.

To learn more about our work in Cambodia, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at <[email protected]>.