Lay judges present ideas to make system better

by Setsuko Kamiya

Staff Writer

A group who have performed lay judge duties say the courts should provide more information to citizens who serve on the bench to help them make fair and impartial decisions.

They are also urging the government to publicize information on the death penalty to steer public debate as citizen judges have the power to sentence convicted murderers to hang.

These ideas are among a series of recommendations voluntarily compiled by five people who served their civic duty in district courts in Tokyo, Chiba and Miyagi prefectures since the lay judge system was launched in May 2009.

While they appreciated the experience, they also believe there is room for improvement and are eager to have their voices heard. By law, the lay judge system is scheduled for review this year.

The group said Thursday that to have their ideas taken into account in the review process, they plan to visit all 60 district courts and their branches nationwide to submit the recommendations to court officials.

“I regard the lay judge system as a collaboration between authorities and the public. We want to continue our support from the citizen’s viewpoint,” said Masayoshi Taguchi, 36, one of the five who submitted their recommendations to Tokyo District Court officials Thursday.

They met through a voluntary group of ex-lay judges who exchange thoughts and concerns about their experiences after serving in criminal trials.

Among the recommendations the group compiled in the hope of achieving fairer trials, they want prosecutors to disclose to defense lawyers all evidentiary materials and want lay judges to have access to the records from the pretrial process, during which the courts and the litigants narrow down the points of argument. The ex-lay judges thus feel both they and the defense are not given access to the full range of evidence that could be used in a trial.

Some of the recommendations are from the lay judges’ desire to understand the consequences of the decisions they make. For example, the group says the courts should inform the lay judges — if they want to know — whether defendants or prosecutors are seeking to appeal the rulings they were a part of.

The group also proposes that the courts hold tours of correctional facilities before lay judges are chosen to serve.

“We believe that the lay judge experience has opened our eyes to the penalty system of this country, and it is natural that we should know details of the consequences of our decisions,” the group says in its list of recommendations.

Yuki Ichikawa, 33, who took part in a trial in Chiba Prefecture, said he considers the new duty important. “I value the system, and really hope that it will become an even better system and continue on,” he said.

As of the end of October, 2,720 people had been tried under the lay judge trial system since the first case in August 2009, Supreme Court statistics show.

During that period, 16,590 ordinary people served as lay judges and 5,812 as alternates.

Under the system, six randomly chosen voters sit with three professional judges to adjudicate heinous cases such as murder, rape, arson and injury resulting in death. The nine-member panels decide the facts and if they find the accused guilty also decide the penalty.