Judge Uth Van Em is not an unreasonable man. Five years ago, when the Justice Ministry asked the 65-year-old to delay his mandatory retirement and continue on as director of the Preah Vihear Provincial Court, he didn’t complain.
“It was a necessity for the Justice Ministry [that I] continue working until there is a new replacement,” he said Wednesday.
But now Uth Van Em, who has served as the court’s director for 20 years, feels he has something to complain about.
In August, the new criminal procedure code came into effect and mandated that all felony cases, as well as civil cases involving compensation of $1,250 or more, be presided over by a panel of three judges.
Counting Uth Van Em, that’s one more judge than the Preah Vihear court employs. To make matters worse, the court’s other judge is an investigating judge and is therefore not allowed to preside over cases.
In order to prosecute felony cases, Uth Van Em said, he must continually call on the Justice Ministry to provide substitute judges from other provinces.
“There is a shortage and the ministry ordered me to ask judges from Siem Reap, and if Siem Reap doesn’t have any [spare] judges, to contact Kandal province,” he said.
The result of the judge shortage is continual delays in trials.
“Dependence on others is not easy,” Uth Van Em said.
“Cases have been stalled due to the delay, and we worry about the rights of the accused persons, who should not be detained beyond the time limit,” he said.
In March, the Center for Social Development claimed in its annual court-monitoring report that the Cambodian judicial system, which has only 214 judges, is grossly underfunded and understaffed.
The report did not include Preah Vihear’s court in its analysis, but it concluded that in three of the four lower courts it did monitor, 21.88 percent of all adults detained ahead of their trials remained in custody for longer than the six-month pretrial detention limit.
“For felony cases, we try cases once every two to three months,” Uth Van Em said.
He added that he has repeatedly made requests for two more judges and two more court clerks from the Supreme Council of Magistracy and the Justice Ministry since 2005, before the new procedural codes even came into effect, but has never heard back.
“When we implement the law, we need enough means to make it go smoothly,” he said, noting that the Preah Vihear Provincial Court employs three court clerks and one prosecutor.
Now, when a judge questions suspects, “we have staff working on contract to take notes,” Uth Van Em said.
Repeated attempts to contact Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana were unsuccessful this week.
Vann Phann, director of the Royal School for Judges and Prosecutors, said the country’s number of judges is not enough.
“We have a shortage of judges and no one wants to work in far off places” like Preah Vihear, he said, adding that his school hopes to train more than 400 judges and prosecutors by 2012.
“It is still an issue,” he said.
Not every court official claimed to be feeling the pinch of staffing shortages, however.
Ratanakkiri Provincial Court Director Yar Narin, who is also a judge for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, downplayed the country’s lack of judges, saying it hasn’t been an obstacle.
“There were not any difficulties, it is only difficult when we have to make invitations [for judges] to come for felony cases,” he said, but added that he hopes his court receives more judges before the ECCC hearings call him away, too.
Im Sophan, however, the lone prosecutor for the Mondolkiri Provincial Court, which has only three judges, said crime is on the rise in his once-remote province, and more staff are required.
“There are a lot of difficulties,” Im Sophan said. “Now there are more cases and we have to handle them fast, and I am alone,” he said. One of the court’s three judges has been on extended sick leave, he added.
Monh Saphan, deputy chairman at the National Assembly’s legislation and justice commission, said it was up to the courts to be innovative when dealing with the lack of judges, adding that three judges are necessary to ensure justice is done.
“Law is a force to be respected, they must find enough judges,” Monh Saphan said.
“They must borrow them from anywhere to have enough.”