Impact of COVID-19 on Investigations and Trials in Korea
Faced with the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the Korean government never imposed a full lockdown, but to comply with social distancing measures, the Korean enforcement agencies have limited face-to-face investigations only to the extent necessary, and the courts have been taking temporary measures by rescheduling hearing dates and postponing in-person witness testimony. As the pandemic continues, however, enforcement agencies and the courts are seeking to go beyond such temporary measures to modify applicable rules and practices to accord with wider-ranging social distancing rules.

For example, on August 18, 2020, the Ministry of Justice announced a proposed bill entitled “Act on the Use of Electronic Documents in Criminal Judicial Proceedings,” drafted to digitize criminal judicial proceedings. If adopted, this Act will facilitate the submission of evidence or legal briefs through an electronic system, without having to visit the enforcement agency in person. Under this new bill, interviews would be conducted through conference calls or exchange of affidavits, which had been accepted only in rare cases, in lieu of in-person interviews.

Specifically, in Korean criminal procedure, remote witness examinations were permitted only in exceptional cases such as crimes involving a child victim. However, due to the pandemic restrictions, the courts have been conducting remote witness examinations in regular criminal cases. For example, on April 27, 2020, a victim and a witness residing in Australia were examined remotely during a trial, and on July 15, 2020, a witness residing in Korea was remotely examined during a regular criminal case. This new trend in criminal procedure will facilitate the courts’ ability to obtain testimony from victims or witnesses residing outside of Korea.

Similarly, the newly amended Civil Procedure Rules allow courts to utilize conference calls or video conferences while administering preparatory procedures, during which parties prepare and present the relevant facts and arguments prior to hearings.

We will closely monitor whether these pandemic-induced new changes in criminal and civil procedure will be sustained in the post COVID-19 era.
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