The Supreme Court is pushing to create a new court of third instance to alleviate the heavy workload of its justices and help them focus on cases of great public importance.
The top court’s move is based on a recommendation of the Judicial Policy Advisory Commission. In a reform proposal, the panel said that the court of last resort should focus on important cases that involve conflicts of law or have considerable impact on people’s everyday lives.
For this, it proposed that a new court of third instance be set up to hear most of the appeals lodged with the Supreme Court.
The top court welcomed the recommendation, saying that it would soon start to take steps to put the scheme into practice. Yet its move is causing concern that it would destabilize the nation’s three instance trial system, which is composed of district courts, high courts and the Supreme Court.
There is no disputing that the current workload of the Supreme Court justices needs to be reduced. Last year, the number of appeals filed with the court exceeded 36,000, about double the 19,300 in 2003.
The figure means that each of the court’s 12 justices, excluding the chief justice and the minister of the National Court Administration, has to handle more than 3,000 cases a year, or 13 cases a day, excluding weekends and holidays.
Of course, the justices do not hear all these appeals. They dismiss cases, without stating the reasons, when the grounds for appeal do not merit a hearing. This practice is called discontinuation of adjudication.
Nevertheless, the work of the top court justices has continued to increase, as a growing number of appellants, dissatisfied with the judgments of the high courts, take their cases to the court of last resort.
The excessive workload not only makes it difficult for the justices to focus on cases of great significance but increases the risk of miscarriages of justice.
The proposed new appellate court would significantly reduce the burden on the top court justices. It will enable them to form grand benches on important cases and reach conclusions through in-depth deliberations. This will boost the credibility of their verdicts and the public’s trust in the judiciary.
Yet creating a new court of appeal above the high courts raises many problems. In the first place, it will be difficult to distinguish between “important” and “ordinary” cases.
More importantly, for ordinary cases, the proposed court of appeal would be the court of final instance. But this would deny people their constitutional right to be tried by a Supreme Court justice.
If ordinary cases heard by the new appellate court could still be brought to the Supreme Court, the nation’s three instance trial system would effectively become a four-tiered one, increasing litigation costs.
Critics note that the easiest way to alleviate the workload of the Supreme Court justices is increasing their number. A couple of years ago, the Korean Bar Association proposed that the number of the justices at the top court be increased to 50.
But the Supreme Court has been adamantly opposed to significantly increasing the number of its justices, apparently on the grounds that it would undermine their dignity, repute and authority.
Critics attack the court for sticking to an anachronous and authoritarian position. Yet the court has no intention of changing its stance. It is strongly advised to canvas public opinion before launching efforts to follow through with the commission’s recommendation.