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[Editorial] Cronyism in court

Cronyism is definitely a most serious social malady in this country. It is everywhere, in bureaucracy, academia, the art world, and even in court. Close personal ties between judges and lawyers lower public trust in the justice system. “Not guilty with money; guilty without money” has been the most-quoted dictum among critics of the deplorable state of our courts.

Judges and prosecutors start practicing law immediately after retirement and they open their offices in the areas where they last served. Surveys showed that lawyers who were recently in the court or prosecutors’ offices win far more cases than those who had no such careers, and the higher their former ranks, the higher their winning rate whether in a law firm or in solitary practice.

The high winning rate means enormous income. Former Supreme Court justices or former chiefs of prosecutors’ offices make annual income tax returns for 1 billion won ($900,000) on average, but the actual earnings are believed to be much higher. When a rich litigator hires a former justice or a former court chief and his case is assigned to a judge who used to be in the same court or bench with the lawyer, the result can be the distortion of justice. If the lawyer wins the case, he receives a “success reward,” usually a percentage of the value of the suit.

The draft reform plan announced by the National Assembly’s Judicial Reform Subcommittee last week included a measure to end this particular pattern of corruption in court, called “honoring retirees.” Judges and prosecutors are to be prohibited for a year from accepting cases which are under the jurisdiction of their former places of work, according to the panel’s ambitious proposal, which also included reorganization of the Supreme Court and the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office.

The Supreme Court has ordered court chiefs not to assign a case represented by an ex-judge lawyer to his or her former colleague who had served with the lawyer for more than six months. Even this soft rule has often been ignored and few court chiefs have been censured for defying the exclusion order.

Now the judicial reform panel faces rebukes from the National Assembly Judiciary Committee which includes many ex-lawyers who can return to the profession when they leave the National Assembly. There are moves in bar associations to reduce the prohibition period to six months from the proposed one year.

Judicial reform is a long-term task. There are so many things to correct in the nation’s legal system and practices. In the previous round of reform, the law school system was introduced to broaden the doors to law practice. The basic concept is that an increased number of lawyers will reduce the cost of legal fees, giving citizens access to legal expertise at lower costs.

Beginning next year, some 2,500 lawyers will be licensed annually ― 1,500 of them through law schools ― and the total number of practicing lawyers has already exceeded 10,000. Something should be done to prevent a small number of ex-judge or ex-prosecutor lawyers from contaminating the system.

Statistics show that ex-judge lawyers handle on average six times more cases than those who had not been on a bench. This reveals the deep problem of the influence of retirees in our legal system. True justice can hardly be expected in a society where judges play golf and have parties in room saloons with lawyers who happen to be their former colleagues and then deliberate on the cases represented by the same lawyers.
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