Looking at the lay judge system

Three years have passed since the lay judge system was introduced to bring citizens’ perspective into criminal trials. According to the Supreme Court, 20,817 had people served as lay judges and 7,257 as backup lay judges by the end March. More than 95 percent of them said that participation in trials was meaningful experience.

The lay judge law calls for a review of the system after three years have passed since its introduction. In reviewing the system, emphasis should be given to strengthening the mechanism to prevent false charges and to ensure fair trials.

A total of 3,601 people received sentences under the lay judge system. Of these, 17 or about 0.5 percent were given clear not-guilty sentences that totally rejected the prosecution’s arguments. During the 2006-2009 period before the lay judge system started, the corresponding rate was slightly higher at about 0.6 percent. A tendency is seen that lay judges tend to give severer sentences in sex crimes and bodily injuries resulting in death.

The situation is different in stimulant drugs-related trials. Seven people charged with violation of the stimulant drugs control law were acquitted, pushing the not-guilty rate to about 2.1 percent from the some 0.6 percent before the introduction of the lay judge system. In those trials, the lay judge system forced public prosecutors to change their method to prove the guilt of those indicted.

In lay judge trials, both public prosecutors and defense lawyers have come to make efforts to present their arguments in language easy for lay judges to understand. More importance is now given to arguments and testimony given during hearings than to investigators’ records of testimony given by suspects and witnesses during the investigation.

A stronger way of preventing false charge should be adopted. Police officers and public prosecutors should be required to electronically record the entire process of interrogation. To ensure a fair trial, public prosecutors should be required to present all evidence or at least a list of all the evidence to judges and defense lawyers before the start of trials. Public prosecutors who fail to do this should be punished or dismissed from the profession. Gag orders for lay judges should be loosened. Being able to speak more freely after trials would help deepen public discussion on the shape of the lay judge system. Attention should be paid to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations’ proposal that a unanimous decision by judges must be required for the passing of death sentences.