National / Crime & Legal

Third of Japan's lay judges say experience was stressful, but system viewed positively overall

Kyodo

One in three citizen judges recently surveyed by Kyodo News said passing judgment on their fellow peers in court was stressful, but a large majority still reflected on their experience as being positive.

Of the 342 respondents in the survey conducted ahead of the lay judge system’s 10-year anniversary on Tuesday, 31 percent said they were “stressed to some extent,” and 3 percent felt a “high degree of stress” from the experience.

The lay judge system was introduced on May 21, 2009, in order to reflect the opinions of ordinary people.

One of the main difficulties cited by respondents was the necessity of seeing photos of dead bodies and other disturbing types of evidence.

Some also said it was difficult to take part in court proceedings that would ultimately decide on whether to put a guilty person to death.

Of those who said they experienced a “high degree of stress,” one respondent said she felt ill and everything she ate at the time tasted bad.

But the survey found that 51 percent still believe citizen judges should be involved in decisions involving possible capital punishment, while 22 percent disagreed and 27 percent said they have no opinion.

Approximately a quarter of respondents said their experience of the citizen judge system was not stressful.

The survey, conducted by mail or email from March involving people that Kyodo News has come into contact with in its reporting, found 87 percent believe their experiences were “very good” and 11 percent think they were “good to some extent.”

It showed 92 percent view the lay judge system as having helped reflect the common sense of ordinary people in rulings, and 84 percent supported the system’s continued use. Only 3 percent said it should be abolished.

According to a Supreme Court report released last week, from the system’s initial implementation in 2009 through March this year, about 91,000 people have served as citizen judges, overseeing around 12,000 cases.

More than 10 percent of rulings handed down by lay judges were overturned by high courts, the report showed.

Asked about how they feel when a ruling made in a citizen judge case is overturned, 40 percent said it is acceptable, while 19 percent said it is not, and 41 percent said they are not sure.

Under the system, citizens chosen at random become eligible to act as lay judges. Those selected can refuse to accept a request if court officials deem their reasons sufficient.

In principle, six lay judges chosen from among the candidates in a lottery plus three professional judges are on the bench in district court trials for serious crimes such as murder, robbery, arson and rape.

If no consensus is reached, a simple majority is required for a defendant to be found guilty, however, at least one professional judge must support the verdict for it to be accepted.