Chiang Mai Justice

William Hotham gives an insider’s commentary on justice and accountability in Thailand’s troubled criminal justice system.

Contemplation of Thai justice and its correctional system conjures connotations of lawlessness — not only amongst its criminals but amongst the law enforcers themselves. My prior conceptions, however, were fundamentally challenged when I undertook a legal internship in South East Asia with Bridges Across Borders South East Asia (BABSEA), an NGO formed to address humanitarian issues in the region.


Working alongside international lawyers, Thai law professors and prisoners to instigate a “pro-bono consciousness” within the Thai legal fraternity, I witnessed the condition of the country’s justice first hand. However, one pre-conception held firm: that socially conscious lawyers and true justice are inseparable and indispensible to each other.

A dysfunctional system

Abuses in Thailand are believed to take place at every level of the justice system. Accounts from prisoners I met revealed that the police authorities waive criminal violations in return for money. The police are known to exert corporal punishment and harass suspects. This kind of abuse is a direct consequence of a combination of low salaries, an environment of impunity and lack of accountability. One inmate reported that she had requested a lawyer to advise her in prison, but the lawyer took his fee and departed without offering any legal assistance. It is not uncommon for a lawyer to earn a mere $100 per month; South East Asia attaches minimal importance to the legal profession.

While the legal fraternity has the power to alleviate injustice, it often fails to do so and is removed from grassroots communities. The lack of criminal lawyers, their location, and the few pro-bono legal clinics mean that the poor do not receive adequate  legal services. Few law students are taught how to involve themselves in the justice system, particularly in cases involving marginalised and socially vulnerable populations. Most Thai law students fail to see themselves as crucial public servants.

The internship

Under the auspices of BABSEA, I worked alongside law professors from the University of Chiang Mai, and lawyers from across the globe, to simplify the Thai Criminal Code into a user-friendly manual. The manual is now being used by the new Thai legal generation as a pro-bono tool for legal clinics. Through BABSEA, hundreds of law students from the university are supported in offering pro-bono clinics. I conducted my own legal clinics in Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution and worked to develop community ties between Thai lawyers and marginalised communities.

Thai prisons

No aspect of Thai criminal justice has derived such notoriety for its reported conditions as the prison system. In recent years, severe drug laws, long sentences, reliance on imprisonment as a sentencing option and the low rate of bail granted have inundated the prison system with inmates, paralysing its correctional function. Criminal cases can take over a year to be decided in the criminal courts at first instance. Lack of funding means prison officials are paid very low salaries, causing prisons to be chronically understaffed and contributing to a culture of oppressive discipline and bribery. Inmates die in Thai prisons due to lack of essential healthcare and the spread of HIV and AIDS.

On my first visit to Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution—with a Thai lawyer, two law students and a psychologist—I therefore approached the prison’s whitewashed walls, extensive flowerbeds and friendly prison staff with a degree of incredulity. The anticipated hardened criminals transpired to be bright young women who had fallen foul of Thailand’s severe drug penalties. Some of the prisoners had formed a band and sang to the group and the inmates were upbeat and positive, vindicating Thailand’s primary reputation as “the land of smiles”. Some prisoners were painting furniture for the community and others had baked biscuits to sell for prison funds. One inmate told me the main prison officer supported her, just as her mother would.

I assisted the Thai law students to clarify the law and answer legal questions on parts of the manual I had written. Some prisoners reacted with incredulity on discovering that in Thai law, the police were not allowed free entry into their homes and on divorce women are entitled to part of the matrimonial estate.

Beacon of reform

With the backdrop of notorious accounts of the condition of Thai prisons, one cannot help but quiver at the thought of what was behind this potential façade. Prisoners did not feel at liberty to talk about general aspects of their prison life, which was sometimes spoken about reticently, perhaps out of fear of victimisation. On its face, Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution is a beacon of light in an otherwise desperate legal landscape. However, this prison cannot be representative. It has opened its doors and is monitored by external philanthropic organisations like no other Thai correctional institution. There is a constellation of supporting bodies that have come together in support of the prison. Healthcare and psychological issues are addressed by outside non-governmental bodies. The Faculty of Law at Chiang Mai University and BABSEA have been granted access to conduct weekly legal clinics.

The benefits: prisoners learn their fundamental legal rights and their entitlements on release; and outside cooperation stimulates accountability of the prison authorities. Perhaps, most importantly, the Thai legal fraternity is developing a new social consciousness and an understanding that the responsibility of a professional lawyer is fearlessly to uphold justice. As communities become collectively empowered by knowledge of their individual and collective rights, and as the legal fraternity demands justice and creates accountability, the Thai justice system cannot but become fairer for everyone.

William Hotham is studying for the Bar at the College of Law and is a Visiting Fellow of the Indiana University Faculty of Law program in Human Rights. William was funded at BABSEA through a scholarship from Inner Temple.

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