Legal Research When Laws are Not Publicly Available

I had my last class tonight.  This week, my three courses were covering the same topic: writing memos in a common law jurisdiction.  (For non-lawyer friends, very basically stated, in a “common law” country, like the United States, judges’ decisions become precedent for future cases.  When a court comes up with a legal interpretation, it will bind lower courts and future decisions of the same court. In contrast, in a “civil law” country like France or Cambodia, judges interpret and apply codes but are not bound by precedent of other judges.)  Afterwards, a number of students wanted group pictures and selfies, to which I happily obliged.  Overall, I’ve been struck by how kind and welcoming the RULE students have been to me, an outsider. 

A few weeks ago, when I was teaching legal research, I was struck by how few legal resources are publicly available in Cambodia.  In the United States, we take for granted that statutes, judicial opinions, regulations, and other sources of law are available.  True, you often have to pay for them, but at least they are available.  Not so in Cambodia. Judicial opinions are all but impossible to come by. Even if you go down to the court and ask to see a case, the clerk or administrator will not show it to you. Accurate versions of legislation are also tough to come by. Various websites or offices will have what they claim to be the current version of legislation, but often it’s a draft or working copy of proposed legislation. The issue gets further complicated when you’re looking for accurate English translations. I would settle for a central repository of laws in Khmer, but no such luck. The existing sites are simply too unreliable. It is unclear whether a given law is up to date or not.   

This is a major challenge for Cambodia’s legal system moving forward.  One of the principles of rule of law is that the laws of a country must be publicly accessible.  If they are hidden, the government loses legitimacy.   


About Larry Cunningham

Law professor, associate dean, and director of the Center for Trial and Appellate Advocacy at St. John's Law School. Former prosecutor and defense attorney.
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One Response to Legal Research When Laws are Not Publicly Available

  1. Pingback: Perspective | My Fulbright in Cambodia

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