A Day in a Thai Court

Courthouse in Samut Prakan

Last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to visit the Provincial Criminal Court in Samut Prakan. It was a place that I didn’t really expect to find myself going. However, I had always been curious to go inside this large building which is by the river in Paknam. I went there to support one of my students from years ago. His parents had asked me to go. They thought it would help in some way. As this is a real case that is still going on, I ask you not to speculate to the identity of the defendant nor the crime that was committed. If you are a regular member of the ThailandQA forums then you will already know who I am talking about. What I really want to focus on more here is my experience in a Thai court.

To be honest I was a bit nervous about going. Although Samut Prakan is quite close to Bangkok, there still isn’t that many foreigners in this city. Walking around all the usual places I don’t really attract much attention. But, to go to a courthouse I knew I was going to stand out like a sore thumb. It wasn’t really my own reputation I was worried about. More so of the school. It wouldn’t look good for them if any parent saw me at the courthouse. Particularly at a trial of this nature. They might misunderstand. I arrived at the court a bit early and so had to sit down in a kind of a waiting area in front of the building. Straight away someone carrying the robes of a lawyer came up to me to introduce himself. Apparently he was the son of one of the teachers and he wanted to know if I was in some kind of trouble! He wanted to help me. I assured him I wasn’t in trouble and that I was waiting for someone.

About ten minutes later I could hear sirens approaching. Looking around I spotted a prison bus entering a private entrance at the courthouse. Then came the sounds of chains. A number of people in the waiting area had already gone to take a closer look. They were calling out to the prisoners so they must be relations or friends. The prisoners were dressed in simple shorts and shirts. The colour is close to red ochre. The shorts being darker than the shirt. Around their ankles were heavy chains. To get off the bus, they had to hop down. The chain between their legs was held up off the ground with a piece of string. The bus windows had thick wire mesh. The guards sat at the front and back of the bus and the prisoners were in a cage in the middle section.If things didn’t go well for my student then he would be leaving on this bus.

At 9 a.m. I went into the courthouse with my old student and his parents. He had committed the crime about a year ago and he had been out on bail since then. To pay for this, his parents had to give the police their house registration. If their son had run away, they would have lost their house. The courthouse didn’t seem to have any lifts and we had to walk up the stairs to the fourth floor. On the second floor there was a metal detector we had to pass through. A lone security guard was checking bags. He didn’t seem to be that strict or thorough. Really just going through the motions. In fact, when we came back up after lunch, there was no-one on duty and the keys in my pocket sounded the alarm as I passed through. No-one seemed to care.

When we entered the courtroom I must admit I was a bit surprised. I suppose I was expecting a big courtroom like those in the movies. This one was about the size of a classroom. I estimated that there could be as many as 30 courtrooms like this one in the building. The courtroom was divided roughly in half with the public section slightly smaller. We had to sit on some very uncomfortable benches which faced the raised platform where the judges would sit. There were two comfy chairs for them. Straight ahead was the symbol of the court. This was a two edged dagger pointing downwards with a pair of scales representing fair judgment. However, it was slightly crooked with the left scales a little lower. I hoped this wasn’t a bad omen as it was in favour of the prosecutor’s side. Above this symbol of the court was the King’s portrait which was also crooked. However, he was leaning more towards the defendant’s side on my right. Hopefully that would balance things out

Below the table for the judges was where the court clerk sat at her computer. As I said before, the lawyers for the defence were seated on my right and the opposing council was on my left. There weren’t that many people in court. My old student, who I will now refer to as defendant 2, had come with his parents and other family members. Defendant 1 had come only with a friend who later turned out to be a witness. They all sat in the public section. A little later a group of people dressed in black entered the court. And then two shackled prisoners were escorted into the court.  Shortly after this the back door opened and the lawyer for defendant 2 motioned to us to stand up. At the same time he was quickly putting on his black robes.

The two judges came in and sat down on their comfy chairs. We then sat down on our hard benches. The judges were dressed in black robes like the lawyers but they didn’t have the white cloth over their left shoulder. The atmosphere in the courtroom was relaxed though one of the judges made it clear very early on that all mobile phones should be turned off. Rules on the door to the court also said that everyone should be dressed politely and that you weren’t allowed to read newspapers while court was in session. A shame because the proceedings did get drawn out and a trifle boring.

First up were the two prisoners who were there to listen to their sentence. They both got life for a robbery that went tragically wrong when someone got killed. Next a grieving widow who was in a land dispute with her late husband’s family. Then it was the turn of the case that I had come to observe. As we were the only people left in court, the judge looked my direction and asked who I was with. I just motioned to defendant number 2 and smiled. Then it was down to business.

First in the witness stand was the arresting officer. The seat for the witness is dead center between the judges and the public gallery. I could see that he stood and read something from a piece of paper that was stuck to the desk. There was no hand on the bible. At first I thought he had his hand on his heart. His back was to me so I couldn’t see clearly. But, both hands were up to chest level as he read. Then it dawned on me that he must have his hands together in a “wai”. He was probably saying something like he promised to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. But, I couldn’t hear very well. He had no microphone and there was too much other noise. There was even a tannoy outside which was disturbing us.

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