Lack of support may harm justice, encourage corruption, NGOs say
Newly minted apprentice judges and prosecutors performing probationary service around the country complained this month of having to pay out of pocket to build their own offices.
“The court has a space for us, but we have to renovate it by ourselves,” said Say Sarun, probationary judge at Stung Treng Provincial Court.
Both he and Sun Yoeurth, a probationary deputy prosecutor, reported spending their own money to turn an eight-by-four-meter room into an adequate working space. That included equipping it with computers, desks, chairs, cabinets and more. Ms Yoeurth and Mr Sarun declined to state the total cost.
Graduates from Phnom Penh’s Royal Academy for the Judicial Professions are assigned by lottery to Cambodia’s 23 courts of first instance, where they serve a one-year probationary period before promotion to plenipotentiary powers. Apprentice prosecutors may not bring charges and apprentice judges may investigate cases but may not try them.
The problem of their inadequate housing and resources is not new. In 2009, 63 new trainee judges and prosecutors were dispatched to fill long-standing vacancies blamed for the legal system’s backlog.
A year later, around a dozen admitted in interviews that they too had faced difficulty in finding a suitable work space. Some said they erected new rooms or renovated unused spaces deep inside the decades-old buildings of provincial courthouses.
In some provinces, including Kampot, Koh Kong, Kompong Speu, Pursat, Kompong Chhnang, Stung Treng, Ratanakkiri, Svay Rieng, and Mondolkiri, apprentices spoke of decrepit buildings–some on the verge of collapse–which did not have enough office space to house them.
Vann Phann, director of the Royal Academy for the Judicial Professions, said last week that the school had since 2009 successfully graduated 225 future judicial officers in four classes among the six that are currently planned.
Counting the recent and expected graduates, the number of judges and prosecutors could rise from 340 in 2009 to 500 by 2012. Mr Phann said that figure, which is set by the government, should help address shortfalls in staffing the courts. But whether there are sufficient resources to handle the influx of apprentices is unclear.
“I have learned about this problem and I have talked with Justice Ministry. The school is responsible for training them but the ministry is in charge of taking care of them,” Mr Phann said. “In terms of social change and demographic development, the ministry should enlarge the court buildings but this still has not happened.”
Bunyay Narin, spokesman for the ministry, admitted that there was insufficient space for new judges and prosecutors especially at provincial courts where new buildings have not built yet due to the ministry’s small budget. He declined to discuss the possibility that a lack of resources could affect the quality of justice or encourage corruption.
The 2011 fiscal allotment for the ministry is $8.5 million, about half of which, or $4 million, is allocated for courts of first instance. Courts in Kandal, Kompong Thom, Kompong Cham, Prey Veng and Battambang provinces have relatively new buildings but these have been funded by foreign donors.
“The court building here is not even old but it is already decayed,” Stung Treng prosecutor Chroeng Khmao said yesterday, adding that there was only enough office space to accommodate four prosecutors, two clerks and two staff members.
“Two new staff members have no place to sit in for work,” Mr Khmao said. “A deputy prosecutor and a judge are renovating a room on their own. The court does not have money to help them.”
Newly created courts for Oddar Meanchey and Pailin provinces each received more new staff members this year than any other courts–four apprentice judges and two deputy prosecutors, each–according a March 10 Royal Decree assigning 62 graduates to one-year internships in courts around the country.
But despite being newly equipped with recently built office space, neither has sufficient accommodation for the new arrivals, court officials said. Meanwhile, they noted, court buildings in Kampot, Pursat, Kompong Chhnang, Stung Treng, Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri are quite old and some appear dilapidated.
“Koh Kong court does not even own a building while Pursat looks about to collapse,” said Kim Sophorn, inspector at Justice Ministry. “The lack of office space for working occurs at almost every court.” Veteran judges and prosecutors said they work in space borrowed from the provincial environment department.
Diep Kuy Lam, a lawyer for Legal Aid of Cambodia in Banteay Meanchey province, warned that the lack of government funding for courts could impair judges’ ability to perform their jobs and even cause harm to the judicial system as whole.
“Newly arrived judges always use their own money to renovate offices or buy new office material,” Mr Kuy Lam said, adding that improving the management of Justice Ministry or increasing the national budget for courts would help.
“It is a responsibility of the state. If they have no place to work how they could fulfill their function?” he asked. “Such poor treatment would make them feel that the court and the government do not care about them enough.”
There may be even more negative implications, said Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at the human rights group Licadho. Forcing them to take on another expense before they are even salaried could encourage bribery, noted Mr Sam Ath.
“They have not yet received full salary but they had already spent their own money,” Mr Sam Ath said. “This must have an impact on their living and their way of working.”