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Phuket Chief Justice Varangkana Sujaritkul  greets the chief mediator

Phuket Chief Justice Strives to Improve the Law

Sunday, July 5, 2009
Photo Album Above

IN SOME places, chief justices are uppity, aloof people who seldom relate to average citizens and view the world from beneath powdered wigs.

Phuket's Chief Justice, Varangkana Sujaritkul, is about as down-to-earth as it's possible to be, moving about the imposing provincial court building and generating activity as she goes.

She shows us a courtroom and asks us to listen. She hears the shackles of a prisoner, shuffling into the courtroom next door.

In the role since April, she brings a long family tradition of lawyers and judges, and plenty of Phuket history.

One uncle served as chief justice in the 1970s. Another uncle who held the same position she now holds was gunned down back in 1982.

She believes now that it was probably a case of mistaken identity. Still, it reinforces the dangers of imposing judgements and enforcing the law.

''There are times when I sense his ghost is near,'' she says.''I see him sometimes around the building.'' He was 36 at the time, and had studied in Britain.

His portrait is in a long line of former chief justices, high up in the meeting room where we talk. The portraits of two other female chief justices are among the gallery.

Foremost in the mind of the new chief justice for now is mediation.

It's a process that she hopes can alleviate and perhaps even demolish the backlog of cases awaiting decisions in the courts under her control.

To that end, she has a team of community leaders on the mediation panel and we meet the chief mediating officer as she guides us through the mediation rooms.

Mediation could be vital for the future of the system because the island jail, built to hold 800, is now crammed with 1200 inmates, and the number continues to increase.

There is no plan for a new Phuket facility so the island has to cope. Chief Justice Varangkana's mediation might help. The concept is being promoted strongly all over the island.

Failing a mediated settlement, two judges usually sit on most cases, although the chief justice is called upon to sit as a third decision-maker on more important cases.

An appeals system can take proceedings as far as the Supreme Court in Bangkok.

When asked about the prospects of a tourist court to speed cases involving visitors, the chief justice says she recalls the Aussie Beer mat incident, in which an Australian woman had her passport seized and was detained on the island.

The woman eventually pleaded guilty to a theft charge and was allowed to travel home.

Chief Justice Varangkana says the justice process itself is relatively swift once cases are brought.

''Once it reached the courts, that case was all wrapped up in an hour,'' she said. ''If you plead not guilty, a case can take longer.

''The delays essentially occur as police compile evidence. We have no control over the length of time that takes.''

She said that having one law that was the same for every person was an important principle in Thailand, just as it is in many countries.

That may mean the tourist court notion of swift courtroom justice for visitors accused of petty offences will not go further.

Chief Justice Varangkana and 18 judges are kept busy, but they do not oversee divorce cases or cases involving minors, which come under separate jurisdictions.

Our talk and tour is interrupted first by a telephone call, then by a meeting.

A Burmese prisoner has a contagious disease and will have to be kept in isolation, not with other prisoners. Chief Justice Varangkana meets a jail official in the foyer and signs the paperwork.

Aged 43, she takes life at high speed, with children aged five and six at home. But even after-hours, there is no escaping the law: her husband is also a judge.

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