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Following Tuesday’s proposals by the Judicial Reform Council, which came after two years of strenuous deliberations, attention has shifted to how the government will introduce the sweeping changes in cooperation with judicial parties.

Judicial Reform Council’s proposals

In improving legal services and systems, the Judicial Reform Council seeks to:

* Halve the duration of civil court hearings.
* Consider ways for nonjudicial professionals to participate in trials involving technical knowledge, in order to provide judges with assistance.
* Establish patent courts under the auspices of the Tokyo and Osaka District courts to focus on trials involving intellectual property.
* Introduce arbitration for labor disputes.
* Lower the fees involved in filing suits.
* Ease the upper limit on damages that can be claimed in summary courts.
* Introduce the “English rule,” whereby unsuccessful parties in lawsuits shoulder lawyers’ fees for both parties.
* Consider a new law on alternative dispute resolution to facilitate out-of-court settlements.
* Consider whether to establish a new law to effectively carry out administrative litigation.
* Speed up criminal trials by enabling courts to establish the point of a dispute earlier and concentrate on the same cases every day.
* Provide publicly hired attorneys for suspects before they are prosecuted.
* Empower Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution decisions in bringing prosecution.
* Mandate investigators to keep a written record of interrogations to ensure that interrogations are conducted appropriately.

In boosting the number of legal professionals and enhancing their quality, it seeks to:

* Launch law schools in April 2004.
* Introduce a new national bar exam in 2006 for law school graduates before the current exam is phased out in 2010.
* Increase the number of those who pass the new bar exam to 3,000 in 2010 from the current 1,000, so that the number of legal professionals — judges, prosecutors and lawyers — increases to 50,000 by 2018 from the current 20,000.
* Enable more lawyers, prosecutors and law scholars to be appointed as judges.
* Encourage assistant judges to pursue working experience as legal professionals outside courts before becoming fully qualified judges.
* Introduce an advisory organ under the Supreme Court to help appoint lower court judges.
* Review the personnel and training systems undertaken by prosecutors in an effort to improve their ability and attitude.
* Make lawyers’ services and operations more transparent to the public, and improve their code of practice.
* Facilitate personnel exchanges among legal professionals.
* Allow more activities for other professionals, including judicial scriveners and patent attorneys, to complement lawyers’ services.

In promoting public participation in judicial procedures, it seeks to:

* Introduce a quasi-jury system in serious criminal trials, so that judges and jurors work together to decide upon a verdict and assess a defendant’s culpability.

Even before details have been mapped out, it is expected that the proposed reforms will encounter problems. To gain wider public support, council members and other interested parties want the government to maintain transparency in carrying out the recommendations.

“These (proposals) are nothing but the beginning,” said Koji Sato, chairman of the council. “I think it’s going to be a mind-boggling task for the proposals to take concrete shape. It may take 20 years or more for the judiciary reform to be completed.”

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Cabinet will launch a promotion headquarters immediately and enact a basic law and relevant legislation by 2004 to proceed with the reforms.

But council requests for the government to “make special arrangements” to boost the judicial budget — currently about 900 billion yen a year, or 1.1 percent of the total national budget — may be difficult to meet.

Finance Ministry officials have already questioned whether more funds should be allocated at a time when the Koizumi administration is prioritizing cutting expenses to mend the nation’s debt-ridden national finances.

The council is also calling for more judicial manpower — at least 500 more judges and 1,000 more prosecutors over the next decade, recommendations that have been echoed by the Supreme Court and the Justice Ministry to deal adequately and swiftly with legal disputes.

There are currently around 2,200 judges and 1,300 prosecutors in Japan, compared with 30,000 judges and 31,000 prosecutors in the United States, which has twice the population, and 4,800 judges and 1,500 prosecutors in France, whose population is about half that of Japan.

But the demand for more judicial staff conflicts with the government’s avowed streamlining efforts, which call for reducing the government workforce by 10 percent over the next 10 years.

“I totally realize that making efficient use of the budget and personnel is a must,” said Okiharu Yasuoka, a Liberal Democratic Party member of the Lower House and a former justice minister who chairs a nonpartisan lawmakers’ group promoting judicial reforms.

“But the government should also allocate more (funds) and manpower where necessary.”

Administrative and structural reforms, if introduced, will require improved access to the legal system as less government intervention may require legal mediation to settle disputes, Yasuoka said.

On a more technical front, increasing the number of law schools may present a problem due to the dearth of teaching staff, especially those with practical legal experience.

Recent polls conducted by some major Japanese newspapers also suggest another problem: While most citizens welcome the notion of participating in certain criminal trials, they generally believe it should be someone else’s duty.

“The most important thing is for the government to gain wider public support through participation of third parties . . . in its reform promotion to make it transparent to the public,” said Kohei Nakabo, one of the 13 council members and a lawyer widely popular with the public.

“If (only interested parties within the government and judicial circles) deal with the reforms behind closed doors, real reforms will never be achieved,” Nakabo warned.

Behind his concern lies the bitter failure to carry out proposed reforms mapped out in 1964 by the government’s then Special Judicial Commission due to conflicts of interest within judicial circles, including the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.

Yoshio Suzuki, president of Asahi Research Center Co. and chairman of the Judicial Reform Forum, a private-sector study group, said that to prevent this from recurring, the government must set up a third-party advisory organ to support its promotion headquarters. He said the advisory organ should be similar to the Deregulation Committee, which was established in January 1998 to monitor the deregulation activities of the government’s Administrative Reform Headquarters.

Calling judicial reform a foundation of structural reform, which is needed to boost Japanese competitiveness in a rule-based business environment, Suzuki said the government must pour money into the administration of justice to prevent firms from suffering greater losses in the long run.

“The judicial reforms of this time will be the chance of a lifetime to create a fair and transparent society and promote freer and more competitive business activities,” Suzuki said.

“Should we miss this opportunity, Japan will not be able to keep up in economic competition with other industrialized nations, which are armed with effective judicial infrastructures.”

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