South Korea: individual independence of judges must be upheld and protected
The ICJ is deeply concerned with the allegations that the former Chief Justice and other officials infringed the freedom of expression and freedom of association of individual judges in South Korea.
The ICJ urges the Republic of Korea to ensure the individual independence of judges in the country.
The ICJ received information that in 2015, the National Court Administration (NCA), under the term of former Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae, submitted proposals to the government of South Korea to create a ‘second Supreme Court,’ arguing that it would assist in relieving the existing Supreme Court with its caseload.
This proposal was met with numerous criticisms from the general public and several individual judges.
Allegedly, judges who criticized this proposal were placed by the NCA under surveillance, both in their professional and personal dealings.
Moreover, they were prevented from joining international conferences and national professional organizations. Some were also either sidelined for promotions or were not given preference for educational opportunities abroad.
On March 2017, during the term of former Chief Justice Yang, the Supreme Court, through the NCA, created an internal committee to conduct an investigation to look into these allegations.
Two other subsequent separate committees were formed to investigate.
Finally, on Mary 2018, under the term of the current Chief Justice Kim Myeong-soo, the latest committee, without releasing a full report, said that it did not find basis to file criminal charges against the NCA and former Chief Justice Yang.
On 18 June 2018, the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office initiated its own investigation into the allegations, including the possibility of filing criminal charges against former Chief Justice Yang and some NCA judges.
The rights of freedom of expression and association of judges is recognized in the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary and other relevant standards, which also provide for appropriate and fair procedures for holding judges to account for misconduct.
In principle, in matters touching on alleged misconduct by a judge related to the discharge of his or her duties, the ICJ considers that international standards and best practices concerning judicial independence and accountability would require at the minimum that a prosecutor seek permission of a judicial council or current Chief Justice, or other similar superior judicial authority, before commencing a formal criminal investigation or proceedings against a sitting judge.
The ICJ calls on the prosecutors’ office to seek such permission and to take steps to demonstrate that it will remain impartial and independent in the conduct of its own investigation.
The ICJ also calls on the Supreme Court to initiate a new investigation of its own, including to consider the issues from a judicial professional conduct perspective.
Finally, the ICJ urges the Supreme Court to ensure that interferences into the individual independence of judges in South Korea would never happen again.
Emerlynne Gil, ICJ Senior International Legal Adviser, t: +662 619 8477 (ext. 206) ; e: email@example.com
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