Improving the lay judge system

The lay judge system, in which randomly selected ordinary citizens work with professional judges to hear and hand down rulings in criminal trials, was introduced five years ago for the purpose of reflecting the voices of ordinary citizens in the proceedings previously monopolized by legal professionals. To serve its intended purpose, further efforts are needed to make sure that the proceedings are clear and easy to follow for lay judges.

According to the Supreme Court, 66.6 percent of the 7,698 people who served as lay judges in 2013 and responded to a survey said trial proceedings were “easy to understand” — up from 58.6 percent in 2012 but still lower than the 70.9 percent when the system was first introduced in 2009.

The top court in 2012 pointed out that criminal trials still tend to focus on documentary evidence such as written records of the accused’s oral statement taken during interrogation. Those kinds of old-style proceedings must make way for ones in which the judges, including lay judges, hear testimony in court and hand down judgments based on their understandings of what they’ve heard.

The major reform of the criminal trial system — which has been implemented without serious trouble so far — has relied a lot on the efforts of people who were chosen to serve as lay judges. Since 2009, a total of about 36,000 people have served as lay judges and another 12,000 as backup lay judges to take part in trials of those accused of serious criminal offenses.

As of the end of February, a total of 6,392 people had been tried in district courts with the participation of lay judges, and 6,222 of them were found guilty — including 20 who were given death sentences.

The Justice Ministry’s Legislative Council is now considering amendments to the law that introduced the lay judge system. One of the points under discussion is the exclusion of lay judges from trials that are expected to be especially lengthy —more than a year — before the rulings are handed down. This may be inevitable given the burden on the part of lay judges, who currently could be required to take part in the proceedings for an extended period.

Also reasonable as another point of amendment would be to exempt people living in areas hit by large-scale natural disasters from the duty of serving as lay judges.

An issue that has not yet become a subject of official review of the system but has been pointed out by judicial experts is the role of lay judges in trials of people accused of capital offenses. In February, a group of about 20 people who formerly served as lay judges submitted a petition to Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki in mid-February calling for an immediate halt to capital punishment and greater disclosure of information on matters related to executions. Some members of the group had actually taken part in writing rulings that handed down death sentences to the accused.

In the petition, the members said that lay judges face severe pressures and moral dilemmas in handing down death sentences, and that they are likely to agonize over their decisions in cases where convicts are executed in the absence of either appropriate disclosures of information or national discussions about capital punishment.

Some legal experts say involving lay judges in trials that can result in death penalties imposes too much psychological burden on them. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations argues that death sentences in lay judge trials should be handed down only in a unanimous decision, instead of a majority decision under the current system.

The Justice Ministry, the Supreme Court and other parties concerned should give serious consideration to these capital punishment issues.