Unlike Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s administrative and economic reform initiatives, which have seen slow going, his efforts to overhaul the judiciary have made steady progress.

The first drastic judicial reforms under the Constitution have three major pillars — a dramatic increase in the number of legal professionals, speedier trials and introduction of a quasi-jury system for criminal trials.

The Koizumi government inherited the judicial reform initiative from the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s Cabinet, which set up the Justice System Reform Council in the Cabinet Office in July 1999.

The council pushed a bill requiring the government and judicial authorities to work toward those goals in an effort to provide the public with greater access to the justice system, ensure greater public participation and strengthen it overall. The bill was passed into law in November 2001.

The law led to creation in the Cabinet Office of the Office for the Promotion of Justice System Reform, which has been deliberating on several reform proposals.

To increase the number of legal professionals, whose ranks are far outnumbered by those in the United States and Europe, the government raised the quota of people who pass the bar exam from 1,000 to 1,200 last year and will boost the number to 1,500 next year and to 3,000 by around 2010.

This is expected to raise the number of legal professionals, now standing at around 20,000, to 50,000 by 2018.

With the passage of four education reform bills in 2001, U.S.-style law schools are slated to open next April. The government will introduce a new bar exam in 2006 for their graduates.

The expected increase in lawyers, prosecutors and judges will certainly speed up trials, which are often seen as moving at a snail’s pace.

Also for the sake of swifter justice, a bill to limit the length of lower court trials to less than two years is now before the Diet.

The bill, which lawmakers are expected to clear before they adjourn June 18, will stipulate the duties of the government, the courts, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and other parties involved in lawsuits to conclude lower court trials within two years.

Now that these Koizumi judicial reform centerpieces are done deals, the remaining hot potato is introduction of a jury system. The goal of the “citizen judge system,” as it has been called, is to “raise the public’s understanding of judicial procedures and their confidence in justice.”

The reform headquarters set up a study panel of 11 experts and carried out an opinion survey on proposed jury system bills with an eye to submitting legislation to the Diet during next year’s ordinary session.

Under the proposed quasi-jury system, jurors randomly selected from the public would work together with judges in lower court criminal trials and decide on a verdict and sentence.

Based on the study panel’s discussions and the opinion poll, the secretariat of the reform promotion office compiled an opinion paper in March detailing the divergent views of the panel members.

Lawyer Satoru Shinomiya, a member of the panel, said his colleagues remain split on several issues.

Key among them is the “judgmental body.” Most of the panel members favor the idea of assigning around three judges and the same number or a couple more jurors to ensure smooth and highly focused discussions in pursuit of a trial verdict, Shinomiya said.

He and one other council member have meanwhile insisted that trials include 10 jurors and just one or two judges so that citizens can state their views freely and play important roles in handing down court decisions.

Jury systems and “lay judge systems” in other countries generally employ about three times as many citizens as each professional judge, Shinomiya said, adding that he believes around 10 jurors are needed to reflect diverse social backgrounds and thus diverse values and ideas in the trial process.

The reform headquarters’ opinion paper proposes various obligations for jurors. These include making it compulsory for anyone selected for jury duty to attend trials, banning them from divulging information about trials, and requiring them to cooperate in an honest manner in pretrial jury selection and in trials.

But people called for jury duty under the current proposal would have to put their social lives and careers on hold, often for months, for nominal compensation, including travel and hotel expenses.

“The final bill must include better provisions to encourage people to participate in trials, such as due compensation for their absence at the workplace, especially for those who run businesses,” said Tadaari Katayama, head of Civil Society for Justice by Lay Judges, a group of citizens mulling the jury system.

“Japanese society, especially the corporate world, will definitely have to become more flexible to minimize the disadvantages people on jury duty face in their daily life,” he said, noting the legislation should underscore the merits of civic participation in trials both for the sake of justice and the society at large.

The nation’s justice system faces drastic changes. The three legal parties now involved in trials — judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers — have long been obsessed with the notion that the prime goal in court is to fully uncover the facts of a crime, said lawyer Masae Araki, a member of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations’ judicial reform research office.

“Under the current system, which excludes the public, the pursuit of justice is considered a godlike, perfectionist mission,” she said. “But under the new system, the pursuit of justice will get back to the essential function of reasonably judging guilt based on the evidence presented.”

Another contentious issue is whether to impose jury gag orders, as well as restrict media coverage of crimes, accidents and trials that may affect a jury’s decision.

The reform headquarters’ opinion paper rattled the media with its proposed ban on jurors discussing trials, even when they are over. It would also ban the media from reporting on crimes or accidents in a way that could, by “imprinting stereotypes,” for example, potentially sway a jury.

The Japan Newspapers Publishers and Editors Association issued a statement in early May demanding that jurors be allowed the freedom to discuss their trial experiences so the public could better learn the nature of each crime and the jury system.

While acknowledging the media often engaged in misleading crime coverage in the past, the association demanded that no restrictions be placed on crime reporting for the sake of the constitutional right to freedom of speech.

A member of the reform headquarters’ secretariat said these issues require thorough debate from the perspective of both how to achieve an ideal mode of citizen participation in trials and how much of a burden the public can shoulder.

Panel member Shinomiya said these arguments reflect the divergent views of his colleagues, other legal experts, government officials and the general public in their quest for an ideal justice system.

“Many legal experts seem to think the current system is essentially fine and that civic participation would just serve to complement it, and thus they tend to favor measures to limit the scope of civil participation,” he said.

“But the essence of the system is to strengthen democracy by extending citizens’ autonomy in the field of justice, and from this perspective, placing justice in the public’s hands is necessary,” he said.

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