After the Ministry of Justice’s admonishment of court clerks and threats of punishment for clerks who undertake the work of prosecutors and judges, experts and court officials were split Friday on what the effects will be on Cambodia’s judicial system.
In a letter dated July 16, Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana warned court clerks that “the Ministry of Justice will take most serious actions to discipline any officials and clerks who commit inappropriate deeds affecting the judiciary.”
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the free legal aid Cambodian Defenders Project, said that if clerks – widely believed to carry out a large chunk of the work of judges and prosecutors – obey the ministry’s order and refrain from doing the work of their superiors, then judges and prosecutors could see an increase in their workload.
“The prosecutor and judge must be more active,” he said.
Mr Sam Oeun said that a clerk’s job should primarily consist of note taking during questioning by prosecutors and judges.
“But sometimes they allow the clerk to do their work,” he said. “But it is wrong. It is not allowed by the law.”
According to article 128 of the Criminal Procedure Code, clerks are prohibited from doing the work of judges.
In 2008, an official at Legal Aid of Cambodia estimated that the illegal work being carried out by clerks at courts throughout the country could result in the nullification of up to 40 percent of all court decisions.
Sam Pracheameanith, cabinet chief for Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana, said on Friday that the new warning to clerks to not cross the line into the work of judicial officers would not slow the workings of the court.
Mr Pracheameanith also claimed that court clerks only carry out menial jobs for senior court officials.
“The admonishment will not affect the courthouse’s works. Recently the ministry of justice has suspended a number of clerks who acted unlawfully against their profession,” he said.
However, Tan Seihak Dechak, deputy prosecutor for Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court, admitted on Friday that clerks carry out work for prosecutors and judges, but only in “minor cases.”
He declined to say whether or not clerks would continue to be used for such tasks in the future.
“I admit that, occasionally, whenever I have already made plans to question suspects and victims we allow a clerk to perform duties for minor cases like land disputes…and criminal cases,” the deputy prosecutor said.
Prak Soeurn, chief clerk at Ratanakkiri Provincial Court, also said that he sometimes does work beyond his duties. But, in such cases both judges and prosecutors helped him to prepare the questions he then asked of suspects and victims.
“I never dare question anyone without permission from my superiors,” he added.
Pen Bonnar, Ratanakkiri provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said his organization had filed six complaints to both the Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Council of Magistracy since 2008 about cases of court clerks carrying out judicial tasks that were clearly illegal under the law.
“So far none of them have been punished,” Mr Bonnar said.