Law students from four universities in three regions spent their semesters observing trials conducted in Thailand’s courts, and concluded that most of the time the trial process does not fulfil legal requirements set by the constitution and human rights principles.
120 students from law schools in Chiang Mai University, Mae Fah Luang University, Ubon Ratchathani University and Thaksin University participated in a Court Watch project observing the process in 936 criminal trials during 2012-2013 from a basic law and human rights framework.
Trials were observed in various courts in Chiang Mai, Ubon Ratchathani, Songkhla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces, and were mostly drug related but also included national security cases in the Deep South of Thailand.
Ethnic minorities in the northern provinces as well as those in the Deep South are most affected by unfair trials due to language problems and the lack of qualified translators, the research finds.
“In some cases the judge even asked fellow prisoners, relatives of the defendant or court employees to act as impromptu translators,” a student from Chiang Mai University announced from her findings in a public forum at the National Human Rights Commission on Monday.
“This of course raises the questions of possible vested interests or the quality of the translation, which could affect the outcome of the trial,” she said.
Another prominent issue raised by the students is that trials often proceed with only one judge on the bench, even though the basic law stipulates that at least two judges must preside over the trial, except in the case of misdemeanours.
The research also found that only 11% of trials in Chiang Mai court start on time, while in Ubon Ratchathani trials that start punctually amount to 59%.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Sophit Cheewapanit, a law lecturer from Mae Fah Luang University who supervised the project. He added that it is common in Thai courts for judges to be at least 30 minutes to one hour late.
Sophit said this could affect the quality and justice of the hearing as the schedule becomes tighter, and affects the defendant’s rights to a fair trial.
Kittipan Malila, student from Thaksin University in Songkhla told Prachatai that every time he went to observe national security related cases in Yala court, he always saw one judge presiding over the trial, even if it is considered a serious crime carrying a heavy penalty.
“I know this is common in the court since there are too many cases, while there are too few judges,” he said. “But from a human rights perspective this is illegitimate from the beginning of the trial.”
“The application of law in reality just conflicts so much with the legal texts we learn in classroom,” Kittipan said of the Court Watch project initiated by the Bangkok-based Asian Institute of Human Rights.
Sarawut Benjagul, Deputy Secretary-General of the Courts of Justice said that new rules will be circulated to court personnel next month to prohibit the use of any kinds of electronic devices, responding to the students’ finding that judges and attorneys use their cell phones for personal use during trials.
He also said that judges who show up late to trials will be punished and barred from promotion for one year.
Takato Mitsunaga contributed to this report.