A panel of the Justice Ministry to review the lay judge system issued an interim report March 15 based on its 11 members’ discussions which lasted about 10 months. It is disappointing that the panel did not come out with a strong opinion to support the idea of loosening the gag order imposed on lay judges.
The ministry will work out a bill to revise the lay judge law on the basis of the panel’s final report expected to be issued in June. The Diet should deepen discussions on the gag order with an eye on making it less restrictive.
The panel review is based on a supplementary provision of the lay judge law, which calls for reviewing the lay judge system three years after its introduction in May 2009. The panel members discussed various issues related to the lay judge system, but they failed to produce a conclusion on each issue. The interim report only lists various views expressed by the panel members and shows how many members support particular views.
In the lay judge system, six lay judges and three professional judges handle criminal trials dealing with certain types of crimes such as murder, arson and abduction for ransom.
Once a citizen has served as a lay judge or a backup lay judge, he or she is banned for life from disclosing such things as opinions expressed by judges and the number of judges who have expressed a particular opinion. Those who fail to abide by this requirement face punishment. It is understandable that lay judges must observe confidentiality to some extent in order to ensure that lay judges can express their opinions freely in trying a criminal case. But the current gag order is too severe.
Included in the interim report is a view that the punishment should be meted out when a lay judge makes a statement that leads to the identification of a specific lay or professional judge who expressed a particular opinion during a trial.
The interim report also carries a view that supports the gag order from the viewpoints of ensuring free discussions in a trial as well as of allowing that since a lay judge has an important role to play, a certain degree of duty of confidentiality is unavoidable.
The report says that the majority opinion was reluctant to loosen the gag order.
But by making the gag order less restrictive it will become possible to enable the public share the experiences of lay judges and consider whether the discussions by judges were reasonable. This process will help deepen people’s understanding of the lay judge system and possibly lead to improvements.
A citizen who has served as a lay judge should be allowed to disclose to some extent opinions expressed by judges in a manner that will make it impossible to identify those persons. Punishments for those who violate provisions of the gag order should be kept reasonable.