Lay judge plan fraught with guilty verdict dangers, bar groups say

Kyodo News

Three out of 52 local bar association chiefs think the citizen judge system should not be introduced next May or at least delayed, citing concerns over a rush to judgment of guilt and tougher penalties, a Kyodo News survey showed Monday.

Under the new system, six lay judges will try serious criminal cases, including murder, with three professional judges to decide whether a defendant is guilty and hand down a sentence. A verdict can be reached by a majority vote among the nine.

While 42 bar associations say they want to promote the new system in line with the Japan Federation of Bar Associations policy, 12 still see problems, with the head of the Shiga Association responding that if the lay judges are prodded to conduct speedy trials, they may be more inclined to reach a verdict of guilt and mete out harsh sentences, according to the survey.

Of the three who show reluctance over the system, the Okinawa Association chief wants to see it terminated.

“As public understanding over the principle of presumed innocence has not yet matured, concerns remain that (quick guilty verdicts and tough sentences will be the end result),” he said.

Leaders of the Aomori and Tochigi associations prefer postponement, saying the system will impose too much of a burden on the lay judges and others involved, including defendants. They added that it is against the Constitution to allow lay people to judge others.

The Kushiro (Hokkaido) Association chief, while supporting the system, said the death penalty should be reached by a unanimous vote.

The Daini Tokyo Bar Association chief meanwhile said the new system will promote public awareness and realize participatory democracy.