Decades of military rule have severely damaged judicial institutions that are vital to protecting the rule of law and human rights in Myanmar. To address the lack of judicial independence and corruption in the judiciary, this program trained a team of newly qualified legal professionals to monitor both civil and criminal trials in Mandalay and report on their adherence to international fair trial standards, as well as, Myanmar’s own codes of procedure and evidence.
Decades of military rule have severely damaged the institutions and networks that are vital to ensuring protection of the rule of law and human rights in Myanmar. The independence of the judiciary was undermined as courts became rubber stamps for governmental authorities. Legal professionals were harassed, co-opted and controlled, while legal protections for accused persons and vulnerable communities were crushed. Many independent legal professionals also had their licenses to practice law revoked. Myanmar enters a new political era with a legal and social environment that is fraught with challenges for vulnerable communities and few viable channels for challenging human rights violations. The justice system is widely considered to be corrupt, expensive and ineffective. In spite of a Constitutional requirement that trials are presumed to be held in public, even now this is not the practice with the result that effective monitoring and critique of the administration of justice itself presents a number of challenges.
In early mid-2013, Justice Base, which set up an office in Myanmar in November 2012, implemented a trial monitoring pilot project in Yangon, working closely with local legal professionals. Justice Base aims to conduct a second pilot project in Mandalay.
Following the model of its Yangon trial monitoring pilot project, Justice Base will recruit a group of up to four relatively newly qualified legal professionals who will constitute the trial monitoring team. The trial monitoring team will be trained in principles of trial monitoring and international fair trial standards, and in relevant Myanmar legal standards (contained, for example, in the Code of Criminal Procedure). Training will be conducted in Mandalay over a period of two weeks, with technical support from at least two international (including one South/Pacific Asia-based) and two Myanmar-based legal professionals. Trainees will be trained to a high standard so that they are equipped to train others.
The trial monitoring team will in the first instance work unofficially to monitor the fairness of a range of judicial proceedings in Mandalay, including both civil and criminal trials. The majority of trials observed will be in Township courts, as lawyers will have easier access to these courts. However, to the extent possible, trials in District and Division courts will also be observed. Proceedings will be measured against international fair trial standards, and Myanmar’s own codes of procedure and evidence. For reasons of security, courts will be monitored by members of the team on a rotating basis. Furthermore, members of the trial monitoring team will generally be allocated to courts before which legal professionals with whom Justice Base is collaborating are in any event appearing as representatives of a party to the litigation. The monitoring process will involve daily completion in English or Burmese of a trial monitoring questionnaire. [Please note that Justice Base’s method of implementation of this project may vary as the security and political situation in Myanmar develops.] The trial monitoring team will produce fortnightly reports based on daily trial monitoring questionnaires. The reports will be prepared both in Burmese and English. The team will be supported through every aspect of the implementation of this project by Justice Base’s consultant international legal advisor.
At the conclusion of the pilot phase, the trial monitoring team, supported by Justice Base’s consultant international legal advisor, will produce a final report, in English. This report will present the findings of the trial monitoring team and their assessment of compliance of judicial proceedings in Mandalay with international and national fair trial and evidential standards. It will offer a comparison with the findings of Justice Base’s Yangon trial monitoring pilot project. The report will be translated into Burmese, and will be published to the extent and insofar as the security and political situation in Myanmar allows.
Direct beneficiaries of the Mandalay Trial Monitoring Project will be the legal professionals who participate. Final beneficiaries will include the Myanmar justice system and the wider public. The legal professionals will be trained to a standard sufficiently high enough to enable them to train others. The project will enable them to gain skills in justice sector critique and assessment, and in the relevant international human rights standards. It will strengthen their capacity to build similar initiatives in the years ahead.
The Mandalay Trial Monitoring Project will also provide a means of assessing progress in judicial reform. Future efforts to improve the independence and professionalism of Myanmar’s courts will be able to draw from the lessons learned during the trial monitoring project and evaluate progress in relation to the findings of the trial monitoring team.
Justice Base will work with four local legal professionals from at least one Myanmar-based legal organisation or law firm. For the Yangon-based trial monitoring pilot, they will similarly work with four legal professionals, and are presently considering whether or not to informally partner with one firm or up to four.