Lay judge system review set to begin


Three years since the introduction of the lay judge system on May 21, 2009, discussions are set to begin addressing various issues — including how to reduce the burden of citizens named to serve as judges and the scope of cases covered by the system.

According to a Supreme Court survey last year of those who have served as citizen judges, 95 percent of respondents voiced support for the system. Many said they have come to realize the importance of social responsibility by acting as lay judges.

But one problem with the system is that lay judges often face difficulties understanding deliberations at trials. This is partly because in many cases, prosecutors tend to read out documents on interrogations of suspects during trials in order to shed more light on case details.

The psychological burden on lay judges seems to have been particularly heavy in cases where death sentences were handed down.

So far, death sentences have been given in 14 lay judge trials. Many of the lay judges involved say that the psychological burden increased as time passed, rather than during the proceedings.

Some analysts point to a lack of information on capital punishment that could help lay judges make better-informed decisions about issuing death sentences.

Lengthy periods serving as lay judges’ have also been a problem for some citizens, with the longest to date — a case involving a series of suspicious deaths — continuing for 100 days at the Saitama District Court. In the process of selecting lay judges for that case in January, 70 percent of the candidates obtained permission to be exempted from serving as judges.

The scope of cases handled by lay judges is also set to be reviewed, with the debate expected to focus on sex offenses and drug-trafficking cases.

In an effort to protect the privacy of victims of sex crimes and in light of the burden of appearing in court, an organization supporting victims has demanded that they be allowed to decide whether their cases will be subject to lay judge trials.

Lay judges have also faced difficulties examining evidence presented in drug-trafficking trials. Not-guilty sentences handed down by lay judges in three such trials at district courts were overturned by higher courts after being appealed. The three cases are now being handled by the Supreme Court.

Another key issue is whether to ease the rules that oblige lay judges to keep information they obtained in cases confidential throughout their lifetime.

All these issues and a possible revision of relevant legislation are set to be discussed at a Justice Ministry panel of experts.