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Setting up an Environmental Court

Chief Judge Pongdej Vanitkijtihul of the Supreme Court Office explained that an environmental court is needed in the country for several reasons. For one thing, environmental pollution brings damages to natural resources which are the property of everyone.

"It's not true to say that only people in the area of the Mae Moh power plants are affected by their emissions. Actually, the public in general is also affected." "Sometimes, the repercussions (from environmental damage) don't show right away. Sometimes it takes two or five years, or more," he said.

An environmental court case also requires input from experts in various scientific fields, he said. This is especially true because the burden of proof is on the affected people's shoulders. They should be able to call on the technical knowledge of others.

Chief Judge Pongdej said that actually there is a mechanism currently in place for people to receive a trial before a special legal panel affiliated with the Supreme Court and presided over by a judge who has expertise in environmental matters. The process is cumbersome, however; first the plaintiff would have to go through the Administrative Court, and then through an appellate court, and has never been employed.

Chief Judge Pongdej envisions a future in which access to the special panel will be granted whenever it is warranted. He also said that in the near future the members of the jury may need to visit the sites of alleged environmental damage.

"We can no longer sit in the jury box and imagine, we must see for ourselves. An environmental court should aim to provide justice in conflicts of interest between economic development and protecting natural resources, he said. "Presently, we only look at the GDP without thinking what we have to sacrifice," he said.

Moreover, an environmental court needs to consider corrective measures.

"The environment must be revitalised to its former state by the polluter," Judge Pongdej said, adding that the public must be aware of any potential harmful activities to the environment surrounding them. "Look at the Bhopal case (in India, in which a pesticide production plant exploded, killing many people and disabling many more). It is a lesson to the public that we must pay more attention to environmental issues," he said.

Policeman coping with the air in.Bangkok.
(Photo by Goran Hallin)

The judge feels that a key judicial role in protecting the environment is to boost the conscience of the public to follow environmental laws. The court must establish measures so that the public will lend their hands in protecting the environment.

"The court must also be able to enforce the environmental laws," he added.

The reality now, however, is that even if the justice system is waiting for people who are affected by environmental pollution, it is very difficult for them to access, and even harder to overcome the odds stacked against them and win their case.

Said Dr Pongthep Wiwanthanadej of Chiangmai University: "We know that Mae Tao villagers get sick. But if they have to prove that cadmium is the cause of their sickness, how can they do that? They have to take water and rice to the laboratory for testing.

"How can we solve this problem? If we allow this situation to persist, polluters won't be careful of their actions... It's more economical for them just to dump their waste than to treat it. Because the burden of proof is on the damaged party, not the polluters."

Information from Bangkok Post, 21st August, 2005.
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