Notes from the Field

Bringing Legal Aid to the Poor in Laos

September 28, 2011

During my recent visit to Laos, I couldn’t help but notice the abundance of newspaper headlines proclaiming the country’s economic success stories. Firm phrases such as “World Bank predicts Lao economic growth at 8.6 percent,” “Vietnam & Laos boost rubber cooperation,” and “New Laos airline preparing for takeoff,” stood out at stands and shops everywhere I passed.

Downtown Vientiane, Laos

In recent years, Laos has experienced steady economic growth and development. Above, the Lao capital Vientiane buzzes with nighttime activity. Photo by Michelle Chang.

While this is positive news anywhere these days, and certainly for one of the world’s few remaining Communist-run countries, what seemed to be missing from the front pages altogether was any mention of Laos’ progress in governance and law – imperative for continued progression in economic and social developments. Much progress has been made in legal and judicial reform, but the current capacity of the Lao legal system has some room for improvement.

With the passage and formalization in 2010 of the “Master Plan on Development of the Rule of Law in Laos toward 2020,” Laos has begun building the legal framework necessary for addressing citizen freedoms and social justice. Still, rule of law in Laos is at an embryonic stage, and where written, legal frameworks or policies may exist, they still sometimes lack the effective mechanisms in place for successful, real implementation. Even where well-constructed laws exist, very few Lao citizens are aware of them or lack the knowledge, confidence, and trust in the system to utilize it to address their problems. Programs that help educate citizens about the legal system have helped, but education alone cannot give vulnerable people the confidence and trust they need to speak up about legal problems and claim their rights. Data show that villagers often do not access legal resources that are in fact available for various reasons, including partial knowledge of their rights and the law as well as low levels of trust in the system.

In other country contexts, these concerns are often addressed by civil society organizations. Civil society, however, is still just developing in Laos. Few mechanisms exist that enable Lao citizens to collectively express their concerns, share experiences, and access their rights. Since the passage of the Decree on Associations in 2009, some space has opened for the emergence of a Lao civil society. Yet significant barriers for civil society organizations working in Laos still exist, including the lack of ease and clarity around understanding their roles, functions, and capacity. In Lao culture, initial steps to establish trust and build relationships around crucial societal issues are necessary to move forward. At present, there are few ways for this type of communication to transpire, making it even more difficult for new civil society organizations to emerge.

Despite such challenges, a few legal aid projects are recently up and running in Laos. For example, The Asia Foundation began an access to justice program in conjunction with the Lao Bar Association (LBA) and Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in 2007 to provide poor and rural Lao populations with greater access to the legal aid system.

Lao Bar Association

The Lao Bar Association has made significant achievements in recent years in building Laos’ legal professional capacity and educating citizens on the law. Above, citizens wait to speak with lawyers at the LBA offices in Vientiane to get legal aid advice. Photo by Marco Ryan.

The LBA, which is supervised by the MoJ, has made significant achievements in recent years in building Laos’ legal professional capacity and educating citizens on the law. Since 2007, it has established three legal aid clinics across even remote areas of Laos, with a budding paralegal program made up of volunteers from local villages in place and thriving.

Legal education and outreach under this legal aid program has brought to justice those who have violated the law as well as compensated and recognized victims of these incidences. In Vientiane province, for example, a villager asked about being compensated for factory work, as a number of villagers reported working for nearly half a year in a factory without compensation. Lao lawyers who were serving these villages were able to provide villagers with information on Lao labor laws, and instructed the villager on how to seek compensation. Consequently, all the factory workers were eventually paid for their work. In a different case, a young girl alleged that she was deceived and trafficked by a woman, being falsely offered a highly paid job in Vientiane as her maid. Upon her arrival to the capital, the young girl was picked up by a stranger and raped. Eventually, the young girl reported this to her father, who then spoke to the LBA legal aid clinic, with the eventual arrest of both the trafficker and rapist. These stories further demonstrate the need for the appropriate legal mechanisms and awareness raising to be in place to support these poor, rural, and mistreated populations’ access to justice and legal resources.

Legal Aid clinic in Pakse

Volunteer paralegals from the legal aid clinic in Pakse, in southern Laos, consult with clients about their legal concerns. Photo by Marco Ryan.

While the legal system is still quite nascent, Laos has made achievements at the grassroots level. However, many challenges still go unaddressed. Although the LBA’s capacity is developing, only a few legal aid clinics have been set up around the country to support the tens of thousands of Lao citizens that come with cases such as the compensation and rape cases, as well as those ranging from land disputes, domestic abuse, and inheritance disputes, among others. The harder to reach rural poor in Laos still only have limited access to legal services – services that need to extend to minority groups, women’s networks, and other marginalized populations.

Orchestrated and sustained support of local village-level governments from the central Lao government, increased capacity of organizations such as the LBA, development of a more robust Lao civil society, and an educated public is needed for Laos’ legal system to stand as a foundation for good governance. Only through a well-conceived, well-informed, and sound legal system and capacity can economic growth success stories continue to appear on the front pages – of both Lao papers and international ones alike.

Michelle Chang is a program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Governance and Law program. She can be reached at mchang@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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