Notes from the Field

From Laos: Legal Aid on Wheels

December 19, 2007

In recent years, the Lao government has given increased attention to improving the rule of law. Yet the public still has a limited understanding of existing laws, citizen rights, the legal system, and the role of lawyers. This is especially true in remote areas of the country and among ethnic community populations where there is very little awareness about the formal justice system or how it can help people in their daily lives.

In Laos, people tend to consult relatives and friends, rather than lawyers, regarding legal matters. While this may be useful in small civil conflicts, it has not proven effective when confronting larger legal issues, especially those that involve criminal charges. In many such cases, even though there are laws to protect the rights of the accused, violation of rights still occur and many people do not know they have any form of redress.

In response, The Asia Foundation recently just granted the Lao Bar Association (LBA) resources to start the nation’s first-ever mobile legal aid clinic and to support the creation of community legal advisors. The project, modeled on The Asia Foundation’s successful post-tsunami legal aid program in Thailand, will strengthen access to justice and the rule of law, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalized groups of people across the country.

Two legal aid clinics, one in Champasak and one in Udomxai, will serve as bases for nationwide mobile legal assistance and outreach to southern and northern regions of the Lao PDR. Coordination and oversight will be conducted by the LBA in Vientiane, which will also provide legal aid services to those in central Laos. To reach rural citizens, the LBA will conduct mobile legal aid clinics where trained legal volunteers will travel to villages to talk to citizens about their legal issues. These clinics and legal education efforts will provide even the most rural areas with essential information about the law and legal sector.

This project will also enhance the institutional capacity of the LBA itself. In order for the Bar to conduct the legal aid program effectively and efficiently, The Asia Foundation will provide technical support and adaptation of best practices from relevant legal aid projects in other countries. Support will include establishing efficient methodology to conduct legal surveys and expertise in program management.

The Asia Foundation has a long history in the Lao PDR, maintaining an office in Vientiane from 1958 to 1975. The Foundation’s current program in Laos, managed from its Bangkok office, was launched in 1989. Prior to this program, the Foundation supported the LBA’s institutional and staff capacity building with the purchase of equipment as well as providing training in program design and report writing.

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