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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hope of justice lies in school for judges

Hope of justice lies in school for judges

Cambodia's first school to train judges and prosecutors opened on November 11 marking

a major step in reforming the corrupt and dysfunctional legal system.

Kim Sathavy, director of the new Royal School of Judges and Prosecutors, said changing

the system would be a long and difficult road.

"This is a very hard task," she said. "We hope that the judges formed

at this school demonstrate excellence and ethics."

The school, which shares a building with the Royal School of Administration near

the headquarters of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), is the result of a sub-decree

issued by the government in February 2002.

The sub-decree directs the Royal School of Judges and Prosecutors to train new judges,

as well as educating sitting judges about the country's rapidly changing legal system.

The school is expected to graduate about 50 judges each year, eventually replacing

many of the estimated 190 judges now presiding in Cambodia.

The wholesale revision of the country's legal system, conducted with foreign technical

assistance, will require a new understanding of legal procedures.

Both the French and the Japanese are writing new legal codes, although none have

been submitted to the National Assembly yet. The French are drafting a criminal code

and the Japanese are compiling a new civil code governing issues such as marriage

and property law.

At the moment, the school has no permanent faculty as it hopes to cultivate a new

class of judges and professors to assume teaching responsibilities at the school.

For the moment, it is staffed by seven administrators and 15 non-permanent professors.

In an attempt at impartiality, admission to the school requires passing both a written

and oral exam. Of this year's 487 candidates, 88 passed the written exam. Only 50

candidates were selected from among those who passed the oral examinations-six women

and 44 men.

Five more students will be appointed by government ministries. These student judges

are chosen for their experiences in various ministries and are exempt from the admission

standards. All students must hold a law degree.

The program requires two years to complete. Tuition is $80 a month. Eight months

are spent in the classroom followed by a one-year internship at courts in Phnom Penh

and the provinces. The school also offers a dormitory built specifically for female

students arriving from the provinces.

Graduates will be appointed by the government as judges or prosecutors in the Supreme

Court, Appeals Court and local courts. They must work with the government for seven

years before they enter private practice.

However, some criticisms have been raised about the selection of the school's administration

and its admission process.

Many have criticized the inclusion of politicians on the school's Administrative

Council, since political influence could corrupt the school.

Senior Minister Sok An, an active player in Cambodia's judicial system, is president

of the Administration Council of the school, which also includes Neav Sithang, Minister

of the Ministry of Justice and Sam Sokphal, vice-president of the Council of Jurists,

which reviews laws submitted to Parliament.

But Michel Bonnieu, advisor to the Ministry of Justice and a driving force behind

the school, said he was optimistic about the school's potential to reform the judicial

system.

"The goal is to change people's mentality," said Bonnieu. "The judges

that come out of this school should not accept corruption and should respect the

[professional] code of conduct."

The school's director said the school would offer a curriculum including legal ethics

and continuing education for sitting judges.

Despite the promising student body, questions have been raised about how some students

at the school were selected.

While the majority of students appear to have been accepted on merit, some are thought

to have gained admittance by way of connections with judges and high-ranking politicians,

several legal observers said.

Bribery was also reported during the selection process. One former human rights worker

who passed the written exam, but failed the oral exam, received a telephone call

and was told she could pass the oral exam if she paid $15,000, according to a person

involved with the incident, who asked to remain anonymous.

"This kind of selection is unfair for the other students," the source said.

"We hope that the new government will create a credible and independent body

that will appoint new judges and prosecutors and oversee their code of conduct."

At the moment, the Supreme Council of Magistracy fills that role. But the body is

widely seen as politically influenced and has rarely, if ever, censored judges for

misconduct.

Say Bory, a member of the Constitutional Council, said that student judges in the

school should be new graduates and not those corrupted by the judicial system.

"The judge school cannot alter those that are already corrupted," he said.

"Students who have graduated from law schools without experience make better

candidates. The school will educate the students to make ethical judgments."

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