While Monbetsu in Hokkaido and Ishigaki in Okinawa are separated by thousands of kilometers, the efforts of bar associations in the two cities have garnered one common attribute — a supply of lawyers available to residents needing legal advice.
Until April, residents of Monbetsu, a fishing city in Hokkaido on the Okhotsk Sea, had to travel 140 km inland to the city of Asahikawa to see a lawyer.
Ishigaki islanders faced a similar situation, with their legal resources restricted to two aging lawyers who were no longer active.
Japan has a population of 126.92 million but only about 18,000 lawyers, about 60 percent of whom practice in Tokyo and Osaka.
The upshot of this is that 68 of the 253 court districts in the country have either no lawyers or only one.
Tsushima, an island off the northwestern tip of Kyushu, has been without a resident lawyer since 1988. When the local branch of the Nagasaki District Court holds hearings Monday through Wednesday each week, nine lawyers come to the island and handle cases at a lawyer consultation center established by regional bar associations. Similar centers are active elsewhere, including Tono in Iwate Prefecture.
The Japan Federation of Bar Associations and regional organizations of attorneys have been striving hard to rectify the problem of “bengoshi kaso” — which means areas that have no lawyers or only one.
They initially set up a legal consultation center in Shimane Prefecture but the center found it difficult to handle a range of legal cases on its own. They then founded a law office in Hamada, in the same prefecture, last June as a forerunner of the offices established in Monbetsu and Ishigaki in April.
Mika Matsumoto, a member of the Daini Tokyo Bar Association, took up residence in Monbetsu to practice law while Mitsuo Fujii, a member of the Osaka Bar Association, moved to Ishigaki under the JFBA initiative, which is designed to extend financial assistance to lawyers willing to set up offices in places where there are none.
Their offices are known as “Himawari (sunflower) Fund” offices because of the financial support received from the fund, which was set up by the JFBA and regional bar associations.
Matsumoto established her office in Monbetsu with support from the JFBA in cooperation with the Asahikawa and Hokkaido federation of bar associations.
The local chamber of commerce and industry provided her with a room on the second floor of its building to use as an office and helped her secure a residence and staff.
Since starting her practice in the city, which has a population of about 28,000, a little more than a month ago, she has received about 70 requests for legal advice on matters including debt settlements, medical errors, divorces and criminal incidents. One person traveled 120 km to see her.
She said she was surprised to get so many cases but added, “I really feel I am needed here.”
She said she has learned of cases in which victims of traffic accidents have been forced to accept the version of events given by the other side simply because lawyers were not available.
The municipality’s public relations officer, Chizuko Sato, said she had misgivings about whether Matsumoto could manage the office economically.
Matsumoto worked in lawyer Mitsumasa Sakurai’s office in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward for a year after agreeing to his employment condition that she would go to a local region later. She agreed to live in Monbetsu for two years.
Last year, 1,200 people became lawyers but only two went to practice in areas that had less than three lawyers. They went to Noshiro and Yokote, both in Akita Prefecture.
Toshikazu Nagaoka, a member of the Yamagata Bar Association who was involved in creating the Himawari Fund law offices and consultation centers, said the lack of lawyers in some areas cannot be rectified merely by increasing the number of people passing the National Bar Examination.
Matsumoto said lawyers are concerned about whether practicing law in remote areas is economically viable but that she has no apprehensions.
The JFBA decided at its executive council meeting in May to establish law offices similar to those in Monbetsu and Ishigaki at more than 20 locations by next year.
“The key to success is how many law offices will cooperate in the dispatch of lawyers,” Nagaoka said.
The Daini Tokyo Bar Association is scheduled to set up a public office in autumn aimed at training young attorneys willing to serve in regions without lawyers.
Sakurai said that it is better for budding lawyers to take such assignments, explaining: “It is necessary for one to do everything alone in any field. That’s the way for one to gain his or her proficiency (in law practice).”
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