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First-Ever Nationwide Mobile Legal Aid Clinic Launched in Lao PDR

Vientiane, December 18, 2007 — Lao Bar Association Receives Grant from The Asia Foundation to Improve Access to Justice

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 response, The Asia Foundation, the premier non-profit organization devoted to Asia’s development since 1954, announced today a grant to the Lao Bar Association (LBA) for a three-year access to justice project to conduct the nation’s first-ever mobile legal aid clinic and to support the creation of community legal advisors.

The project, which is modeled on The Asia Foundation’s successful post-tsunami legal aid program in Thailand and adapted to the specific circumstances and needs of Laos, will strengthen access to justice and the rule of law, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalized groups of people across the country.

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. 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.

“Lao citizens often do not have the financial resources to obtain a lawyer even when they recognize that they have a legal problem; particularly if they live in a remote area. The LBA therefore needs both provincial clinics and mobile legal aid clinics to ensure that all citizens have access to justice,” said Dr. James Klein, country representative of The Asia Foundation.

Another core element of this project is to 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 project will also train volunteers from different parts of Laos in basic legal procedures and systems. Although they will not become lawyers, they will have a practical understanding of the legal system in Laos and, perhaps most importantly, know how to access help,” said Mr. Phoumy Sioudomphanh, President of the Lao Bar Association. “Therefore, even when this program ends, communities throughout the country will still have a valuable resource –a community-based advocate— so that they are able to help themselves long into the future,” he added.

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.

This new access to justice initiative complements the support provided to the LBA by other donors such as the UNDP, European Commission and AusAID. Effective donor collaboration and liaison will ensure that the LBA can increase its capacity to deliver access to justice to the most vulnerable communities in Lao PDR.

About the Lao Bar Association

The Lao Bar Association (LBA) is a professional organization that represents lawyers in the Lao PDR. It was established to clarify the organization of lawyers, their training and qualifications, and the rights and responsibilities of lawyers in this country. It has both male and female lawyer members. Decree 64 Pertaining to the Organization and Operation of the Bar Association of the Lao PDR was signed and took effect on February 21, 1996. For more information, please visit:
www.laobar.org.

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