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Japan’s Citizen Judging System

by on February 23, 2010

We were recently reminded of a topic of heated debate amongst both Japanese and foreign lawyers, politicians and press: the citizen judging system that was introduced in Japan just over six months ago.  When the idea was first proposed, their was skepticism to say the least, as a large number of commentators wondered how effectively a legal system could work when so much decision making power would be put into the hands of people who in theory knew nothing about the law.  The word “crazy” was used quite often by opponents of the system. Below is an editorial from asahi.com that does a fair job of assessing the effects of the experiment six month on

“It has been six months since the lay judge system was launched. This new approach has clearly changed the very foundations of the nation’s judicial system.

Inaugurated last August, the new system in its first six months has seen more than 1,000 ordinary members of the public participate in the judging of about 200 rulings.

Many of these people say they joined deliberations over their judgments with mixed feelings, agonizing over whether they were qualified to judge others. Some of them wondered if they accurately assessed the testimony and evidence. But they did their duty. We applaud their commitment to democracy.

If the volume of cases remains the same as seen since last August, the number of lay judges called to serve is likely to reach around 10,000 nationwide this year.

So far, almost all citizen judge trials have been cases in which defendants have not contested the indictments. As a result, citizen judges have only been asked to weigh in at the sentencing phase.

From here on, however, citizen judges will have to consider cases in which accused insist on their innocence, the death penalty is a possibility or other complications arise.

Last week, a woman was arrested in Saitama and charged with killing a man she met on an online marriage website by making his death from asphyxiation appear as though he had committed suicide by burning charcoal briquettes. If she is indicted for murder, her trial will be among those in which citizen judges sit on the bench.

Mistakes are sometimes made by professional justices. One high-profile example is the recent retrial of Toshikazu Sugaya, who was falsely convicted and imprisoned for the murder of a young girl in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, nearly two decades ago. Above all else, bringing in ordinary citizens whose common sense and fresh perspectives will hopefully prevent such erroneous charges and miscarriages of justice is very welcome.

Citizen judges will soon be asked to render tougher rulings. As such, this year will be a stern test of whether the system is workable over the long term.

In a court-conducted questionnaire given to lay judges, many said they felt the time devoted to examination and deliberations during trials was inadequate.

However, to shorten the time spent examining the evidence, the citizen judge system adopted an intensive hearing approach that keeps the trial in session for successive days, rather than over lengthy weeks or months. This was done in part to lighten the burden on citizen judges, who must be absent from their job and family responsibilities to serve.

But if complaints continue to be voiced about insufficient deliberation, then extending the trial time is a feasible alternative.

During pretrial procedures, steps must be taken to avoid an excessive narrowing of the issues and examination of evidence simply in the quest for speed. Toward that end, we recommend opening up the procedures to public disclosure and outside checks.

With many citizen judge trials yet to commence, the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office has directed prosecutors nationwide to promptly disclose evidence to defense lawyers in those cases. It is crucial that all available evidence be submitted, even if some is against the prosecutors.

To develop a sound defense, meanwhile, lawyers must be granted ready access to defendants from the time they are arrested and detained as suspects. In this area, much still remains wanting in terms of the quality and quantity of preparedness by bar associations nationwide.

Many court proceedings also require improvement, such upholding the privacy of sex crime victims.

In some cases, innocent suspects have been pressured into making false confessions. Guilty parties, meanwhile, sometimes refuse to admit to their crimes. In such situations, should a punishment be meted out or is an innocent verdict called for? Every possible effort must be made to foster a judicial environment that empowers citizen judges to render decisions with the confidence that they have reviewed the full facts.”

Of course, there remains a high level of skepticism about the efficacy and fairness of such a system, but in fact even many critics have to admit that the American legal system, often pointed to as one of the greatest in the world, functions in a not too dissimilar way, with its use of jurors in conjunction with qualified judges.

The American experiment took hundreds of years to become what it is today (flawed though it may be) so it seems that the Japanese will have to give the new lay judge system at least a few years to get through its growing pains.

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