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CRIME VICTIM

Crime victims get their day, say in court

by Masami Ito

The Diet is expected to pass a controversial bill this week to revise the Criminal Procedure Law to enable people victimized by crime to participate in trial proceedings.

Despite concern by the legal world that courtrooms could become venues for revenge, the bill is expected to sail through with support from not only the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito but also the Democratic Party of Japan.

Here are questions and answers about the revision:

What would the new legislation allow crime victims to do in court?

The revision would enable crime victims and or relatives of victims to directly participate in the trial system.

Instead of sitting with the rest of the gallery, they would be permitted to sit by prosecutors. They would to a certain extent be able to question defendants, state their opinions and feelings regarding the crimes, question witnesses and recommend punishment, a task currently undertaken by prosecutors.

According to a legal expert, the victims would mainly participate in district court-level trials. The revision does not specify what level of courts will allow victims to participate.

What kinds of trials can the victimized participate in under the revision?

The victimized would be able to participate in trials involving heinous crimes, including murder, rape and kidnapping, as well as fatal professional negligence, including traffic accidents.

In cases where the direct victim of a crime is deceased or incapacitated, the next of kin, also considered victimized parties, would be able to participate.

What prompted the law to be changed?

The Tokyo-based National Association of Crime Victims and Surviving Families, a strong advocate of letting the victimized participate in trials since its establishment in 2000, says the “criminal justice system should exist not only for the public but also for the victims themselves.”

The organization says on its Web site that court participation will help the victimized learn the truth about a crime, protect their dignity and honor, and let them have a say in meting out punishment.

The government decided to change the law in response to the group’s demand.

Do victims have other laws to promote their interests?

For a long time, victims have been left out of the loop.

In 2000, the crime victim protection law became the nation’s first such legislation. With it, victims and their families finally got the opportunity to express their opinions and feelings in court and to access trial records. They were also given priority gallery seats. Before then, they have to line up with other people to get gallery seat tickets.

The Criminal Procedure Law was also revised the same year to include similar changes.

In 2004, a fundamental law was enacted establishing measures to promote the interests of the victimized, including a financial compensation system providing medical and welfare support, and creating a system to “expand the opportunity for crime victims to participate in criminal (trial) proceedings.”

However, victimologists say Japan is still 20 years behind Western countries regarding promotion of the rights and interests of crime victims.

If the revision is aimed at protecting the rights of victims, why do some oppose it?

People agree crime victims have long been overlooked and Japan needs to do whatever it can to build and expand a system to promote their interests.

However, legal experts fear the new approach will subvert the criminal justice system and turn courtrooms into venues for vengeance by allowing the victimized to skew the process. They also expressed concern over the daunting effect it could have on defending the accused.

Do all victims support the revision?

Some victims oppose it, in part because participating in criminal trials could reinvite the trauma of the crime by facing the accused in court. Opponents propose that instead of direct participation in trials proceedings, the victimized should be able to indirectly question defendants and state their opinions regarding punishment through the prosecutors.

Do other countries have similar systems?

According to NAVS, similar systems in which victims can participate in trial proceedings are found in several European countries, including Germany and France.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations, however, issued a statement in May pointing out that there is a fundamental difference. In Germany and France, the courts and judges collect evidence of crimes and take the initiative in trial procedures.

But in Japan, that job is mainly for prosecutors and defense lawyers, and judges observe the proceedings and rule as a third party. If victims participate in trial proceedings, this may add greater weight to the prosecution.

The federation also noted that victimized parties are not allowed to participate directly in criminal trials in the United States and Britain, although they may be allowed to issue statements.

For related stories:
Victim participation in trials risky, experts say
Court role urged for crime victims