In July 2014 the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) held a press conference in Phnom Penh, expressing the widespread concern of Cambodian and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that proposed laws threatened judicial independenceand sanctioned corruption in Cambodia. In spite of international criticism, these laws, covering almost all aspects of the Cambodian judicial framework, were soon passed without any changes.
In response, an IBAHRI delegation returned to Phnom Penh in April 2015 to study the situation of Cambodian judges and lawyers under the new laws. Provincial Court Judicial Justice Brenda Edwards was part of that delegation. Together with four distinguished lawyers from around the world, she met with Cambodians affected by the new laws including judges, lawyers, government and opposition members, NGOs, and displaced land owners.
The delegation prepared a report on its findings, and delivered it In September 2015. “Justice versus corruption: Challenges to the independence of the judiciary in Cambodia” concludes that the Cambodian Minister of Justice has been granted – both in law and in practice – an excessively powerful role, with the ability to influence almost every element of a judge’s career. Because of the danger of judges deciding cases in favour of the government in order to keep their jobs or get some other advantage, this is inconsistent with international justice system standards.
The report also identifies bribery and corruption as problems in the Cambodian legal system. It says both political and financial influence appears to be exerted at will over all judicial activities. Beyond corruption, the judiciary also faces chronic under-representation of women on the bench, and clerks and bailiffs usurping the roles of judges by effectively sitting in judgment over their cases, sometimes with – and sometimes without – the knowledge of the appointed judge.
The report also concludes that the bar association in Cambodia (an association of lawyers) is corrupted by political influence. Finally, it looks at the situation of Cambodians who have lost their land rights. For example, the government sold land in Boeung Kak to a private company and removed the land owners from their homes. The IBAHRI believes thousands of Cambodians have been dispossessed in this way. The landowners’ reluctance to turn to the courts to enforce their rights exemplifies the alienation from the justice system felt by most ordinary Cambodian citizens.
Nevertheless, the IBAHRI believes that with the right support, Cambodia’s judges and lawyers can begin to play a positive role in protecting individual rights and delivering justice to ordinary Cambodians. To that end, it makes specific recommendations to Cambodian institutions and to the international community.
Judicial Justices perform a variety of duties in the Provincial Court, including conducting traffic court trials and bail hearings on criminal charges, and considering search warrant applications. They also preside on some matters in problem-solving courts. Some, like Judicial Justice Edwards, are lawyers who work part time as judicial officers and also do other work or volunteer activities that do not conflict with their judicial role.
Read the IBAHRI report.