As the legislative session drew to a close late on Tuesday night, lawmakers adopted 136 amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure (刑事訴訟法) designed to bolster the rights of defendants and make radical changes to Taiwan's criminal justice system.
"Human rights were the main spirit behind all the amendments," said the director of the Judicial Yuan's Criminal Department, Tsay Ching-you (蔡清遊), one of the officials who worked on the amendments before they were proposed. "The amendments were designed to ensure that more human rights concerns are now included in the law."
The amendments, proposed by the Judicial Yuan last spring, will become effective on Sept. 1.
Included among them is a requirement that law enforcement officers clearly inform suspects upon their arrest that they have the right to remain silent and to hire their own attorneys.
In addition, there must be at least two law enforcement officers, including prosecutors or police officers, present during an interview of a suspect and the entire process must be recorded by a video camera or tape recorder.
A further amendment states that defendants' and plaintiffs' testimonies may no longer be regarded as the primary evidence at trial, nor as the primary evidence behind a verdict unless supported by "sufficient evidence."
The amendments also address the format of hearings in criminal litigation, currently weighted heavily in favor of prosecutors.
Traditionally during such hearings, discussion has been largely confined to judges and prosecutors as judges sought details or explanations pf evidence presented by prosecutors.
The role of the defense has been confined to submission of a written defense to the judge before the hearing. Defense counsel has not been entitled to question the evidence presented by prosecutors during the hearing, nor after it. Judges have been expected to serve effectively as both judges and public defenders, questioning the prosecution to force it to prove its case.
From Sept 1, however, defense counsel will have the legal right to question, during hearings, any of the evidence presented by prosecutors and to ask for explanations.
"It will be easier to find out what the truth really is during a debate between a prosecutor and defense counsel," Tsay said.
In addition, currently, most hearings at a court of first instance require only one judge. In future, three judges will be required for each case.
"We have done all this because we wanted to make our judicial system more effective so that the chances of people appealing to a higher court will be reduced. It is our aim to give people more trust in our judicial system," Tsay said.
The Ministry of Justice said that it will have to hire more prosecutors to follow the new rule.
"Prosecutors are expecting a heavier work load once the amendments are implemented," said a ministry official who wished to remain anonymous.
"In addition to investigating cases, arresting suspects and collecting evidence, prosecutors will have to spend more time in court engaged in argument with defense counsel. We will certainly face a manpower shortage," the official said.