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Taiwan's DPP drops ball by ramming through Citizen Judges Act

Citizen judges merely need to be 23, high school graduates, and have lived in district for over four months

DPP legislators celebrate passage of Citizen Judges Act.

DPP legislators celebrate passage of Citizen Judges Act. (CNA photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Taiwan’s judicial system has for a long time been in need of serious reform, but unfortunately the recent passage of the Citizen Judges Act is not the solution.

On Wednesday (July 22), Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators rammed through the new law, which will see everyday citizens participate in criminal trials at district courts for serious offenses subject to a minimum of 10 years behind bars — as actual judges. These trials will be overseen by a panel, three professional judges and six lay judges.

And what are the qualifications needed to be considered for a citizen judge? Only that the person be 23 years old, have a high school education, and must have lived in the jurisdiction of the district court for more than four months.

Those with criminal records will be prohibited from serving as a citizen judge. Also, if you happen to be the president or vice president of Taiwan, an on-duty soldier, a cop, a certified law officer, or a lawyer, you will also be exempted.

Taiwanese people 70 years old, or older and with health complications, or teachers and students will be allowed to appeal if they are selected.

Random selection

Citizen judges will be assigned to work on homicides and cases where serious time (a decade or more) is involved, but not for cases involving minors or drugs. A guilty verdict requires the consent of at least two-thirds of the nine judges, including one career judge, which is the same requirement for cases involving the death penalty.

Candidates will be randomly selected, after which they will be interviewed by judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. Plaintiffs, their lawyers, and prosecutors have the right to raise objections about selections with the judge.

Lay judges will get NT$3,000 (US$102) a day for their troubles, in addition to travel expenses and paid work leave. Citizen judges revealing case details will get fined a maximum of NT$100,000 or spend up to a year behind bars, while lay judges caught taking bribes will spend one to seven years in prison and pay a maximum NT$1 million fine.

One of the problems with Taiwan’s current judicial system is that judges — who are often heavily blue (KMT) — wield too much authority. But will adding more judges, especially those who could possibly possess very little life experience or knowledge about the law, help solve that problem?

If these citizen judges are only going to be assigned for murder cases or other serious crimes, should they not have a few more years under their belts? For comparison, the average age for U.S. Supreme Court justices is currently 67.5 years old.

Road to reform

And then there’s the issue of capital punishment. While the death penalty has been used less in recent years — three people have been executed since 2016 — putting the weight of that decision on the shoulders of randomly selected citizen judges is probably not the best idea.

If the goal is to give Taiwanese the opportunity to participate in the judicial process, instead of making them full-blown judges, the DPP should instead consider establishing a jury system. With a jury system, jurors decide whether the defendant committed the crime in a criminal case, or whether the defendant injured the plaintiff in a civil case, while sentencing is left up to the judge or judges.

This would take considerable pressure off regular citizens who are called to serve, while at the same time reducing the power judges currently hold.

The DPP need not be in such a hurry to make changes to fulfill campaign promises. No doubt judicial reform has been long overdue in Taiwan, but the jury is still out on the best way to accomplish that.