/ July 18, 2008

South Korea Tests Trial by Jury

After last year’s reforms, intended to bring greater accountability and public confidence to the South Korean judicial system, citizens are just beginning to notice their jury duty letters in the mail. Some critics argue that the public was not properly educated or informed about the switch to jury trials, but most agree that the formerly opaque and autocratic structure of the judiciary was in need of an overhaul. The system was inherited from the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century, during which the Japanese manipulated the courts to root out dissidents and imprison political rivals. With today’s strong and vibrant democracy, South Korea hopes that the jury trials will make the courts more open and responsible to the people.

After testing out the new system with mock trials, South Korea held its first trial by jury in February. The model may not be permanent, and any aspects that receive negative feedback from the public or legal professionals can be modified. Trials in Korea are traditionally speedy, and some judges and lawyers have registered frustration with the slower pace created by the transitional period. Lawyers must now go into greater detail and speak in terms that ordinary people can comprehend, while judges bemoan the lengthier presentations given to sway the juries. Even so, trials in the new model usually last only one day, and the juries are only given one hour to reach a decision before a judge steps in to assist.

Cases in the higher courts will still be decided by judges only, and even the judges in the lower courts can override the decisions of the juries (until the final setup is decided upon).

What are your thoughts about the new Korean justice system? Will trial by jury be more of a cosmetic fix, or will it effectively democratize the judiciary? Let us know in the comments.

Source: The New York Times

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