A government body working on an overhaul of the nation’s legal system is expected to reach an agreement today on a new scheme that would reduce the financial burden on successful parties of civil suits.
The plan, under which unsuccessful parties of lawsuits must shoulder the legal costs for the other parties as well, is expected to make filing suits easier for people who have good cause to sue but cannot do so because of concerns over expense.
The new scheme is also expected to reduce the number of suits that are filed only to harass or disrupt the defendants’ activities.
In its interim report issued in November, the Judicial Reform Council proposed introducing the “English rule” that is used in Britain, France and Germany.
In Japan and the United States, both plaintiffs and defendants have to pay their own lawyers’ fees regardless of the outcome of suits.
Under current law, a losing plaintiff must cover a defendant’s legal fees only if the court deems the suit illegitimate.
The new system, which will form part of the council’s final report on judicial overhaul scheduled to be released June 12, is expected to make civil suits easier to file in a country where doing so remains rare.
“From the standpoint of deregulation, under which both corporations and citizens are required to face the consequences of their own actions, it makes perfect sense to introduce the system,” said Yoshiharu Obata, who is in charge of tax and economic legal affairs at the economic policy bureau of the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren).
“It will help discourage people from bringing outrageous suits (based on trumped-up complaints). In addition, it will support people who have a good cause to file a suit but are worried that legal fees would overshadow the damages recovered,” he added.
The changes, however, seem certain to stir controversy.
While Obata predicted the plan will boost the number of suits, Kenichiro Yokowo, a manager of the Keidanren policy bureau, said the core of the issue is the often inscrutable way lawyers charge clients.
“What is more important for lawyers is to provide clients with competitive fees and services and to be accountable for their services,” he said.
The proposed rule has met opposition from consumer organizations and other civil groups, as well as from the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.
As of the end of March, a national liaison of citizens, consumer groups, scholars and lawyers against the proposal had collected more than 13,000 signatures from like-minded individuals and 227 organizations nationwide.
They claim the scheme would put plaintiffs in the intimidating situation of being 100 percent certain of winning cases, or risk losing a fortune.
“As society has become ever more complicated, fewer plaintiffs are sure whether they will win beforehand,” said Hatsuko Yoshioka, secretary general of the Housewives’ Federation in Tokyo.
She said that when citizen plaintiffs fight against big institutions in cases involving emerging issues such as new financial products, medical malpractice, pollution and administrative litigation, citizens are often at a disadvantage. The bigger players are usually equipped with more information and capital.
“Still, when it comes to speaking for the interests of consumers as well as human rights, we sometimes have to bring suits for the cause of justice, even if it means fighting a losing battle,” Yoshioka said, referring to two cases she has been involved in.
One was brought against the Fair Trade Commission in 1971 by her federation and the then head of the group, with the plaintiffs seeking the right to file a complaint against soft-drink makers for not providing a breakdown of their products’ ingredients.
The other case was brought in 1974 by several members of the federation and a local consumer cooperative against several oil retailers, claiming damages over kerosene price hikes after an oil crisis that erupted the previous year.
Although the plaintiffs lost those cases, Yoshioka said the suits proved to be for the general good, raising social awareness and leading beverage firms eventually to put ingredient labels on their products and the Fair Trade Commission to tighten up on the Antimonopoly Law.
“We would have had second thoughts about bringing the suits though, if we knew we had to pay the costs for the first-rate lawyers hired by such big organizations,” she said.
The government judicial reform council is expected to work out details of the scheme by soliciting opinions from the public as well as from judicial circles.
One issue will be how to sort out categories of trials to be exempt from the rule and how to determine the extent of legal fees to be charged against unsuccessful parties.
Other matters include a public support system to help cash-strapped people ensure their legal right to representation, and the introduction of an insurance system to cover the costs of lawsuits.
“We hope the judicial council will take a long-term view of the issue of judicial reform on the basis of a firm principle,” Keidanren’s Yokowo said, “rather than allowing interested parties to scramble for their share of interest.”
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