The Judicial Yuan has finally submitted its long-awaited draft law on reasonable timing for criminal cases to the legislature. Statistics show that Taiwan’s courts handle more than 500,000 cases a year, proof that most judges are far from lazy. However, this is not most people’s conception. The public often asks why higher courts overturn the verdicts in so many financial and murder cases, sending the cases back for retrial. Is justice still justice if it takes so long?
Complicated cases are often the focus of news reports and are one of the main reasons why people criticize the judiciary.
There are three kinds of unresolved cases. The first involves economic and financial crimes. The second involves cases of corruption, influence peddling and irregularities in government purchasing. The third involves murder cases, which are of most concern to the public.
There are many reasons why such cases drag on for such a long time, but generally it boils down to the following: complicated circumstances, difficulty in finding evidence, unreasonable judicial procedure and a shortage of manpower.
The Judical Yuan’s draft attempts to tackle the problem, starting with the litigation system. The draft states that if the courts consider it appropriate, they may reject appeals in cases where a final verdict has not been obtained for more than 10 or 12 years from the start of the first trial, or where the legal and factual aspects are so complex that the process has stalemated, or where key witnesses and evidence cannot be found.
As for manpower shortages, over the past few years the Judicial Yuan has made an effort to boost the ranks of judges, administrators and court clerks. More than 1,100 staffers were recruited last year and 600 more will be added this year. These measures should help resolve the problem of long-running cases.
The Judicial Yuan has also promoted the establishment of specialized tribunals and recruiting more personnel with a financial background. This, too, should help get to the bottom of complex cases. Having judges with specialist knowledge, however, will not get the accused to bow their heads and admit guilt in cases where the evidence is not preserved. Such cases may become murkier, rather than clearer, as time goes on.
People who have been falsely accused may be lucky enough to have the mistake uncovered and their names cleared. But how can an investigation get back into gear when the people involved can’t be found and evidence is hard to come by? The unsolved 1997 murder of Taoyuan county commissioner Liu Pang-yu (劉邦友) and seven others is a case in point.
The investigative process also needs serious attention. Police and criminal investigators need to be more vigilant and methodical at every step of an investigation. They should not just aim for high indictment rates, which put large numbers of cases into the hands of the courts.
The courts may be the ultimate arbiters of justice, but they can only work efficiently with the support of related institutions.
Dan Chan is an associate professor of criminology at National Chung Cheng University.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG