|A bill on prevention of child abuse is passed at a plenary session at the National Assembly in Seoul, Jan. 8. Yonhap|
By Jung Da-min
The basic duty of a lawmaker as a representative of the public is to propose bills to help solve, or at least ease, social problems. Many lawmakers seem to believe wrongly that the number of bills they propose will be seen as a measure of their legislative activities, or that a proposal on its own is enough to solve any problems raised by constituents.
But according to political watchers, while active proposals of bills could be an indicator of performance, many are actually passed by the National Assembly without being properly discussed or cross-checked by lawmakers and thus often have flaws, despite being established as laws.
Such problems arise more often when it comes to social issues that are receiving a lot of public attention, as many lawmakers, wanting to promote their legislative activities, try to appeal to the public by competitively ― and rapidly ― proposing related bills.
A recent child abuse case in which a 16-month-old girl died at the hands of her abusive adoptive parents is one such example. The girl, who was adopted in February last year, died from injuries sustained in October after being habitually assaulted and abused for months. Public anger mounted over the case after an investigative journalism program aired by local broadcaster SBS in early January covered the story, and many lawmakers began proposing bills seeking heavier punishments for child abusers.
However, many experts point out that such bills are unlikely to serve their intended purpose of handing down heavier punishments, as judges require prosecutors to submit a stronger level of evidence to avoid the possibility of misjudgment. But many cases of child abuse have relatively weak evidence, such as testimony from witnesses rather than physical evidence, they say.
"Stronger sentencing means increased responsibility for prosecutors to prove the damage a victim suffered. If prosecutors think the evidence is insufficient for an alleged abuser to be convicted, they will be reluctant to indict," said Kim Ye-won, an attorney with the Center for the Disability Rights Act.
Kim said even after indictment, it is more likely that abusers could evade punishment, as judges would demand more specific evidence to prove the offense.
"If evidence secured by the victims' side could not meet the level required by judges, abusers would not be found guilty and the cases would come to an end. As child abuse cases rarely have clear evidence, abusers could evade their responsibility more easily," Kim said.
|Citizens visit the grave of a 16-month-old girl who died at the hands of abusive parents, at Hi Family Andersen Park Cemetery in Yangpyeong County, Gyeonggi Province, Jan. 7. Yonhap|
Kim and other legal experts also pointed out that several bills were proposed seeking immediate separation of children from parents or guardians suspected of abuse, because lawmakers were unaware that child shelters run by the government and other civic organizations do not have the capacity to accommodate a large influx of children.
"If such an immediate separation is conducted mechanically without considering other factors such as capacities of child shelters, children who need to be separated may have no place to go and they may miss the proper timing for separation. Such a mechanical separation is not the answer," Kim said.
Experts delivered concerns over such bills intended to prevent child abuse, some of which have since been withdrawn.
More debates, cross-checking required at Assembly
Policy watchers say the legislative system should be improved, because Assembly members are not given enough time to discuss and cross-check bills under the current system.
They said that realizing justice is not about establishing more laws but about finding the right solutions by thoroughly understanding the problems.
Park Sang-hoon, chief of Political Power Plant, a grassroots organization dedicated to civic and political education, said that lawmakers are too focused on achieving quantitative results and tend to think of proposing a bill as a success, although proposal of a bill often lacks procedures of adequate examination, discussions and adjustments among lawmakers.
"Lawmakers need a discreet attitude in proposing bills so that they could put forward necessary bills at the right times. It is a problem that many lawmakers are treating legislation like a business and saying, 'I did one thing' after proposing a bill," Park said, adding that this attitude is damaging the authority of legislators as well as the laws established by them.
Park noted that 6,957 bills were proposed by the lawmakers of the 21st National Assembly from May 30 to Dec. 31 last year, the first seven months since it was inaugurated. That is up 48 percent from 4,698 bills proposed during the same period in 2016 by the previous 20th Assembly. Park said the 21st Assembly is expected to set a record in terms of the number of proposed bills, with the previous record set by the 20th Assembly.
|National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug bangs the gavel during a plenary session at the National Assembly in Seoul, Jan. 8. Yonhap|
He said such an increase in the number of bills showed a tendency in which the number is considered as an important standard when evaluating lawmakers' performances, which should not be the case.
"What the Assembly should pursue is not just a larger number of laws, but establishing more necessary laws in terms of their social functions. If lawmakers select and propose valuable bills through preliminary review and establish them as laws after sufficient review and discussions, the Assembly would be able to increase the public's trust in the legislative body," Park said.
Another political commentator Choi Young-il said the increase in the number of proposed bills in the 21st Assembly could be attributable to the fact that there are more first-term lawmakers. There are 151 first-term lawmakers in the 300-strong Assembly, marking the first time in 16 years that the proportion of first-term lawmakers has exceeded 50 percent.
"There is a tendency for first-term lawmakers to propose bills more actively than others who have been elected multiple times," Choi said. "But the more fundamental problem with lawmakers' legislative activities is not the increase in the number of proposed bills but a lack of due procedures for reviewing and discussing their necessity and effectiveness."
Choi said many lawmakers tend to oppose or support bills not according to their own positions, but according to the political interests of their parties, and reviews and discussions of bills are often missing in the process.
"The role of a lawmaker is not limited to proposing bills, but also includes reviewing and discussing bills proposed by other lawmakers. When a bill is proposed, follow-up procedures should seek to improve it based on discussions and judicial reviews so that when it is passed and established as a law, the law could function in accordance with its original goal," Choi said.
"But under the current situation, more than 100 bills are being processed within a day, especially in the year-end period when parties hold extra sessions to pass remaining bills in a rush after months of political strife. The Assembly is urged to improve its legislative system so plenary sessions could be held throughout the year."
|Rep. Joo Ho-young of the main opposition People Power Party, center, talks with Rep. Kim Young-jin with the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, right, during a plenary session at the National Assembly in Seoul, Jan. 8. Yonhap|