Enhanced access to legal information for Lao citizens

Mar 3, 2016

Revealing the sign of the new Information Kiosk at the Provincial Court in Phonsavanh. Photo: UNDP Lao PDR/Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo

Field mission scouts new ways of raising awareness on rights and laws in pilot province

With the opening of an Information Kiosk at the Provincial Court in the Lao province of Xiengkhouang and a fully functional Legal Aid Center at the Department of Justice in the province’s capital Phonsavanh, citizens now have more access to information regarding their rights, laws and court cases.

During a field mission led by the United Nations Development Project (UNDP), donors and partners had the opportunity to visit activities implemented by UNDP’s Support Project to the Legal Sector Master Plan. The project, funded by the European Union, the United States and France, works with the Lao justice sector to help the country become a state fully governed by rule of law. Amongst other challenges, the country of almost 6.8 million inhabitants has only less than 200 lawyers, making it challenging for citizens to file a case. The project is currently piloting legal service provision in Xiengkhouang Province to create a model that can later be used across the country.

The Phonesavanh Legal Aid Center, featuring an office where material on citizen rights and obligations is available, as well as a telephone hotline, opened in December 2015. Since then, the Center has already supported and provided advice to seven clients seeking legal aid, most commonly centered around family issues, domestic violence, human trafficking and illicit drugs. The staff members of the Center regularly visit villages to inform communities about the existence of the Center and distribute information leaflets related to these most common problems. “When talking to inhabitants of small villages without access to the road network, we often have to resort to speaking ethnic languages like Hmong or Khmou, the most common minority groups in this part of the country. Fortunately, the Head of this Legal Aid Office in Phonsavanh is a member of the Hmong community himself, and he has the ability to not only address the people in their own language, but also to simplify the legal language in a way that is understood by all”, said Mr. Khamboum, a junior officer working at the Legal Aid Center.

The mission’s highlight was the official launch of an Information Kiosk at the Provincial Court. The Kiosk is essentially the front door of a system of recorded court cases, where citizens can not only find all documents related to the case they filed, but also hear more about the next steps and get an update of the status and timing in their court case. In addition, people can gain an overview of how the system works through diagrams explaining court procedures. Clerks help people by pointing them to right forms, and - should they decide to file a case - help them complete them. The Provincial Court collaborates with the Department of Justice in visiting local communities to inform them about the Kiosk and the information it provides.

The Legal Aid Center refers citizens to the court, police, village mediation units and other services, while the Information Kiosk is a formal inlet into the justice system. Article 6 of the latest amendment of the Constitution of Lao PDR obliges authorities to raise awareness on laws and available remedies to the population, making Xiengkhouang’s efforts in disseminating legal information a timely response to this requirement. The Department of Justice is currently also working on a mobile court model, which will see judges travelling to villages to solve cases directly in the communities.

The delegation travelled to Khoun District to experience another channel of disseminating legal information: Community Radio. Community Radio, supported by UNDP, is successfully giving local communities a voice – in five provinces and eight languages, reaching around 285,000 people across Laos. Community Radio is often the only channel of information for local communities and has become very successful in developing local communities, not only through conveying messages related to health, citizen rights, gender and agriculture, but also through a network of radio volunteers who essentially run the radio stations and act as agents of change in their communities.

Khoun Community Radio broadcasts legal matters 2 hours weekly in both Hmong and Lao language, collaborating with the Department of Justice. Young radio volunteers, often girls from the Hmong community, are proactively going out to interview villagers about disputes and awareness on civic rights, but on several occasions, the radio volunteers have recorded legal dramas based on scripts provided by the Department of Justice or the Lao Bar Association. The delegation participated in a radio programme recording, answering questions about child rights and dissemination of legal information.

“It was interesting to see how different legal services feed into each other to start adding up to a coherent system that provides access to justice“, Kimberley Bulkley, Director of the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Section of the US Embassy in Vientiane stated. “Through the project, access to information has improved on the provincial level noticeably, which is a stepping stone towards disseminating legal information in villages“, Audrey Maillot, Cooperation Attaché from the EU Delegation in Laos added. 

Contact information

Sharmeela Rassool, Chief Technical Advisor, Support Project to the Legal Sector Master Plan, Ministry of Justice, Vientiane. Email: Sharmeela.rassool@undp.org, Tel.: 020 5819 8362