EARTH Thailand

Court fees exempted for citizens suing factory for pollution

EARTH REPORT 15 December 2021

NONG PHAWA, RAYONG – The Rayong Provincial court granted court fees exemption for Nong Phawa locals suing a recycling company for polluting local water.

On Wednesday (December 15, 2021), citizens of Nong Phawa village, Bang But Subdistrict, Rayong Province traveled to the Rayong Provincial court to hear the decision on their request for court fees exemption.

The citizens consist of the fifteen plaintiffs who had launched a lawsuit against Win Process company’s recycling factory. They allege that for over ten years, the factory conducted waste management operations that caused extensive damage to the local environment.

The release of wastewater in particular, led to extensive damage of rubber plantations, with one of the plaintiffs losing up to 1,450 rubber trees and a vast swath of now barely usable farmland. Another lost tens of thousands of fishes. Many citizens were beset by foul smell that caused significant distress and fear of illnesses.

For over a decade, the citizens lodged complaints to multiple government agencies, from the Subdistrict Authority to the Department of Industrial Work. But none of the agencies were able to cease the pollution.

On June 7, 2021, fifteen of the citizens sued the company for 47,949,505 baht in damage. This number was calculated from the loss of plants, animals and lands, as well as other health and opportunity costs.

Civil suits in Thailand required the plaintiffs to put down a court fee at a percentage of the compensation demanded. This placed the court fee for the Nong Phawa plaintiffs in the millions.

Sanit Maneesri, plaintiff number fourteenth, is a local contract worker, who also owns a garden next to the now polluted Nong Phawa pond – the village’s namesake. Before going into court today, Sanit explained to us why the plaintiffs need this exemption.

“We are not rich people to begin with. The pollution from the factory has further destroyed our livelihoods. And now the COVID-19 pandemic has made things more difficult. If today, the court decides not to give us the exemption, I am certain many will withdraw from the lawsuit. So, we ask that the court make the right decision, and let us have our day in court.”

Later, Sanit and fourteen other plaintiffs were brought to the stands. After the judges reviewed their financial documents and hear their testimonies, it decided to exempt all fifteen plaintiffs from having to pay the court fee.

The Rayong Provincial Court stated that having reviewed all evidence, they find that the plaintiffs do not have enough financial resources to support the court fee. It states further that paying the court fee would put the plaintiffs under unnecessary and unreasonable hardship.

Arreerat Boonrayong, plaintiff number 15, who regularly works at a local school says she’s overjoyed by this decision. “We thank the court for hearing us, and doing the right thing. For ten years now, we’ve been fighting the pollution caused by this company. We started at zero. And now here we are, ready to take them to court. I am hopeful that justice will be done.”

Chamnan Sirirak, an environmental lawyer who represents the plaintiff told us that now the “Nong Phawa case” has begun in earnest. The company will be asked to submit a testimony before the case enters the stage of pre-trial conference next February. “If there are no efforts to stall,” Chamnan says, “then we may well see a ruling by the court of first instance by the end of 2022.”

The Nong Phawa case closely followed the victory of a class action lawsuit launched by the citizens of Nampu Creek, Ratchaburi Province against another recycling company. Like Win Process, the company are alleged to have operated on toxic wastes that severely polluted local water supply.

Chamnan Sirirak, who also represented citizens of Nampu, pointed out that court fees act as an obstacle for access to justice. “The Nong Phawa citizens saw a small but significant victory today, but the fact is there are many environmental lawsuits that slip through the cracks of expensive court fees.”

Chamnan stresses that structural reform is the only solution for this. “I call for an amendment of Thailand’s environment law to exempt court fees for any civil cases related to environmental damage. Doing so would allow people of any socio-economic status to take polluters to court. This, I believe, is a necessary step to ensure full access to justice.”

Whether Chamnan’s call will be heard remains to be seen. Meanwhile, with today’s victory, citizens of Nong Phawa now eagerly awaits their day in court.