The Ministry of Justice plans to establish an expert unit to resolve disputes out of court, focusing on civil and minor misdemeanour cases in a bid to minimise case backlog, improve access to judicial services for the average persons, and create a culture of understanding and harmony among the populace.
The new unit will be organised throughout the course of 2023, with an official launch planned for 2024.
Speaking at the closing ceremony of the 27th congress of the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia (BAKC) on October 16, justice minister Koeut Rith confirmed that his ministry is currently preparing a study on establishing the “mediator unit” that will be empowered by mediation mechanisms and training to promote out-of-court dispute resolutions.
Koeut Rith noted that the two main reasons for establishing the new unit are the foundations of the win-win political legacy of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the fact that Cambodians traditionally have a culture of understanding and toleration.
The unit would play a role as experts in mediation and their judgements would be legally recognised because of their official power to mediate disputes as part of Cambodia’s judicial reform.
He said the out-of-court dispute resolution mechanism based on mediation would provide many benefits to ordinary Cambodians, noting that the primary benefits could be summarised with three main points.
“The first one is to bring justice services closer to people living in rural areas. The second is by contributing to reducing case backlog in courts, and the third is because it will provide greater harmony among the great Khmer family, where the parties to the conflicts achieve win-win solutions,” he said.
The minister said the mediation mechanisms could only resolve civil cases such as land disputes, family disputes and minor criminal cases, and all agreements reached by the parties through mediation must have legal value for practice.
The individual parties who will be able to work as mediators for resolving disputes must have a high level of experience and training with the law as well as the ability to patiently mediate with all parties involved, he said.
“We are in the process of drafting policies, laws and regulations, which may come into force in 2023 and then implemented in 2024,” he added.
Prominent lawyer Sok Sam Oeun welcomed the initiative. But he cautioned that while it is good to create this mechanism, he hopes it would not turn out to be a programme that starts out with good intentions and then falls prey to corruption or ineptitude over time.
He stressed that sometimes cases in the courts are protracted and drawn out due to some lawyers’ technical incompetence or through their corruption as it increases their billable hours.
“If all of the lawyers were honest, then most cases would be finished early. Then there would be no big lawyer’s fees and no corruption in the courts,” he said.
He cited the examples of the Philippines and Thailand. In the Philippines, in order to reduce case backlog, local authorities sent cases for mediation at the commune council level for minor crimes if they were living in the same district.
In Thailand, he said the government adopted laws recognising reconciliation or commune-level reconciliation reports as legally binding for most civil cases.
Rights group ADHOC spokesman Soeung Sen Karuna said it is a good idea to resolve disputes out of court, hoping that the ministry’s mediation unit would provide justice to the people as part of a legal system rather than according to the whims of some powerful persons.
The ministry has also been pushing the creation of commercial and labour courts to address cases separately, while the Ministry of Interior has on its part established mechanisms to resolve disputes out of court and at the local level.