The modern judicial system was first introduced to Korea at the end of the 19th century, or July 1894. However, Koreans had a well-defined legal system even before that time, although the functions of the judiciary were not separate from the executive branch before modernization, which meant the latter played the role of the former as well.
n the early days of this period, the judicial functions were in the hands of tribal councils or the head of a clan. Goguryeo, one of the three kingdoms, had a conference of tribal leaders serving as the top judicial organization. In Baekje, another Kingdom, one of the royal ministers assumed the judicial authority, with Silla assigning it to local heads of administration, who were from time to time inspected by royal emissaries.
The first king of the dynasty set up a central government court that handled legal issues and trials. Around the end of its history, local administrators had began taking up judicial functions: the mayor of Gaeseong, the capital, took charge of all civil cases arising within the city, while each head of local administration handled the cases within his jurisdiction. The king's emissaries or provincial governors played the role of the appeals court.
Joseon had an even more sophisticated system, in which petty civil and criminal cases were handled by local heads of administration, while the governor of each province took care of the appellate cases in addition to the first instance trials of serious criminal cases. Royal secret investigators sometimes took charge of local trials, serving as a sort of irregular circuit court. Citizens who lost an appellate case against a governor were able to appeal to the central government's Ministry of Justice. The ministry handled civil and criminal trials in addition to general legal affairs, while acting as the final appeals court run on an agreement basis. Further, various government agencies carried out judicial functions: Saheonbu rectified false charges; Hanseongbu, the city government of Seoul, took charge of trials relating to family or real estate registration; and Euigeumbu handled crimes of the royal family members or treason.
In July 1894, Gungukgimucheo, the key government agency during the Gap-o Reformation, separated judicial affairs from the administration by proclaiming that punishment can be levied only as a result of a trial by a specialist entity, in addition to banning the arrest of suspects by government agencies, military installations and royal palaces except those who violated military laws. On December 12 the same year, King Gojong promulgated the 14 Articles of Hongbeom to declare the principle of rule of law. The name 'court' was first used in the latter half of 1894 when a judicial body was created by fusing the Ministry of Justice and Euigeumbu in order to handle the cases against the members of the Donghak Peasant Revolution.
On March 25, 1895, five different courts were set up in accordance with the Court Organization Act which was the first law promulgated as a result of the Eulmi Reformation: local courts (first instance tribunals); Hanseong and Port Courts; Special Courts; Circuit Courts (second instance tribunals); and High Court (Supreme Court). In fact, only two of them (Hanseong and High Courts) were actually established, with the former opening on April 15, 1895.
But since the Korean government was put under Japanese supervision following the Eulsa Treaty signed in November 1905, Japan began to intervene in judicial affairs by sending Japanese judges and prosecutors and their assistants. In October 1909, all the judicial organizations including courts and jails went under the control of the Japanese.
Following the annexation of the country to Japan on August 29, 1910, the three-tier, three-instance system was introduced on March 18, 1912. But Koreans disliked and even feared the courts because the Japanese rulers used the judicial system as a means to oppress the Korean people.
U.S. military rule began when Korea was liberated on August 15, 1945 as a result of the Japanese defeat in World War II. But the Americans temporarily maintained the old legal and judicial systems, only changing the names of different courts. With the introduction of the Court Organization Act in 1948, the court administration in the hands of the U.S. military was transferred to the Supreme Court. Courts were classified in four categories such as the supreme, high and local courts plus summary courts, while branches could be set up under local courts.
The independence of the judiciary was guaranteed by the constitution of the Republic of Korea promulgated on July 17, 1948, which was followed the next year by the Court Organization Act, which paved the way for building a modern legal system based on the three-tier, three-instance concept. Since its inauguration, the Korean constitution underwent several amendments that translated into the revision of the Court Organization Act. But the three-tier, three-instance system remained intact, although changes were made regarding the method of appointing Supreme Court Justices and judges, the number of Supreme Court Justices, court jurisdiction and the system of constitutional justice, while courts of new concepts were introduced.
The Korean judiciary, which began with three local courts in 1948, now consists of a Supreme Court, five high courts, one patent court, one administrative court, one family court and eighteen local courts in addition to the Judicial Research and Training Institute, Training Institute for Court Officials, and the Supreme Court Library of Korea. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the modern judicial system in Korea, the Supreme Court decided in 1995 to set up specialized courts in addition to city and county courts, while moving to a new building in the southern part of Seoul.
With the advent of the 21st century, the Supreme Court devised the 'Judicial System Development Plan' as part of its efforts to advance the system to better serve the public, which came to fruition with the introduction of the 'new management model for civil cases' in 2001. Further, regulations and practices are being improved regarding criminal cases by strictly respecting principles such as due process of law and assumption of innocence, so that the rights of the defendant can be properly protected. Since the inauguration of Chief Justice Lee Yong-hun in October 2006, the judiciary has been making every effort to achieve fundamental and far-reaching reforms under the slogan of 'the judiciary serving and standing by the people.' As always, we at the judiciary will keep playing our role as the protector of the constitution and the last resort of human rights by serving the public with fair and prompt trial procedure.