Lower House passes bill to cut length of trials

The House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Tuesday to limit the length of lower court trials to less than two years as part of judicial reform efforts aimed at speeding up the notoriously slow justice system.

The Lower House, acting four days after the legislation cleared its Judicial Affairs Committee, also unanimously endorsed two other pieces of litigation reform — amendments to the civil litigation law and a “personal status” law that specifically allows for sessions to be held in private for trials involving family matters.

After being immediately sent to the House of Councilors, the legislation is expected to be enacted before the Diet adjourns June 18.

Japan’s trial system is well known for moving at a snail’s pace, with one of the most recent examples being the Tokyo District Court trial of Aum Shinrikyo leader Shoko Asahara, now in its seventh year.

The trial, which began in April 1996, saw its 254th session last month. The court is expected to rule early next year. Asahara is charged with mass murder for ordering the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack, an earlier deadly nerve gas attack and other heinous crimes committed by his followers.

The speedy trial bill, a centerpiece of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s judicial reform initiative, would make explicit the duties of the government, the courts, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and parties involved in lawsuits to conclude lower court trials within two years.

The law would cover both criminal and civil cases and all first-instance trials in district, summary and family courts.

To expedite trials, the draft legislation calls for more judges, prosecutors and lawyers to ease congestion.

The amendment to the Code of Civil Procedure stipulates proceedings schedules would be worked out, including when rulings would be made, for lawsuits involving complex litigation, such as medical malpractice.

Under the “personal status” legislation, family courts would take over from district courts litigation on family matters, including divorce.

Although the Constitution says trials must be conducted in public, the “personal status” bill states for the first time that as an exception to the rule, sessions can be held in private to protect the privacy of the parties involved.

The three pieces of legislation are based on recommendations the government’s Justice System Reform Council made in June 2001 on ways to overhaul the justice system.