|Pay for the scales or face the sword|
Under the decades-old practice of "jeongwan yeu", which approximately translates as "it's not what you did, it's who you know", retired judges representing clients have normally received favorable judgments for them from their former colleagues, which is described as a "tacit arrangement in the country's legal system" by legal experts. "What this means," said 61 year-old Professor Kim from Korea International University, "is that it's kind of legal but people don't talk about it much."
The ban on the deeply-rooted practice has provoked a strong backlash in legal circles, with many sitting judges openly questioning how to decide on a defendant's guilt if a history of drinking with their lawyer can not be taken into account. It also throws the system of legal recruitment into chaos, with law firms suggesting there may no longer be any purpose in employing former judges on high salaries with extensive benefit packages if it isn't going to guarantee the right verdict. The trickle-down result of not being able to buy justice may make legal representation cheaper and 'fairer' for the less well off, sparking fear among wealthy individuals and companies throughout the country.
It is thought that over the last 50 years, a large number of well-connected or wealthy criminals have been able to escape justice under the "jeongwan yeu" system. Conversely, many innocent people have been handed guilty verdicts for failing to employ judges-turned-lawyers. While innocent people were routinely sent to jail under the military government, there has always been a sense among certain sections of Korean society that they probably deserved it anyway, but this was not supposed to happen after the imposition of democracy in 1987. However, despite the new ban on judges using personal relationships as a basis for making decisions, the government has said it will not review previously corrupted judgments as they were technically legal at the time, giving them no basis to reopen cases. Criminals who were found innocent -despite the evidence against them - because they were defended by a former judge, have been asked to behave better in future.
Fearing the loss of highly lucrative retirement income, some judges have attempted to avoid the ban - which comes into effect today - by immediately handing in their resignations in the belief that if they are not judges when the new law comes into existence they won't be covered by it. But the government has said the attempted resignations seem to be based on a misunderstanding of contract law, which requires judges to serve out notice periods to guarantee the continuity of ongoing trials, rather than immediately quitting. After many years of working as judges, a spokesman for the group who attempted to resign admit that they are not entirely clear on the legality of their position, but they will seek legal representation.
Some former judges say they are now unlikely to be able to make a living after retirement, threatening extreme economic hardship and possibly poverty. "The law means all judges will be jobless for a year after retirement, depending on their pensions only", said a judge working outside Seoul. One outgoing Supreme Court judge complained that his economic condition was 'not good' and he has 'an 85 year-old mother to support'. According to government data disclosed two months ago, the the Supreme Court judge's wealth amounted to 1.32 billion won ($1.2 million), lower than the average wealth for 142 high-ranking judges, which is 2.03 billion won ($1.8 million).
Former prosecutors are also covered by the new law, causing further controversy. A judge from the Seoul High Court said "No judge rules in favor of lawyers who were former prosecutors", but it is now believed cases involving former prosecutors will instead also have to be judged purely on their merits.
No more favorable treatment for ex-judges, prosecutors
Judges try to wriggle out of law by quitting
Cabinet approves judicial reform bill
Law on retired judges praised, with reluctance
[Editorial] Be Thorough With Judicial Reform
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