Judiciary comes under public scanner

Yearender | Judiciary: The Monkey year started smoothly for the judiciary with media houses providing the usual coverage on verdicts being handed down.

But by mid 2016 the judiciary started making its way into the limelight when the Supreme Court issued a writ on August 5 to the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) deferring yenlag and dzongkhag thromde elections, as there were legal and administrative issues pertaining to local government (LG) elections.

The writ stated that the Supreme Court, being the guardian of the Constitution and the final authority for its interpretation, issued the order to constitute a high-level commission to review and harmonise conflicting provisions in the LG and election Acts, and the Constitution.

The limelight turned into a spotlight after freelance journalist, Namgay Zam, shared a lengthy story on her Facebook page of an ongoing case between Dr Shacha Wangmo and businessman Sonam Phuntsho (Ap SP), who coincidentally also happened to be the father-in-law of the Chief Justice of Bhutan, Thrimchi Tshering Wangchuk.

The post, shared on August 10, alleged that Ap SP tried to take away Dr Shacha Wangmo’s family’s building in Changzamtok, Thimphu when an estranged family member could not repay Nu 0.7 million that had been borrowed from him.

Ap SP then took Namgay Zam and Dr Shacha to court for defamation. He contested that he bought the building and had all the documents.

The court could not come to a decision as Ap SP withdrew the case a day prior to  judgment day. It left many Bhutanese wanting to know how the courts constitute what defamation is.

The case attracted international attention with news media such as the New York Times, The Guardian, ABC Australia and The Diplomat covering it.

In the same month, a private lawyer, Younten Dorji, who was representing Aum Lhaden Pema Dorji in the Tashi company property dispute case, sought the recusal of the Chief Justice during the closing hearing of the case.

Lawyer Younten Dorji alleged the Chief Justice of having a conflict of interest and therefore of being biased against his client. He also alleged that the Chief Justice scolded Justices of the High Court for giving an inferior judgment, which the Supreme Court had to redo.

The Supreme Court, stating that the allegations were unsubstantiated and baseless, sentenced the lawyer to a year in prison and suspended him from practicing for a year in the lower court and two years in the High Court. To represent a client in the Supreme Court, the lawyer will have to seek prior approval.

The Supreme Court also mandated the need for private legal representatives to have 10 years of experience to practice in the Supreme Court.

It was also in the Monkey year that the defamation case between Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and Dasho Benji came to an end. It, however, did not result in any conclusive decision, as the plaintiff withdrew the defamation charges and the court ordered the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) to coordinate and investigate sedition charges made against the party. DPT was made to pay Nu 0.45 million as compensation.

Besides the judiciary coming under the public’s scanner, it was also revealed that there are some pertinent issues that need to be addressed like what constitutes contempt of court and what languages can be used.

While the Supreme Court mandated the use of Dzongkha as the language of the courts, a number of international treaties recognise the right of individuals to be informed of the charges against them in a language they understand.

Many observed that if there is one principle that is fundamental to a fair trial and for justice to prevail, it is language, and it is a must for the courts to declare the treatment of English as a second language.

Meanwhile, the judiciary established specialised benches in the Thimphu court. Dedicated to the 10 years of His Majesty The King’s reign, the Thimphu dzongkhang court now has two benches for criminal cases, a bench each for civil, commercial and family- and child-related cases.

Tashi Dema

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