Schools in saibanin front line


One morning late last month, Public Prosecutors Ryuji Hatano and Kunio Ooyama were immersed in an alleged robbery case in court. But the court was in a classroom.

The two officers of the Criminal Bureau of the Justice Ministry were conducting a mock-trial class for first- and second-year students at the Junior High School of Ochanomizu University in Tokyo. As students took the roles of judges, prosecutors and defense counsel, Hatano explained details of legal procedure — while Ooyama acted the part of a defendant who denied charges against him.

“A prosecutor’s job is to prove that the defendants committed the crime of which they are accused,” Hatano explained to the students.

“What we do is try to demonstrate that what the defendant is saying is inconsistent.”

He then asked the class to say what kind of questions they would put to the defendant if they were prosecuting. Although they were shy at first, soon they were coming up with sharp observations to get at the truth.

Next, Hatano explained the role of defense counsel, before again asking his audience to come up with points in support of Ooyama’s defense. But as the accused was already beginning to contradict himself in his evidence, the students could find less to offer in his support.

“I felt a bit nervous when I heard the opening statements and the accused making his plea,” one first-year student said. “But it made me want to attend an actual court hearing.”

Meanwhile, another first-year student, who took the role of a judge, said: “I would rather be a prosecutor than a lawyer, because if you were a lawyer, you would have to protect the accused even if they were guilty.”

The class held that day was the first of its kind in a Justice Ministry initiative to familiarize ordinary people with the saibanin (lay-judge) system being introduced in 2009, in which citizen judges will sit in judgment with professional judges in District Court trials.

“We wanted the students to understand that what we do in court is confirm the facts through evidence,” Hatano said. “These students are going to be involved in criminal trials in the future, and so it’s important that they know what it’s all about.”

Indeed, until recently it was extremely rare for legal professionals to visit schools or communities to talk about the legal system. But spurred by ongoing judicial reforms, similar moves by public prosecutors, judges and lawyers are now increasing throughout the country.

Ultimately, as lawyer Mika Kudo, a member of the Research Office for Judicial Reform of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, put it, “One of the things we expect the lay judges to do is to prevent someone who is not guilty from being punished. So it’s important that citizens recognize that the accused is innocent until proven guilty.”

To this end, among others, the Justice Ministry is planning to distribute a brochure explaining the saibanin system first to all the nation’s junior high school students, and then eventually to the entire population nationwide. With a cross-ministry group of officials set to be formed next month to assist the Justice Ministry in this task — and with four years to go before the seismic shift in Japan’s justice system takes effect — by May 2009, it is to be hoped that an informed populace greets the dawning of a new judicial era in their country.