Expat Law – Thailand
One – pre-law advice for foreigners in Thailand or on the way there…
In 2013 some good bilingual news actually appeared in the local media relating to the rights of foreigners in Thailand. Earlier this year three major Thai government agencies – the Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Interior (police) and Ministry of Justice announced a tourist court being set up to clear, within 24 hours according to intent, non-serious cases between tourists and Thais. Nothing was mentioned in the news about Tourist police and foreigners in Thailand as a more general sector. The reports indicated that the first such tourist court would open in Phuket coincident with His Majesty’s birthday on 5 December 2013, which was then followed by a formal announcement and story in the 4 September 2013 The Nation that such a court would be set up in Pattaya the following day. So at least Thai authorities are taking a litany of problems occurring between them and Thais (often in the guise of scams) seriously.
The new courts are still in a state of flux, however. In addition to their recent vintage, exactly how they will go about their business is not yet clear. Authorities earlier suggested that state officials would work in the ‘courts’ after normal working hours, in the evening. The other matter is whether any such claims are criminal or civil, and whether the affected tourist is inclined and able to spend valuable time trying to go through a difficult task.
Whether or not these courts do mature and become effective in expediting cases that occur between Thais and visiting expatriates, it is also in the interests of the casual visitor to the kingdom to be at least minimally aware of his or her legal position while in Thailand. Yes, we all know we are in a foreign country with a different language and different culture and different laws, but…well, one of the good things is that the laws, criminal and civil, in Thailand are closely paralleled by similar laws around the world. The important point is how to arm yourself with them so you can retain decorum, protect your rights, and more easily fight off frivolous scammers or claims that are, unfortunately, too common in the Land of Smiles. That is the purpose of this column – to begin offering you at least a layman’s perspective of Thai law, civil and criminal – so you can act as a rational and minimally informed person in any legal allegations filed against your or in any you might wish to file.
I don’t much do lawyer jokes anymore. My employment as the English editor for four departments (including litigation) with a premier law firm in Thailand, three years of field investigations throughout the kingdom, and before that, as a senior staff advisor for Saudi Aramco’s Government Affairs – have led me to realize that lawyers, as often as they are made the butt of jokes, usually have a tough job.
For the client, or prospective client which is the focus of this series of columns, the job of defending yourself begins well before seeing a lawyer. You need to get your ducks lined up, assess your position and make a decision on whether you need a lawyer or can work things out on your own. You can, and should, do most of this groundwork before seeing a lawyer.
This does not mean violating the old saw about a man who counsels himself having a fool for a lawyer. It does mean taking an organized look at your situation and working from there, figuring out strategy, objective and method. Simple enough whether you are in a foreign culture or not.
Being abroad makes things much more difficult since you are not familiar with how things work or what you might be subject to. But the methodology is basically the same. Sit down, go through what you are faced with, review options, talk it over with someone you can depend on.
Thailand’s two major legal guides are its Civil and Commercial Code and Criminal Code. The latter is also guided by the Criminal Procedures Code which lays out what officials and agencies are bound to do, and how, whereas the Criminal Code itself identifies rights, statutes of limitation, punishment provisions, defining what constitutes crime and liability and so on. Often the same issue can overlap both criminal and civil codes. You may, for example, want both to apply, but if they do, you have separate court cases to pursue, often over a period of five or ten years!
For expats visiting or residing in Thailand time is important, especially for tourists. You want to enjoy yourself as much as you can as cheaply as you can, so getting bogged down with local legal leapfrogging is not an option. This single fact – that your time is limited, that you are probably not familiar with Thai legal codes and that you are likely handicapped by language and personal unease at being made a scam target – is very well known to the scam artist and he depends on it to keep an advantage over you. His primary MO is to use the system as you understand it (you don’t) against you and coerce you to pay off quickly. Police, for their part, are generally prone to also wanting to get the thing over with as soon as possible, often knowing you are being cheated but wanting to avoid an ugly confrontation.
More later about non-scams but for the purpose of this first column I’ll focus on scams because they are so common and successful a method of bilking the other person worldwide and not just in Thailand. If you are a victim of a scam at home, that’s one thing; being one in Thailand is quite another.
Here are a few pointers on how to protect yourself from them, whether jet ski rentals or those roadside vendors who are generally there to rip you off.
- Whether or not you are a foreigner, Thailand’s laws apply to you as well as to Thais, criminal, civil and otherwise. This means you have the same rights and protections as a Thai. It does not mean they will be made evident to you, however. I was the victim of two defamation claims filed with police in the past. When the second one came in I became agitated and asked the local police staff if I could counter-file against my accusers there and then because, I felt, their accusations were sheer harassment. I was told no. Not believing it, I asked to see the station deputy commander who told me, “Yes, you can.” So I did. Thailand’s Criminal Code carries provisions for complaining against others who file false criminal complaints. I went over three of those that applied and then swore out an official complaint, keeping a copy. And, yes, it was all in Thai. Can a non-Thai speaking foreigner accomplish the same thing? Of course. The Criminal Code and the Civil and Commercial Codes appear in English online and should be read briefly by all expats who plan to spend any amount of time in Thailand. This will help spread awareness and provide increasing resources among expats to help one another in such cases.
- Always remain aware of your surroundings – the environment and people you are dealing with. Dark corners and inebriated irate friends do not help. If, however, you have had a few and it’s pretty certain any police will realize this quickly enough: just stick to facts and keep away from emotion, offensive gestures and appearance of anger. This won’t always be easy. The guy making silly accusations against you and demanding money might appear very angry and ready to pounce. All decent advice at this point says to extricate yourself from the situation. If you feel that your personal safety is indeed under imminent threat and that paying off the accuser is the only way to get out safely, then it is advised that you do so. You can later file criminal charges with police, or at least get them to write a daily complaint against your accuser. You would, then, need to stick around for resolution.
- What about minor rip-offs? And what do you view as minor? Is being cheated at the entry gate of a resort or entertainment park by being charged five or ten times what a Thai is charged significant to you? – on the spot, generally not. If you want entrance you have to pay. What I do in these cases is take down information, including photos of signs – in Thai and English – that show prices, then follow up with complaints to the local and central authorities. They will usually not respond. As a collective group of disgruntled visitors to the Kingdom, however, we can get around this by posting online a cumulative record of where we were cheated and by how much. As this list grows, we can use it to make more effective demands for change to people with the power to make it. Recently, for example, Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation cited the mayor of Patong, Phuket and his son for ivolvement in scams such as jet ski damage claims. It’s only when Thailand if faced with overwhelming and repeated claims that it will force change.
Next month – A brief look at Thailand’s Civil and Commercial Code and Criminal Code
When I hear stories of expats being locked out of the house they built for their Thai wives or more shockingly their girlfriend, I cringe. As someone who fell in love with Thailand when I first arrived, and who has survived over forty four years of marriage to a Thai, I can attest that the basic attractions of the country – whatever you wish to name – are pretty powerful. While you are living here and enjoying them or just on a short visit, time passes and you may…probably will…lose track of documentation, time sequences and who said what. Then, when you have a problem with your wife or landlord or business partner, you are often at a loss. And, of course, language is there as another barrier. Not language alone, but the cultural differences that accompany it.