The Cabinet approved a package of bills Tuesday designed to revamp the judicial system, including a bill that would introduce a quasi-jury system under which randomly selected citizens would sit on the bench for criminal trials.
The nine bills, which aim to make the justice system more accessible and reliable for the general public, represent the finishing touches to the first comprehensive reforms of the nation’s justice system in the postwar era.
The legislative package, compiled by the Judicial Reform Headquarters, a special task team on judicial reform set up within the Cabinet Office, was moved on to the Diet.
Under the proposed quasi-jury system, which forms the centerpiece of the reforms, six “lay judges” and three professional judges would work together in hearing serious criminal cases and writing verdicts.
The Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, New Komeito, were initially split over the professionals-laymen ratio for the mixed bench. They finally brokered an agreement in late January, however, paving the way for the legislation to be brought before the ongoing Diet session.
In a news conference following the Cabinet meeting, Justice Minister Daizo Nozawa voiced hope the Diet will promptly pass the bills, noting the lay judge system had been the dream of the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, his successor, Yoshiro Mori, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Once the legislation goes into effect, the lay judge system must be introduced within five year.
“The nature of the justice system can change (for the better) if criminal trials start reflecting the opinions of judges who are (randomly) selected from the citizenry,” Nozawa said.
If it is to win broad public support, the government must continue to promote the system both during Diet deliberations and after the bills are passed, he added.
Individuals’ daily lives may be disrupted when they are chosen to serve as lay judges.
“I believe (this obligation) is not too heavy, and if people think about the meaning of the system, they can accept (it),” Nozawa said.
Those summoned to the bench cannot refuse unless they have physical problems, family members who need daily care or pending special social events such as funerals, the bill says. They can also refuse “if their absence may cause excessive damage to their business.”
The Judicial Reform Headquarters is currently working on an ordinance to complement the bill that would set clear guidelines as to which people can refuse to serve as lay judges.
Under the ordinance, individuals would be able to refuse to serve as lay judges by citing the Constitution’s freedom of thought and consciousness, officials at the headquarters said.
Under the bill, lay judges would be temporarily considered public servants; employers would thus be banned from putting them at a disadvantage due to their absence from work during trials.
The legislation also imposes a gag order on lay judges covering before and after trials, and imposes strict penalties for violators.