The government has already publicly recognized the importance of legal and judicial reform for development, but, despite millions of dollars in aid from donors, progress has been slow.
The new Council for Legal and Judicial Reform has so far focused on updating laws crucial to the functioning of the maligned court system and training judges and prosecutors.
And now, the government testing a project in 20 different districts where local mediation is favored over courts that may be costly for the average rural villagers.
The government has selected local courts in the provinces of Banteay Meanchey, Kampong Cham and Kandal, as well as Phnom Penh, to serve as model courts where high standards of justice are to be ensured.
“The main purpose of judicial reform is to do whatever we can to properly bring justice to people, but this reform is difficult and tough,” said Suy Mongleang, secretary-general of the General Secretariat for Legal and Judicial Reform, in a phone interview with VOA Khmer last week.
France is one of major donors building the rule of law in Cambodia, and since 2001 has been focusing on legal work such as supporting training of judges and prosecutors.
“The main challenges for legal and judicial reform in Cambodia are capacity building,” such as familiarization with legal texts and a professional code of ethics, “and deployment of this training throughout the country,” Fabyène Mansencal, a spokeswoman for the French Embassy, told VOA Khmer by e-mail.
Gaining trust is another tough job for a court that is quite often under criticism from civil society and the public for providing justice to select groups, like the rich or powerful.
Seng Theary, executive director of the Center for Social Development, acknowledges that technically the system has seen progress via training of its personnel, but the court remains influenced by politics and corruption, making the poor vulnerable.
“The court system here is a system that is corrupt and does not have the confidence of the people, because they are still afraid to use the court to find justice,” she said in an interview. “They see the court as a market where justice can be bought.”
Cambodia’s Bar Association, which receives support from Japan International Cooperation Agency, has trained more than 200 lawyers. These lawyers are free to represent any client they want, but critics say they are not independent yet.
“Sometimes, when we are independent and abide by the law too much to pressure judges, they are not happy with us,” Ang Engthong, a former president of the Bar Association who is now in charge of lawyer training, told VOA Khmer. “There are a lot of problems, and as you know in Cambodia there is lot of corruption. This has become a habit.”
Some lawyers now even act as a go-between, he said, negotiating prices between a client and a judge to ensure a favorable outcome.
Cheam Yiep, a National Assemblyman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, admitted corruption could be found in the court system, but argued that the system was being improved through the training of judges and prosecutors.
“It is inevitable that certain individuals in the court system commit corruption or acts of injustice and various inappropriate behaviors, as accused,” he told VOA Khmer. “There must be some, but not too many. The court system is step by step being given education, training, and self-study, to improve knowledge and technical professionalism.”
In 2005, Prime Minister Hun Sen set out an “iron fist” campaign to review irregularity in the courts. Despite much criticism from national civil parties and the international community as being a violation of judicial independence, and in what was seen as a move to please donors, Hun Sen’s public campaign was a clear acknowledgement that time was running out for judicial reform.