A new system to allow citizens to participate in judging serious criminal cases will begin Thursday with the aim of reforming a trial process sometimes criticized for being too abstruse and out of touch.
Criminal cases for which indictments are filed will be tried under the new system, and the first trial attended by a panel of professional judges and lay judges is expected to be held in late July at the earliest.
The public will be participating in trials for the first time in Japan since a jury system was operated between 1928 and 1943.
Seeking “faster, friendlier and more reliable” administration of justice, the lay judge system focuses on courtroom exchanges rather than traditional lengthy out-of-court perusal of investigative records. But concerns still remain among the public, experts and Diet members.
Under the law taking effect Thursday, six people randomly selected from among eligible voters will examine serious criminal cases such as murder and robbery resulting in death, together with three professional judges at district courts.
Lay judges will also participate in determining the sentence, including the death penalty. In that sense, the system is different from the jury system in such countries as the United States and Britain, in which the jurors are basically involved in deciding guilt or innocence and judges determine the sentence.
The lay judge system was proposed in June 2001 by a government judicial reform panel, which concluded that public understanding and support for the justice system will be deepened by having the “sound social common sense of the public” reflected more directly in judgments.
Despite the enthusiasm for the new system among legal professionals, some opponents argue that penalties for lay judges who breach a lifetime secrecy obligation are excessive and that the system itself is unconstitutional.
The law on lay judges sets a maximum penalty of six months in prison or a ¥500,000 fine if they leak details of discussions among lay judges during closed-door deliberations or violate their privacy.
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