ICJ: Cambodian Bar Association must uphold lawyers’ freedom of expression

The ICJ urged the Cambodian Bar Association to make it clear that its new Code of Ethics, launched today, does not restrict the freedom of lawyers to express their opinions.

Article 17 of the new Code of Ethics states (in an informal translation by the ICJ) that “All interventions made publicly or through public media by lawyers in their capacity as lawyers may be permitted only within the framework of strict compliance with the duties of the legal profession. Such interventions require diligence.”

This language replaces Article 15 of the 1995 Code, which demanded all lawyers in Cambodia to “inform” or “consult” the Bar President before making media statements.

“The language of the new Article 17 is an improvement over the old Code, but it is ambiguous and raises fears that lawyers will not be able to exercise their right to express their opinions freely,” said Emerlynne Gil, ICJ’s International Legal Advisor on Southeast Asia. “The Cambodian Bar Association must clarify that under Article 17, lawyers, like all others, can address important legal and policy issues publicly and openly.”

The ICJ asserted that the Bar Association must clearly and publicly state that Article 17 shall not be construed to mean that lawyers must seek permission prior to engaging in public activities in their professional capacity.

The ICJ also expressed concern over the previous statements made by the Bar Association implying that lawyers could be sanctioned for expressing certain views of the country’s laws or legal reforms. During a press conference on 15 March 2013, the Bar Association said that the purpose of Article 17 was to prevent lawyers from misinterpreting the law and thus “making society chaotic”.

“The best means of increasing public awareness of the laws and strengthening the rule of law is to encourage greater public discussion,” said Emerlynne Gil. “Disagreements about the meaning of laws are part of the nature of the legal process and should be encouraged publicly.”

The ICJ recognizes the grave difficulties of facing the legal system in Cambodia, where fewer than 1000 active lawyers must provide services for a population of more than 14 million people. “We share the Cambodian Bar Association’s concerns about the need to uphold the professional competence and integrity of its members,” said Emerlynne Gil. “However, this concern should be addressed through efforts to improve legal education expertise rather than limiting the right of lawyers to freedom of expression.”

For questions and clarifications, please contact Ms. Emerlynne Gil, International Legal Adviser for Southeast Asia, tel. no. +662 619 8477, fax no. +662 6198479 or emerlynne.gil@icj.org

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