Sittra puts fair justice in spotlight
Celebrity lawyer's fees from the wealthy assist the poor
Lawyer Sittra Biebangkerd has thrust himself into the public eye again as he handles sexual misconduct accusations filed against former Democrat Party deputy leader Prinn Panitchpakdi.
A self-made man who started from humble beginnings and went on to achieve fame in the legal sector, the 41-year-old has been dubbed a celebrity lawyer who provides legal aid to those who want better access to justice.
Mr Sittra owns a law firm on Sathon Road, in the bustling commercial district. Aside from that, he serves as secretary-general of the Lawyer Team Foundation for Youth and Society, a group dedicated to providing legal knowledge and teaching moral integrity to young people.
Born in Samut Sakhon, he finished high school at Nawamintrachinuthit Satriwitthaya Phutthamonthon School in Bangkok and obtained a bachelor's degree in public administration from Ramkhamhaeng University's faculty of political science.
"When I was in university, I worked -- studying hard and reading," Mr Sittra said. "Due to my family's financial situation at the time, I could not travel to the university to attend classes. Going to university required 200-300 baht a day."
"My mother was a fishmonger at [the Mahachai seafood market] and she could give me no more than 50 baht per day," he added, recounting his past. "Therefore, I had to study and read at home instead."
It took only three years for him to graduate from university, and he decided to pursue a second bachelor's degree in law at the university, he said. This time however, he transferred credits from his first degree programme, which enabled him to reduce the time needed for the second degree, he said.
In total, it took him only four and a half years to obtain two bachelor's degrees.
He obtained a licence from the Lawyers Council of Thailand before receiving a barrister-at-law certificate from the Thai Bar Association.
He started his legal profession as a trainee at a law firm and dealt with cases involving loan contracts.
There, he gained first-hand experience, handling legal wrangles between creditors and debtors.
In one instance, he was asked to handle a case involving a creditor who sued a debtor over a loan. The two sides had given conflicting debt amounts. The debtor said he borrowed only 10,000 baht, while the creditor said he was owed 50,000 baht, Mr Sittra said.
"After verification, I found the creditor, who was our client, had the debtor sign a loan contract that did not specify the amount," Mr Sittra said. "I thought this was not right. I felt we were only used as a tool so I quit the law firm and started my own."
After setting up his law firm, he said he wanted to spend his days off on Saturdays and Sundays working for the good of society.
"I launched a project to provide free legal advice to people at a local temple in Samut Sakhon's Krathum Baen district and other communities," he said. "Another project was introduced to provide legal knowledge to students at schools and universities."
His initiatives were noticed by then justice minister Paiboon Khumchaya, who invited the team to work with the ministry to introduce similar legal counselling projects in three southern border provinces.
Mr Sittra shot to fame as a lawyer when he represented a client who was involved in the disputed ownership of five winning lottery tickets worth a combined 30 million baht.
The case, which drew significant public attention at the time, was fraught with twists and turns.
In 2017, a school teacher and a retired police officer in Kanchanaburi both claimed to have bought the winning set of five lottery tickets.
Preecha Kraikruan, a teacher in Muang district, claimed he won the first prize but the tickets were missing. He later filed a police complaint about the disappearance of the tickets.
Meanwhile, Pol Lt Jaroon Wimol, a retired police officer, was later found to have claimed the winning prize from the Government Lottery Office.
Each man insisted they were the one who bought the winning tickets.
During the case, Mr Sittra represented Pol Lt Jaroon, who won the court battle against Mr Preecha on June 4, 2019, when the Kanchanaburi Court declared him the rightful owner of the winning tickets.
Mr Preecha appealed the ruling, and the case is now being considered by the Supreme Court, Mr Sittra said.
He admitted the legal profession has put him in danger as he often received threats while handling his cases.
He said this does not deter him, but he has to be careful when dealing with high-profile cases.
Mr Sittra has more than 2 million followers on Facebook, which serves as a forum to publicise a wide range of issues.
"Topics that are posted on the page will receive public attention. Some people asked for our help after they were ignored [by the authorities]," he said. "After I post, it often piques reporters' interest and they ask me for an interview."
It was Mr Sittra who brought Mr Prinn's case to the public. He also posted an audio clip on Facebook, in which Seksakol Atthawong, former aide to the prime minister, talked about the country's lottery quota.
On the clip, Mr Seksakol can be heard telling Jureeporn Sinthuprai, a member of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, that he took 15 million baht from another man and used it to finance an election campaign.
On it, Mr Seksakol said he did not know his benefactor was linked to the lottery quotas.
Both Mr Seksakol and Ms Jureeporn later admitted the voices on the leaked audio clip were theirs. Mr Seksakol said the conversation was a joke and part of it was doctored to discredit the government.
On April 18, Mr Seksakol announced his resignation as aide to the PM following the release of the clip.
Mr Sittra admitted he has both admirers and haters, and those who dislike him include police and fellow lawyers.
He also said many of his clients are wealthy and can afford to pay expensive fees for his legal services.
"I can charge them high rates," he said. "For people who have no money, I use the money I get from rich people to help them.
"I also have the foundation to help cash-strapped people," he added. "I am ready to lend a helping hand."