Fri, Jan 28, 2000 - Page 12 News List

Editorial: A judicial reform martyr?

The tragic case of judge Lin Hsiao-cheng (林孝城), whose heavy workload was apparently a contributing factor in his death earlier this month, has again brought the spotlight of public attention on the glacial pace of judicial reform in Taiwan.

It is well known that excessive caseloads are one of the root causes of the chronic problems in Taiwan's legal system. At every level, even the most conscientious prosecutors and judges are forced to cut corners. And in so doing, they inevitably raise the risk of mistakes being made. Not surprisingly, public satisfaction with the system is miserably low.

If a specific weak cog in the system could be found, perhaps a remedy would be more easily proposed. But institutional factors must take most of the blame for this sorry state of affairs. It begins with the police, who shift their work on to the prosecutors thanks to a warped bonus system that rewards officers for every case transferred to the judiciary, rather than only for convictions. The prosecutors then bear the primary responsibility for investigating the cases, which ought to be handled by police detectives. Prosecutors are also legally required to look into every case they are given, including those brought by ordinary citizens.

But before anyone starts weeping for the prosecutors it should be noted that they, in turn, shift a portion of their workload to judges. They, too, have an evaluation system based on the number of cases sent to court, rather than on convictions. And since prosecutors typically do not appear in court to participate in the trials, judges are left to interrogate the witnesses and suspects. This not only wastes the judges' time, but also leads them inexorably into assuming the role of the prosecutor, which is to actively seek convictions.

If only it ended there. Unfortunately, however, prosecutors are able to appeal acquittals ad nauseam and often do so frivolously. Moreover, the second trial typically rehashes to entire first trial, with all the witnesses and evidence presented again, creating a massive duplication of effort.

Tackling this many-headed monster demands a concerted effort. And part of the effort will undoubtedly require increased expenditure. Personnel need to be hired, including staff to assist judges and prosecutors. Police officers need to have more and better training to conduct investigations of criminal cases themselves, freeing up prosecutors to prepare their legal briefs. Hopefully, the 1997 constitutional amendment that grants the Judicial Yuan the right to draft its own budget will go some way toward addressing the problem.

But money will not, in the end, be enough. Institutional reforms are also vital. The points systems that reward police officers and prosecutors must be revamped. As for the trials themselves, much talk at last year's National Judicial Reform Conference focussed on whether to adopt a whole new type of trial, for example an Anglo-American jury system. Such radical changes ought to be at least considered, but in the meantime there are other reforms that could be implemented. District Court trials need to become more professional and complete to reduce the need for appeals, and appeals should be restricted to specific issues.

A positive start has already been made by civil society groups and a number of progressive lawyers. The judicial establishment has remained strongly conservative, but with public interest in the issue gradually increasing, recent cracks in its facade seem to provide the best hope for meaningful change.

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