A new draft law on judges is being praised by legal experts as a step in the right direction in reforming Cambodia’s troubled court system, but they say there are still problems that need to be fixed before it is implemented.
The Supreme Council of Magistracy created the draft law in November, when the body convened for just the third time since it was created in 1993. The Council is charged with ensuring the independence of the courts, appointing all judges and overseeing the conduct of judges.
The law, which is being reviewed by a Ministry of Justice committee, dramatically raises salaries to $208 a month for the lowest-ranking judges and $576 a month for the highest-ranking judges. Increasing salaries for judges, who make an average of $15 a month, is often mentioned as one of the major reforms needed to get rid of corruption.
The law also establishes qualifications to be a judge, and sets up disciplinary sanctions and promotions. Judges and prosecutors would be appointed for four years, and retire at the age of 60, with an option for an extension.
“This law sets up a better system to rank judges, and also increases salaries, which is important to stop corruption,” Hong Koleken, a prosecutor and member of the Supreme Council, said Thursday.
Legal experts said the draft is important not only for revamping the judicial system, but also is the first tangible evidence that the Supreme Council is doing its job.
“The prospects for reform are good,” a government lawyer said. “But the Council still has to convene more and work harder. There is still a lot to be done.”
Janet King, country director of the Cambodia Law and Democracy Project, said the salary increase for judges is a good idea as long as there are conditions.
“Nobody can live on the salaries that any of them currently make,” she said. “But the increase has to be tied to something. The judges are going to be on the bench for a while so they need continued training while they get the increase in pay.”
The government lawyer said the issue is bigger than just raising salaries. “Raising someone’s salary from $15 to $500 will not stop judges from taking bribes of $2,000 or $10,000,” he said. “Judges should be severely punished and removed from the bench if they do something wrong.”
The draft law does establish disciplinary sanctions against judges, but it doesn’t specify what constitutes a violation of the rules of conduct, Hong Koleken said
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said the disciplinary aspect of the law needs to be clearer. “Who can suspend the judges: the Ministry of Justice or the Supreme Council?” he asked.
The law establishes two tiers of punishment. A first-degree disciplinary sanction involves the following steps: first a verbal reprimand, then a record in a personal file, followed by suspension from a promotion list for no longer than two years or removal from the list. The second-degree disciplinary action would involve first a transfer, then a suspension from service without pay for no longer than one year, followed by a demotion, then placement into retirement before the age of 60, and lastly being fired.
A disciplinary council would decide what kind of wrongdoing would warrant a first-degree or second-degree sanction, Hong Koleken said.
Sok Sam Oeun also criticized the articles in the law saying “any judge may be appointed prosecutor,” and “a prosecutor may be appointed judge.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said. “They should have separate roles because that reflects an independent judiciary.”
The draft law also establishes 21 as the minimum age for a person to start training to be a judge. A student who passed an examination to be a judge would go through one year of training.
After the training, a beginning judge would not decide cases, but would be more like an apprentice, said Hong Koleken. Promotions would be based on education, conduct, good work and working in rural or dangerous areas.
King expressed concern that 21 was too young.
“You not only have to have substantive legal training, you also need practical training,” she said.
Legal experts also expressed concern that the draft law was created without input from the public.
“Without the participation of the people who will have to implement and enforce the law, it won’t be as good as it could be,” Chea Vannath said.
Despite the criticism, legal experts said the draft law provided a hopeful sign that perhaps some real reforms would be made.