In an effort to avoid expensive cases in court that could waste time on trivial matters, the government has been undertaking a project called Access to Justice, which helps solve conflicts at the grassroots level.
Under the UNDP-sponsored project, local groups advocate conflict resolution for a number of problems that plague much of rural Cambodia, including domestic violence, divorce, land fights, conflicts of heritage, cursing, breach of wedding contracts, destruction of property, debt, and ownership of trees on property boundaries.
The project, which began at the end of 2006, was piloted in two districts each in Kampong Speu and Kampong Chhnang provinces, and was expanded to four more provinces, Siem Reap, Battambang, Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri, reaching in total 56 communes in 20 districts.
It includes justice centers at the district and commune levels, as well as for communities of ethnic minorities.
The method for conflict resolution includes the selection by the people of respected elders or other prominent members of the community, who will solve problems without cost. Cases that cannot be solved are brought to the commune body and then the district.
Community hearings allow people to bring their concerns to local officials, and the project provides training for local authorities on land law, contracts, vital records and the role of citizens. Special training is provided in minority areas.
Nuth Sa An, secretary of state for the Ministry of Interior, told VOA Khmer by phone that he now saw less domestic violence in court cases.
“Our direction is to have a mechanism that can reduce complaints at the top level or the courts, where small issues can be solved at the local level,” he said.
Bora Sok, one of the managers of the project at the Ministry of Justice, said the project was running successfully with the support of authorities and citizens.
“When they have a conflict and file complaints to us, we solve them, mediate it through win-win policies for both sides, which is different from the courts, where there is a winner and a loser,” he said.
The justice centers have seen more than 830 cases at the district level since the project ramped up in January, solving 120 of them. At the commune level, the centers saw 1,320 complaints in the first six months of this year, solving more than 600 of them.
Yim Ban is a mediator and legal assistant for the project in Kampong Speu province. His Phnom Sruoch center has solved 60 of 100 cases since 2007. When he receives a complaint from someone, he said, he calls both sides to meet face to face, seeking not legal redress but mutual understanding.
“For example, in a case of defamation, for 1 million riel or 500,000 riel in compensation, we minimized it to 50,000 riel and ended the case,” he said. “But in some cases, they disagree, and then we show them further procedures and explain the details.”
People often find this method desirable to a court system they don’t trust. “They hate the court,” he said.
Suon Chanthy, from Phnom Sruoch district, had a conflict with her sister over a market stall left to them by their deceased mother. She thought the stall should be hers, as she had taken care of her mother for many years. The case is moving through the justice centers.
“If my sister wants to bring the issue to court, I won’t go, as I don’t have money,” she said.
She has not been able to find a solution in five months, but her sister may have changed her address so the authorities can’t find her, she said.
Another case in the district saw Chub Samnang against a joint petition from fellow villagers, saying he closed down a public road. He says he closed a private path.
“I am willing to compromise as much as possible at the district level, rather than go to the upper level,” or court, he said. “Going to the court is a waste of a lot of time and money.”
But while the Access to Justice program can help many, there are problems when it comes to deciding who will enforce decisions, such as paybacks or the return of property, and the intervention or interfering from third parties remains a concern.
Yang Kim Eng is the president of the People’s Center for Development and Peace. He welcomed the justice project, but warned that it must work for the people and be free of corruption; otherwise, people end up paying twice, at the grassroots level and at the courts.
“If small issues can be solved, that can save time, help development, reduce conflict and promote more unity in the community,” he said.
Directors of the centers in communes and districts receive $150 per month, while two assistants receive $50 each. An additional $30 is provided for administration.
Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Education Center, which helps minorities in the northeast, said the Access to Justice project was fruitful, but it could be improved.
The system would get better as mediators gained more experience, he said, and work must be done to implement solutions for the party that agrees, while providing advocacy and ensuring authorities involved recognize the solutions.
Yin Sopheap, a UNDP specialist in minority issues, said the traditional methods were being used to solve problems.
“But when people go out, then there’s a problem, as they do not listen to customary authorities or elders,” he said. “So we train them to understand the law. For example, if there is a divorce case, the elder in the village compromises and gives a reason and explanation, but now many don’t listen to the elder.”
His job is to train the elders in a community to understand the laws and rules from outside, to help them solve issues among their groups, especially in cases involving someone foreign to the group.
So far, the project is set to end in March 2010. Government officials and rights workers said they regretted the lack of funding required for the continuation of the project. Meanwhile, the project quietly goes on, part of the reform of the country’s judiciary and part of poverty reduction.