Bankok (Thailand) Post, May 9, 2006
SPECIAL COURT RULES FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
Sweeping reforms to speed up cases
[Rachel's introduction: "Mr Apichart said courts may put the burden of proof on defendants [in environmental lawsuits] rather than the plaintiffs, as in normal law suits. If this practice is adopted, it would be the first time Thai courts agree to follow the so-called precautionary principle long advocated by environmentalists, who argue it is too much of a burden for damaged parties to prove wrongdoing by powerful offenders."]
By Bhanravee Tansubhapol
The Supreme Court is poised to make sweeping procedural changes to speed up handling of environmental cases. This includes placing the burden of proof on defendants, broadening the court ruling to cover all damaged parties and cutting court fees for poor plaintiffs, a high court official said yesterday.
"We would like environmental cases to be special cases because they affect the life, health and well-being of the public. If the court deliberation is slow or has to wait for any side-effects to emerge it may be too late for the environment or people's lives," said Apichart Sukhagganond, president of the environmental division of the Supreme Court.
Mr Apichart said each case affecting the environment should take no more than three years to resolve instead of more than five years now in most cases.
More than 1,000 environmental cases currently await Supreme Court judgments. Most are handled by the 10 Appeals Courts around the country but only four of them have an environmental division attached.
The green light has now been given to the Criminal Court in each province to set up an environmental division to help speed up environmental cases.
"Environmental cases should be concluded as quickly as possible," he said. To expedite the process, the court is considering moving environmental cases only through the Criminal Court and the Supreme Court, skipping the Appeals Court.
The court fee for poor plaintiffs could be lowered or waived to enable poor people to file legal action against industrial offenders, said Mr Apichart.
Normally, plaintiffs must post as much as 200,000 baht to cover court fees if they demand large compensation. This means legal action is out of reach of many who claim to suffer consequences from environmental damage.
Mr Apichart said courts may put the burden of proof on defendants rather than the plaintiffs, as in normal law suits.
If this practice is adopted, it would be the first time Thai courts agree to follow the so-called precautionary principle long advocated by environmentalists, who argue it is too much of a burden for damaged parties to prove wrongdoing by powerful offenders.
Another change that will have a major impact on offenders is the broadening of the court ruling on a single case to cover all damaged parties.
"This will help minimise the number of cases coming to court and all damaged parties will get the same level of compensation, as in bankruptcy cases," said Mr Apichart. Only the plaintiffs now benefit from court rulings in their favour, he said.
The case of damage to Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Lei caused by the making of the Hollywood film The Beach would be a good case study for all criminal court judges, most of whom have little experience in environmental cases.
In that case, local administrations and environmentalists in Krabi filed suits against senior environmental officials, 20th Century Fox Studios, which produced the film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and the studio's Thai agent for altering the bay's environment to fit the movie's script.
The Supreme Court is expected to deliver a final verdict this year.
Mr Apichart said environmental law should be a compulsory subject for all university law students.
"We still lack a lot of environmental judges. One reason we set up the environmental division is to let all judges see the importance of this subject and let them learn from it," said Mr Apichart.
Copyright Copyright The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 2006