Earlier this month at a coffee shop near JR Matsudo Station in Chiba Prefecture, Tatsuhiko Ojima, 64, recalled how startled he was two years ago to receive a letter from the Matsudo branch of the Chiba District Court. It notified him he had to attend the court because he had been selected to serve a six-month term on a Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution.
“I’d never even heard about such a committee, nor did I know anything about the courts or the legal system, so it felt a bit scary,” said Ojima.
Fellow Matsudo residents Tomeo Shibuya, 68, and Yukio Sato, 69, said they felt the same when they were similarly summoned 18 and eight years ago respectively. “I didn’t even know where the court was,” said Sato with a laugh.
Since fulfilling their civic duty, however, all three have been voluntarily promoting the experience that Ojima said has “dramatically changed his mind-set.” Known as kensatsu shinsakai, the committees are independent bodies each comprising 11 citizens randomly selected from the electoral roll. They are tasked with reviewing whether the decisions by public prosecutors to drop cases relating to events in their community are appropriate or not.
In today’s legal system in Japan, where participation in criminal court procedures is the exclusive domain of legal professionals, the 201 inquest committees around the country offer the only opportunity for the public to directly participate in the criminal justice system, and to hold the authorities to account.
Although their decisions are not legally binding, in practice prosecutors usually review their decisions following a critical report from an inquest committee. Some decisions, when publicized by the media, also stir up public interest. One recent case followed a Tokyo committee’s finding that it was inappropriate for prosecutors not to press charges against former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and two other Liberal Democratic Party members for allegedly covering up political donations.
However, most of the cases reviewed by the three former members of the Matsudo panel were, they said, concerning traffic accidents. To carry out their duties, they began by reading the interrogation records of police and prosecutors that are usually not made available to the public, even alleged victims. As a result of this alone, the three unanimously said that their view of the authorities changed radically.
“Police records were sometimes clumsy and they had many holes in them that you would think should have naturally been looked into. Maybe that’s why they can’t show them to the victims,” said Ojima, a retired chemical engineer. Sato, a former hospital clerk, joined in. “I think when police reports reach prosecutors, they just automatically compare them with past judgments and so decided not to take up the case.” He added that a decision his committee sent back to prosecutors actually led to a conviction.
Shibuya, a retired company employee who leads a group of former Matsudo inquest committee members promoting the role of those committees, said: “It was difficult in the beginning, but as I got used to it, the reviewing process became very challenging. And as I went through it, I realized that we are the ones who have the right to make decisions. I believe that other people who have done this also feel the same.”
Having developed an interest in the legal system, the three are naturally paying close attention to the introduction of the saibanin (lay-judge) system in 2009, from when ordinary citizens will begin to sit on the bench in District Courts with professional judges.
“Committee members and saibanin are different in that the former are involved before the case is brought before the courts and the latter during the trial, but I think the fundamental role is the same,” Shibuya said. Speaking from their experience, he said that the government should make more of an effort to promote the new lay judge system. This is because he is especially concerned that the inquest committee system is not well known among the public — and voluntary promotion by former members has limits.
Shibuya added, however, that citizens will also need to change their ways of thinking. “We need to overcome the notion that judicial decisions solely involve the authorities,” Shibuya said. Meanwhile, the three concerned citizens of Matsudo said they’ll continue to promote the inquest committee system. “It’s not that I just want to promote inquest committees,” Ojima said. “I want more people to know what real democracy is about.”
That is an ambition which, following recent revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law, will come into force in 2009, when the recommendations of a Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution will become legally binding on prosecutors.