Top court says lay judge system working well at five-year mark

Kyodo

Nearly 50,000 people have participated as principal or alternate lay judges in criminal trials under the system introduced five years ago, the Supreme Court said.

The total stood at 49,434 as of March 31, comprising 36,837 principal lay judges and 12,597 supplementary judges, who serve as replacements in the event that a principal is absent, the top court said Tuesday.

The system came into being on May 21, 2009, as the result of judicial reforms in 2004.

Under the judicial reform legislation, everyday people are called on to help professional judges determine a verdict in trials involving heinous crimes such as murder, robbery, arson and rape.

The first lay judge trial — a murder case heard by three professional and six lay judges — began on Aug. 3, 2009, at the Tokyo District Court.

Over the past five years, rulings on a total of 6,396 defendants have been handed down. Of them, 21 were sentenced to death and 134 to life in prison, while 34 were found not guilty.

The Supreme Court said the lay judge system has operated smoothly.

According to its data, lay judge trials were completed in 3.7 days on average in 2009, 8.1 days in 2013 and 9.3 days in the first three months of this year.

Professional and lay judges spent on average 734 minutes in deliberations in closed sessions to reach verdicts in the first three months of 2014, compared with 397 minutes in 2009.

The data also showed 66.1 percent of candidates declined to be lay judges in the first three months of 2014.

Legal experts are currently discussing whether to remove long trials from the lay judge system, government officials said.