The Ministry of Justice on Tuesday urged the commune authorities to resolve more civil disputes at the local level to avoid burdening the courts with unnecessary and costly proceedings.
Over the past nine years, the Justice Ministry has opened 50 local settlement centers across the country—each staffed by two volunteers and a single ministry official —to handle minor cases such as divorce requests and property disputes, with 10 more set to open next year, according to the ministry.
But the centers are not being sufficiently utilized, and the 2007 civil code is not widely understood, explained Sok Bora, director of the ministry’s mediation and local justice department, speaking to about 100 commune police and officials during a conference about the law in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.
According to Mr. Bora, a total of 3,727 civil disputes were registered at local settlement centers during the first 11 months of the year, with 1,697 of them resolved at the centers and 317 passed on to the court.
Speaking after the event—during which copies of the civil code were handed out to attendees—Mr. Bora said that a disappointingly small number of police and officials were cooperating with the centers or referring to the civil code when mediating disputes.
“Previously, officials in local areas did not implement the civil code,” he said. “We are sharing with them how to solve victims’ problems, and to know when a villager should find the lawyer for help.”
Mr. Bora added, however, that the local dispute resolution mechanism was not graft-proof, and that both government officials and influential community members were known to interfere in proceedings at the settlement centers.
“The local settlement service centers always have problems with intervention by authorities or people who use their power to interfere…and this has made it difficult for the [Justice Ministry] official at the service center to follow the policy or find a compromise,” he said.
Horm Yan, deputy chief of Tien commune in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district, who was in attendance on Tuesday, said he had no intention of reading the 485-page civil code, and would continue resolving disagreements the way he always had.
“I have no time to read this whole book, so I will continue my old work,” he said. “Like when some villagers wanted a divorce, they wrote that on a document and signed it. I didn’t need to read the law to tell them what to do.”
Meach Sary, chief of police in Chroy Changva district’s Prek Liep commune, who was not at event, said he would skim the code and use it as a reference in the future. He admitted that officials in his commune occasionally accepted money from people involved in civil cases, but only after a dispute had been resolved, as a “gift” for their good work.
“Some authorities get money from one of the parties in a dispute. That doesn’t mean authorities use their power to get the money from villagers; we don’t have the power to take money like the courts,” Mr. Sary said.
Asked whether he had ever accepted such a “gift,” he laughed.
“Don’t ask me that,” he said.