Lay participation in criminal courts opens up the inner workings of justice administration and forces the parties to take more active roles in trials, legal experts at a five-day conference that kicked off Thursday in Tokyo said.
But the panelists, hailing from nine countries, warned that public participation is not a panacea and that juries would not necessarily prevent wrongful convictions of innocent people.
The conference, titled “Lay Participation in the Judicial Process in Japan,” is sponsored by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and was opened to the public on Saturday. It moved to Kyoto on Sunday and will end in Osaka today.
The international debate comes amid ongoing discussion here over the introduction of lay participation in criminal courts. Under the current Japanese system, legal professionals exclusively make up the bench.
The issue will soon be discussed at the Judicial Reform Council, an advisory panel to the Cabinet which, since last July, has been discussing ways to make the Japanese judicial system more accessible to citizens.
During Saturday’s session in Tokyo, the panelists said lay participation works best when professionals do a better job, noting that police misconduct and negligence by legal professionals may prevent juries from finding the facts.
Legal experts from the United States, Northern Ireland, Spain and Brazil explained how their countries’ jury systems, which involve ordinary citizens chosen at random, judge facts presented about a crime to decide guilt or innocence in court.
Panelists from Argentina, Germany and France also commented on their systems, in which professional judges and ordinary citizens sit together and decide all questions of fact, law and sentencing.
Experts from Denmark and Russia said their criminal courts make use of both juries and mixed tribunals, depending on what the accused is being tried for.
Richard Lempert, professor at the University of Michigan Law School, pointed out in his lecture that to invest in a jury system is to invest in democracy, because juries are incompatible with unpopular, authoritarian rule.
“Citizens serving on juries take responsibility for government actions in a more involving, immediate and consequential way than when they do with elections,” he said. “Juries are people governing themselves.”
Juries do a good job in finding facts, as the nonbureaucratic component tries each case individually with fresh eyes, Lempert said, adding that if Japan was to introduce the jury system, judges would have to take special care to provide instructions in plainly understood language.
Improving training for lawyers as well as realizing concentrated proceedings will be important for lay participation to work with minimal cost and high effectiveness in Japan, he noted.
While those opposed to the jury system argue that juries tend to be biased, Lempert said judges are also biased. He said juries with different social backgrounds will have different biases, whereas judges, even if they make decisions in groups, could exhibit biases that come from similar social status and training.