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Cambodia’s Legal Professions

The following is a guest post by Pichrotanak Bunthan, a legal research fellow with the Law Library of Congress who is working under the supervision of Sayuri Umeda, a foreign law specialist covering Japan and other jurisdictions in East and Southeast Asia.

In my previous blog post, I described what legal education in Cambodia looks like. As a sequel to that post, the following will explore some common legal professions for LL.B. graduates in Cambodia. In general, they sit for an entrance exam to become either lawyers, magistrates (including both judges and prosecutors), court clerks, or notaries public. Entrance exams for each legal profession are conducted separately and one graduate may sit for more than one legal profession exam.

The ECCC court room on 20 July 2009 during testimony of former Khmer Rouge prison guard Him Huy.

ECCC Court Room 20 July 2009. Photo by Flickr user Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC), courtesy of Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. July 20, 2009. Used under creative commons license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.

Lawyers

As a general rule, to be admitted to the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia (BAKC) as a qualified lawyer, an applicant must be a Khmer citizen holding (1) an LL.B. degree issued by an accredited law school, and (2) a Certificate of Lawyer’s Professional Skill, issued by the Center for Lawyers Training and Legal Professional Improvement, also known as the Legal Training Center (LTC). In addition, the applicant must not have been convicted of any misdemeanor or felony, or received any disciplinary sanction, administrative penalty, or dismissal for any act of moral turpitude or act contrary to honor. (Law on the Statutes of Lawyers of 1995 (English translation) art. 31.)

There are two main routes for a law graduate to be admitted to the BAKC: taking the bar exam or direct admission without taking the bar exam.

Bar Exam

An entrance exam to the LTC is referred to as the bar exam in Cambodia. An applicant must have completed an LL.B. before sitting for the exam. There is no fixed cycle for the bar exam schedule. The exam date will be publically announced on a case-by-case basis. Based on the February 2013 exam, it had two components: the essay test and the oral test. The essay component took one full day with three hours in the morning, with a few questions on civil law (both substantive and procedural), and another three hours in the afternoon, with a few questions on criminal law (both substantive and procedural). Those who passed the written test would be shortlisted for an oral test on a later date. During the oral test, an applicant randomly drew one of these topics: constitutional law, commercial law, and labor law, and would have to answer the examiners’ questions on the randomly selected topic.

There is no preparation course provided in Cambodia either by a private company or a law school and thus applicants generally self-study or organize their own study groups to prepare for the bar exam. The bar exam in Cambodia is highly competitive since a quota is set for each exam cycle. For example, the BAKC selected only 50 people out of 720 applicants in the February 2013 exam.

If an applicant passes the bar exam, they must go through academic training for about one year at the LTC and then practical training for another year. (Art. 35.) After completing the training, the applicant may receive the LTC certificate and request the BAKC for admission based on the general requirements above. Admitted lawyers must comply with the Codes of Ethics for Lawyers adopted in 2012, while the BAKC also has its own internal rules.

Direct Admission

There are a few exceptions that allow people to be admitted to the BAKC without taking the bar exam and the LTC training. First, the certificate from the LTC, and thus sitting for the bar exam, is not necessary for Khmer nationals who (1) have received an LL.B. and have been working in the legal or judiciary field (e.g. legal assistant to a lawyer, employee of the legal department of the government) for more than two years; (2) have received an LL.D.; or (3) are registered in another country’s bar. Furthermore, neither the LTC certificate nor the LL.B. is required if the applicant has served as a judge for two years with a law certificate or has served as a judge for five years without any legal education. (Art. 32.) An applicant who is qualified under these exceptions may submit a request to the BAKC for admission. This route, however, is less commonly availed.

Specialized Legal Practice

The admission to the BAKC through either route permits lawyers to practice throughout the country. However, additional certifications are required for acting as agents for their clients before a number of governmental bodies on specialized areas of law, such as trademark law (Prakas No. 045) and corporate law (Prakas No. 258) at the Ministry of Commerce, and tax law at the General Department of Taxation (Prakas No. 455). In contrast, one does not need to be a licensed attorney to get one of these specialized licenses.

Law Firms

As of August 22, 2017, the total number of law firms and offices in Cambodia was 485, with about 80% of them located in Phnom Penh. As of August 2, 2021, Cambodia (about 17 million people) has 1,855 active lawyers registered at the BAKC. Most lawyers remain in the cities, which is one of the reasons that people in rural areas have difficult access to legal services.

Law firms in Cambodia are exempted from the tax registration requirement for commercial firms, and instead must register with the BAKC. Without any tax registration, law firms are not required to report any income or expenses to the tax authorities. A few years ago, there was an attempt to subject law firms to tax registration and obligations like other commercial firms, but such legal requirement has been delayed indefinitely due to controversy.

Magistrates and Other Professions

The requirements to sit for the exams of other legal professions slightly vary from one to another, but they generally have Cambodian nationality, maximum age, noncriminal records, and some legal education (e.g., LL.B.) requirements. (See previous entrance exam announcements for magistracy, notary, and clerkship.) The Royal Academy for Judicial Professions (RAJP) announces the exam dates on a need-based basis. If an applicant passes any of the exams, they need to undertake training at one of the schools under RAJP in the respective profession for about two years. These schools include the Royal School for Magistracy, Royal School for Court Clerks, Royal School for Notary.

Particularly for the magistracy exam, the maximum age requirement is 35 years old (40 if the applicant is a public official), and the minimum education is an LL.B. Like other exams, the applicant must be Cambodian by birth without any criminal record. (Law on the Statutes of Judges and Prosecutors (English translation), art. 19). Generally, the magistracy entrance exam also has essay and oral test components, and only 50 candidates in total are selected annually for both judges and prosecutors. By way of example, the October 2017 exam’s essay component took two full days. Each day had a three-hour essay test in the morning and another in the afternoon, with testing on civil and criminal law (both substantive and procedural). About 620 candidates registered for the exam and only 55 were selected.

All selected candidates have to attend a training course together for about one year, after which they will be randomly appointed as either a judge or a prosecutor in training at a particular court for another year. (Law on the Statues of Judges and Prosecutors, arts. 24 & 83.) In rare cases, the practical training may be extended for one more year based on the candidate’s performance. (Arts. 25 & 84.) After successfully completing the practical training, the candidate will become a fully-appointed junior judge or junior prosecutor, respectively. (Arts. 25 & 84.)

Buddhist Monk with Yellow Umbrella Walking to Cambodian Supreme Court

Buddhist Monk with Yellow Umbrella Walking to Cambodian Supreme Court. Photo by Flickr user Amaury Laporte. January 18, 2016. Used under creative commons license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.

Women in Law

Female representation in the legal profession remains relatively low. Among all registered lawyers, only 437 are female, making up about 24 percent, while the female population is more than half of the country’s total population. The female representation in the judicial system is lower, with only about 14 percent of all judges being female, according to a 2018 report. The ratio is even smaller in higher courts. There are currently only two female judges in the Supreme Court out of 16 judges and two female judges in the appellate court out of 18 judges.

There are, however, programs intended to improve the number of female legal practitioners in Cambodia. For example, for about 10 years the Raoul Wallenberg Institute (RWI) has been sponsoring female students to enroll in the English Language Based Bachelor of Law program at Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE) with full tuition-fee scholarships. Similarly, Cambodian Legal Education For Women (CLEW) has been supporting young women from rural Cambodia with tuition, dorms, and allowances to study law in English and Khmer at RULE every year since 2010. Some CLEW-sponsored graduates now hold government positions. The Cambodian government also has the National Education for All program, leading to “a decrease in the gender disparity in primary school admission rates.”

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