Ministry of Justice and prison officials hailed the regional appeal courts, which have been put in operation for the past two years, for helping speed up legal proceedings and bringing them closer to the people while also reducing case congestion and prison overcrowding.

As a case in point, Chan Sokhon, a 45-year-old from Kampot province’s Kampong Trach district, previously had to get up at 3am and hired a taxi just to be on time for her nephew’s trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Appeal Court, which opened at 8am.

Her construction worker nephew Ben Sophorn, 18 – also from Kampot – was killed in the collapse of a seven-storey building in neighbouring Preah Sihanouk province in 2019. Then he had to travel to the capital to appear at the hearing as Cheng Kun, the 42-year-old Chinese building owner, appealed the original verdict.

“I went to the court in Phnom Penh six times before the case was over, and I had to borrow 200,000 riel [$50] from a money lender each time I did so.

“I had to hire a taxi for 150,000 riel to Phnom Penh and buy food. If Preah Sihanouk had had an Appeal Court, I could have just travelled by motorbike from Kampot,” she said.

The justice ministry launched three regional appeal courts in Preah Sihanouk, Battambang and Tbong Khmum provinces back in April 2020.

The Preah Sihanouk Regional Court of Appeal is used to hear cases involving appellants from neighbouring Kampot, Koh Kong and Kep provinces, while those from Pursat, Pailin, Banteay Meanchey, Oddar Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces can use the one in Battambang.

Cases in Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom, Preah Vihear, Kratie, Stung Treng, Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri provinces are heard at the Tbong Khmum Court of Appeal.

Ministry spokesman Chin Malin told The Post that the operation of regional appeal courts aims to improve the justice system and bring it closer to the people.

In the past, there was only the Phnom Penh Appeal Court, with people having to travel from all over the country to the capital, costing them time and money.

In some cases, the need to travel a long way had resulted in the decision not to appeal, which undermined the right to justice and to legal defence.

“The regional appeal courts speed up the system and brings it close to the people, and it helps reduce congestion. With only one appeal court in Phnom Penh, there could be a buildup of cases.

“The launch of regional appeal courts is also helping reduce congestion in prisons with cases being resolved more quickly.

“It is also easier for the prison service to transport detainees to a regional appeal court, with it proving difficult in the past to transport appellants to the capital from prisons very far away,” he said.

Nuth Savna, spokesman for the General Department of Prisons (GDP), told The Post that the regional appeal courts had helped ease the burden on capital-provincial prisons.

He said that before the new courts were launched, detainees were sent from the provinces to stay temporarily at the Prey Sar Correctional Centre in Phnom Penh in time for their hearing so as not to affect their rights.

This meant the prison in Phnom Penh suffered from overcrowding, causing difficulties for staff.

Transporting prisoners long distances meant travelling at night as well as having to pay for transportation and security staff, not to mention other logistical problems.

“We now have appeal courts in the regions, easing such burdens on the provincial prisons. Now appellants no longer have to travel as far as before because we don’t have to send them to Phnom Penh.

“Cases are divided regionally, so it also streamlines the work of the courts, with cases resolved faster and court proceedings more effective,” he said.

Soeung Senkaruna, spokesman for rights group ADHOC, told The Post that officials from the justice ministry and GDP were right about the setting up regional appeal courts, which were helping relieve a backlog of cases, and saving time and money.

However, he said it was too early to assess the true impact of the new regional appeal courts on prison overcrowding.