A diary of a week in Vietnam

In March, a group of 11 second year law students travelled to Ho Chi Minh city for a week to experience the culture and legal regime of Vietnam.  In amongst various cultural trips, including the Mekong Delta, Cu Chi Tunnels and War Remnants Museum, the students had the opportunity to gain an insight into how the law is taught, and applied, in the country.  The University of Economics and Law very kindly hosted us for the trip and many friendships were formed between the UoG and UEL students.  Here are some of the highlights of the trip:

An introduction to the Vietnamese legal order by UEL

After a brief history of the country, Nam, a lecturer in economic and insurance law, proceeded to give us an interesting overview of the legal system in Vietnam.  Perhaps the biggest difference with our domestic law is the fact that Vietnam has a Civil Law system, whereby they have a written constitution documenting all of their laws. This meant that, until very recently, Vietnam had no common law.  However, last year, for the first year, the Sovereign Court reviewed all of the judgments from the year and selected some to become legal precedent.  These 12 selected judgments will now be followed by the provincial courts.

Having been given an overview of how the Civil Code is updated, the students were tasked with interpreting how a factual scenario, based on a vicious dog, would be decided in both British and Vietnamese Law. This gave the UoG students the opportunity to explain the statutory provisions in place in our domestic law and compare them to the Civil Code in Vietnam.


Le Nguyen Law Office

On Tuesday morning, UEL arranged a visit to a law firm in Ho Chi Minh city.  The firm was established 15 years ago and now has three branches across Vietnam.  The owner of Le Nguyen Law office took the time to explain what his law firm offers and also highlighted some of the key aspects of legal practice in Vietnam, including the qualification route.

What was interesting from our discussion was how he approaches giving legal advice: when asked about who he has represented, he responded by explaining how ‘people are people – they look like us’.  By this he meant that, irrespective of a persons’ actions, he believes everyone deserves legal protection and representation.  Following on from this, he does much pro bono work due to the complexities of their legal aid system.


District 7 Law Court

Tuesday afternoon took us to one of the District Courts in Ho Chi Minh city where we were met by the judges, clerks and chief judge.  The session began with an explanation as to the court system in Vietnam: there are four levels and all courts hear both civil and criminal matters.  Interestingly, the Chief Judge explained how there is often successful mediation in civil matters, meaning that most cases heard are criminal.  When asked how many cases they can expect to hear, we were told that in the District 7 court, there are on average 200 cases per year.

Various key points of comparison could be drawn out of visiting the court:

  • Qualification routes for lawyers and judges are entirely separate. Upon graduating from law school, you can work as a court clerk for four years prior to undertaking a training course and examination.  The President of Vietnam will then nominate you to become a judge.  Comparatively, in the UK, in order to become a judge, you must first qualify as a lawyer and obtain the minimum years of qualifying experience.
  • The composition of the court is also different. There is no distinction between the judicial make up between criminal and civil cases.  At District level, the general composition is for there to be one judge and two jurors.  The term ‘juror’, however, has a different meaning in Vietnam: these are elected by the People’s Committee of Vietnam, and therefore do not sit for just one case or period of time, as is the case in the UK.
  • The age of criminal responsibility, whilst 10 in the UK, is either 14 or 16 in Vietnam, depending upon the seriousness of the crime.  Where the defendant is under 18 years old, there is a special procedure for trials.  A minor defendant will be sentenced to either half or a third of the normal sentence given to adult defendants, with a maximum sentence of 18 years.  Where in normal cases the offence would carry the death penalty, the 18-year limitation will apply.
  • Vietnam still has the death penalty for various offences – these are murder, corruption and drug handling.


Mai Handicraft

On Thursday morning we were given the opportunity to visit Mai Handicraft, a not-for-profit organisation set up in 1990 with the aim of providing an income to those in poverty in Vietnam.  Mai operates as both exporter and marketer.  They locate new customers and then pass the orders on to producers, the handicraft makers.  By operating in this manner, Mai is able to ensure the producers receive the living wage, as specified by the World Fair Trade Organisation.

As well as ensuring basic pay, Mai also provide training and will give interest free loans in order to allow the producers to continue production (for example, to re-build homes, buy tools, transport, etc). There are an estimated 240 workers across Vietnam that have benefitted from Mai Handicraft’s aim.  They previously had 24 ‘groups’ (producers), but as they have developed as a result of Mai’s input, they have been able to expand and begin marketing and exporting alone.  This means Mai Handicraft now has 12 groups – a clear indication that the aim of their business, in getting people out of poverty, is working.

If Mai Handicraft is something that is of interest to you, keep an eye out on the blog – a group of both Law and Accounting students are involved in project whereby goods from Mai Handicraft will be available to purchase in the UK.  We will post details are we get them.

Legal Ethics at UEL

In the UK, we have one lawyer per 364 people.  In Vietnam, that number is substantially lower – 1 lawyer per 10,000 people.  It is clear, therefore, to see why becoming a lawyer in Vietnam is competitive.  Thursday morning’s session started with a discussion on the different qualification routes.

Having the opportunity to be addressed by a qualified lawyer meant our students got a real insight into practice in Vietnam, particularly when it comes to legal ethics.  Queen, who defined herself as working at a ‘boutique law firm’, shared with us various stories of attempted bribery and corruption that she had to avoid in order to maintain the high business standards required of lawyers.

Business Transactions at UEL

On the final day, we were given an introduction into business entities in Vietnam. Many of the business concepts had similarities with the UK, such as partnerships, Limited Liability Companies (the equivalent of a ltd company in the UK) and Joint Stock Companies (similar to plcs). This will come in handy as a direct comparison for those students studying commercial law this year or company law next year at Level 6.

As our exchange programme with UEL came to an end, students had the opportunity to exchange details and small gifts.  Our 11 UoG students decided the best way to say ‘thank you’ would be with a musical ensemble – ‘Reach for the Stars’ by S Club 7.  I was adamantly told the video could not be uploaded, but here are a few pictures of their performance.

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