What to Expect if you have to go to a Thai Court

When I was younger, I once sat on the jury of a murder trial. It lasted for about seven days. I had always been fascinated by courtroom dramas and after watching “Twelve Angry Men” I fancied myself as Head Juror. Alas, I was only 19 at the time and no-one voted me for that position. Although it was a serious case, I did enjoy my time listening to the arguments of the prosecution and defence. In Thailand, the Courts of Justice don’t quite work in the same way. In the Criminal Courts, there are always at least two judges and no jury. Although it may seem to be unfair not being judged by a panel of your peers. I think it is probably better if amateurs, like myself, didn’t have so much of a say in the lives of the accused. But then, that leaves a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the judges. A few years ago I was in court for the trial of a defendant who had been accused of attempted murder.

The courtroom wasn’t very large. There were probably about six or so of these rooms on this floor alone. At the front was the raised platform where the judges sat. Above them is a portrait of H.M. The King. Below it is the symbol of the court, a downward pointing dagger with scales balancing on it. In front of the bench sat the court clerk. On the judges right was the table for the prosecution. On the left was the table for the defense. In the middle of the room, facing the judges bench, was the chair and table for the witness. The room was roughly split in half with a low railing. Behind this were the benches where members of the public and interested parties sat. In Thailand, courts are usually open to the public. So, in theory, if you are respectfully dressed, you could go and watch a trial. Just remember no cameras are allowed and you should turn off your mobile phone.

At about 9.35 a.m., the defendant was escorted into the courtroom by a policeman. He was barefoot and chained at the ankles. A piece of string was attached to the chains which enabled him to pick them off the floor as he hobbled along. The policeman told him to sit down on the front bench. Shortly later, the two judges arrived through their private entrance at the front of the court. No-one announced their arrival, but everyone stood up anyway. They wore a black robe with a dark velvet edging around the neck and down the front. People didn’t wai the judges, but bowed instead. The public prosecutor was sat on my left.  The first day was reserved for the prosecution. The burden of proof rests on the prosecution and she has to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In the morning, she called three witnesses: the victim, the arresting officer and a witness to the crime. Each one was called forward where they then put their hands together in a prayer like gesture and promised to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. As in Western courts, the prosecutor asked a series of questions and then the defence were allowed to cross examine. However, there were some notable differences.

In Western courts, there would be a stenographer who would make a record of everything that was said. However, in Thailand, this is left up to the judge. In front of him was a tape recorder. This wasn’t to record the witness. What happened is that after the witness had answered the question, the judge would then paraphrase what he had just said. But, he didn’t do this for everything. Only what he deemed to be relevant. During the cross-examination, I could see the defence lawyer pausing before he asked each question so that the judge could have time to record the answer. However, sometimes the judge didn’t bother to record anything which obviously annoyed the defence. He just told them to ask the next question.

I also noticed that the judges participated more in the questioning of the witness. Sometimes they asked questions that they felt the prosecutor should have asked. Or a question to clarify an answer. Like in my previous trial, the prosecutor sometimes left the courtroom during cross-examination. Although there were two judges, there was only one lead judge. The other was there as support. Every now and then he would change tapes and the court clerk would then take this to type up. At the start of each tape he would record something and then quickly rewind it to see if it recorded properly. The last witness of the morning was supposed to be the doctor. However, he didn’t turn up which seemed to annoy the judges. After a few phone calls, they decided to postpone the next trial date. The prosecution were supposed to finish on this day and then the following week the defence team would have their turn. But, as the doctor couldn’t come the trial was put off for just over two weeks.

By about 12 p.m., the court clerk had finished typing up the testimonials from the witnesses. These were then read out in court. Each witness was then asked if what had been read was a true account. They said it was. Then each relevant party had to sign these statements. The prisoner was then escorted back downstairs to the holding area to await the prison bus. I have been in that holding area a number of times to visit different people. It smells really bad. But their relations are allowed to visit them and also buy food for them from outside. The Thai courts are very busy and sometimes it can be up to a year before people go to court. And once the case starts, there can be a number of delays which sometimes means it might be several months before the verdict is finally read. In the meantime, if the defendant is not given bail, or cannot afford to pay it, he has to stay all this time locked up in prison. I will tell you about what to expect if you are ever sent to a Thai prison another time.

12 responses to “What to Expect if you have to go to a Thai Court

  1. Hello!
    My name is Yoram and I’m from Israel already enjoyed very much from the article that especially because I’m an interpreter, Thai, Hebrew, I’m going to courts all week. Besides, I really wanted to know how things are done in Thailand. I’d love if you could give me some advice where I can learn phrases in Thai that sound in court. Sincerely Yoram

  2. Thanks for your comment. I can only suggest that you buy one of the legal dictionaries at Se-Ed that are in Thai-English. You can also buy bilingual law books there too. There is also a book called Thai Law for Foreigners that can be bought at Asia Books.

  3. Richard, Thanks for your account. From my knowledge, the Thai Justice System was modelled after the German system. In German courts, there is also no Jury – so the distinction between Western court (with Jury) and Thai court (without Jury) seems a bit strange to me. 🙂

  4. Thanks Timo for your input on that.

  5. Hi Richard, great blog! This is Yuriy from ThaiPod101.com. Is there anyway to get in touch with you via email in regards to a potential affiliate partnership? You can reach us at affiliates@ThaiPod101.com.

  6. Wow, you managed to get these details too? That’s great 🙂 Only been to Pattaya and Bangkok at the moment.

  7. ThaiInfoSeeker

    This article is very interesting. First of all, I didn’t realize foreigners could sit in a court trial in Thailand. Also, I had no idea a trial would proceed without a jury or court stenographer. This type of system leaves so much power in the hands of Thai judges. Richard, how are judges placed in Thailand? Are they elected or appointed? It seems like this type of system is also difficult for the lawyers in that they don’t have a jury to appeal to but must really convince the judge of their interpretation of the law. Does any of the process you described differ when the accused is a foreigner? I understand that foreigners can easily get a Thailand lawyer referral, but I wonder if all aspects of the trial are the same as what you described in this article. Thanks for the great reporting…I look forward to more.

  8. I pray to god that I NEVER have to step foot in a Thai court (as accused!) I don’t speak enough thai to ever be called on to be useful lol. Great insight though, thanks very much!

  9. What an interesting coincidence that I came across your posting; my friend was just punched in the face for no apparent reason a couple of nights ago by a Thai national who then yelled about hating pharang. Although my friend (a very docile and culturally respectful man) required several stitches, our experience with the police was not very encouraging initially. In spite of several witnesses and that the perpetrator acknowledged the offense, they would not arrest him. I don’t paint everyone with a broad brush, but it does make me curious about how the system would balance a National’s word against a Pharang in court.

    I will read more of your articles, thanks again.

    vanpsych – nuggetsandpearls.com
    – withthisvoice.blogspot.com

  10. Really interesting piece, Richard. Were you really a juror on a murder case at only 19? That’s pretty intense. When I was 18, I was called for jury duty, but escaped it because I lived in another county during college. I would have hated and feared the responsibility at that age to have any say in whether someone was guilty of murder. I agree that amateurs should not have a say in this process. Thailand’s civil law system of using judges in place of juries is probably better. Your pictures inside the court room are excellent; I would have never pictured they looked this way (thought they would be larger). Keep up the great work.

  11. So great information !

    But it is not said when do we have to pay the judge ?