The percentage of cases handled by district and summary courts that involved court-appointed lawyers reached a record 72.6 percent in 1998, it was learned Friday.

According to documents compiled by the Judicial Reform Council, an advisory body set up within the Cabinet, fees collected by such attorneys amounted to roughly 4.65 billion yen.

The percentage of cases handled by court-appointed lawyers has been rising steadily since the bubble economy years, the documents show.

Officials at the Supreme Court, as well as the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, attribute the rise to the improved skills of court-appointed lawyers as well as the economic downturn.

However, some sources familiar with the situation say that the rise is connected to the increasing number of court-appointed attorneys handling cases involving gang members — due to increased efforts to clamp down on organized crime.

In Japan, the Constitution guarantees that every defendant in a criminal case has the right to a lawyer, and if one cannot be found, the state appoints one. Their fees are paid by the state.

The Judicial Reform Council is currently reviewing the nation’s criminal judiciary system, and the court appointment of lawyers is one of the matters it is discussing.

However, the system has come in for some criticism, especially after the government unveiled in February that the state had paid some 440 million yen in legal fees for members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult between August 1995 and February this year.

The documents show that of the 68,953 defendants who received initial rulings in 1998, 50,066 were defended by court-appointed lawyers.

Since 1952, when records were first taken, the percentage of cases handled by such lawyers has been at least 50 percent, except for the periods 1952 to 1954, 1963 to 1968, and 1971 to 1975. The figure remained roughly flat at around 60 percent during the bubble economy years of 1987 to 1991.

Fees received by court-appointed lawyers, excluding travel expenses and daily allowances, have also risen over the years, with the figure surpassing the 4 billion yen mark for the first time in 1997.