Lay judge law to start May 21 next year

Kyodo News

The law establishing the lay judge system, in which citizens will serve as de facto jurors in trials involving serious crimes, will take effect May 21 next year, the government announced Tuesday.

Because the system will apply to cases for which indictments are filed on that date or later, the first trial with lay judges will be held in late July or early August 2009 after pretrial deliberations by prosecutors, defense lawyers and courts, according to a senior Justice Ministry official.

The law, enacted May 21, 2004, calls for six eligible voters to work with three professional judges at district courts to determine a defendant’s guilt and, if applicable, the sentence. The lay judges will be involved in trials for serious crimes, including murder.

The Supreme Court and the Japan Federation of Bar Associations had demanded that the law take effect no sooner than mid-May 2009 so they could have as much time as possible to make the public aware of the system.

The government said public understanding of and interest in the system has deepened considerably, citing a recent Supreme Court poll that shows more than 60 percent of the respondents were ready to fulfill the duty of citizen judge, the officials said.

The government reported the schedule to a panel of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito in the morning before officially making public the implementation date. Compilation of a lay judge list will start this July 15, the officials said.

“Now that a specific enforcement date has been set, a sense of the reality (of the new system) will grow further among the public,” said Shoji Ogawa, director general of the Supreme Court’s Criminal Affairs Bureau. “We will continue preparations on a renewed note.”

Takeshi Nishimura from the JFBA said, “We are faced with some problems, but we would like to reform trials together with the public.”

His comments came after the Niigata Bar Association adopted a resolution in February urging a delay in the system due to various problems.