The Democratic Party of Japan-led government recently approved a bill to abolish the statute of limitations on crimes that could be punishable by hanging in a move experts say signals a major shift in the justice system.

The bill, which would amend the Criminal Procedure Law and the Penal Code, also would lift the maximum statute of limitations to 30 years for crimes punishable by life imprisonment, to 20 years for crimes punishable by 20 years of imprisonment, and to 10 years for crimes punishable by lesser prison terms.

The bill is based on proposals submitted to the justice minister in February by the ministry’s Legislative Council. They discussed the revision based on the findings of the study group that worked under the previous Liberal Democratic Party-led government.

Observers said the bill, to be submitted to the current Diet session, will be passed by the end of June because the LDP, now the largest opposition force, is unlikely to vote against it.

Following are basic questions and answers about the statute of limitation and what led to the planned revisions:

What is the statute of limitations and why is it in place?

The statute demarcates the period in which specific legal action, namely prosecution, can be pursued.

According to the Justice Ministry, the general assumption is the statute exists because with the passage of time, evidence in crimes is lost, making it more difficult to file charges and lessening the chances for a fair trial.

The social demand that a culprit be brought to justice over a crime also wanes with the passage of time, the ministry said.

In 2007, the statute of limitations expired for 58 murders, 20 arsons, 146 robberies and 78 rapes, according to ministry statistics.

When was the statute of limitations established?

The system dates to the 1880 Criminal Procedure Law, based on recommendations by Gustave Emile Boissonade de Fontarabie, a French jurist who was invited by the Imperial government to assist Japan in compiling various codes.

At the time, perpetrators of heinous crimes, including murder, robbery and rape, would not face prosecution if they evaded justice for 10 years. The statute underwent minor revisions up until the end of World War II.

Then came the Criminal Procedure Law of 1948, which set a 15-year statute of limitations for crimes subject to the gallows, a 10-year statute for crimes subject to life imprisonment and a seven-year statute for crimes that could warrant a prison term exceeding 10 years.

These statutes remained until 2004, when they were extended amid demands for harsher punishment for heinous crimes.

Under the revised code, the statute for crimes punishable by death was extended to 25 years, that for crimes subject to life imprisonment was increased to 15 years, and crimes warranting sentences of 15 years or more were boosted from seven to 10 years.

Are there exclusions to the prescribed statutes?

Yes. By law the statute is suspended if a suspect flees abroad.

It can also be put on hold for an alleged offender until the trial of an accused accomplice is completed.

Why are the statutes again under review, and the one for capital crimes being abolished?

People victimized by crimes have been demanding an end to the statute and have complained that they have been left out of the justice system. This pushed LDP-led administrations to begin considering heeding their demands.

Sora no Kai, a nationwide group of murder victims’ families, has been demanding that the statute for murder be abolished and, if not, at least suspended while investigations into slayings continue. In some of the slayings of their loved ones, no arrests have been made.

“We have felt a contradiction between the fact that the law allows a culprit to lead a life without punishment, despite claiming the precious life of another,” they said in a statement to the ministry’s Legislative Council. “Don’t laws exist to protect the rights of people to pursue a happy life? Does the law protect the rights of a person who took someone’s life?”

The group also wants a system established that allows the next of kin of murder victims to sue the government for compensation for failing to protect the life and property of its citizens.

Compared with the 2004 revision, the current bill would not only abolish the statute on capital crimes but would cover crimes that took place before the expected changes, as long as the statute hasn’t expired.

The revisions would not be applied to closed cases.

Also, one reason for abolishing the statute on heinous crimes is that forensic science, particularly DNA analysis, has advanced to the point where it is possible to solve some cold cases.

Are there concerns about abolishing the statute for capital offenses or suspending it amid ongoing investigations?

Attorneys have claimed that ending the statute would make it difficult for them to defend clients because, for example, the memories of witnesses may have faded and evidence may be lost due to the passing of time.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations said a better option would be to hone the investigative skills of law enforcement so cases can be resolved more promptly.

The federation also wants the government to provide greater support to people victimized by crime, including compensation and providing more information related to investigations.

The lawyers said it is too soon to change the statutes, because the effects from the revisions five years ago have yet to be assessed.

Experts also say law enforcement personnel, finances and other resources are limited, making it hard to justify open-ended investigations in the event there are no time limits.

The group Higaisha to Shihou wo Kangaerukai, made up of families of crime victims, said not all relatives share the same view, and some want to move on with their lives if investigations drag on for years without resolution. Some would be satisfied if authorities reported to them about the progress of their probes.

How about the statute system in other countries?

In the United States, for example, statutes may vary from state to state, but when it comes to murder, there is no statute, as well as in cases of federal capital offenses punishable by death, certain sex offenses and terrorism.

For many other federal-level crimes, prosecution must generally begin within five years from their commission. Exceptions to this include 10 years in cases of arson and 20 years for thefts of artworks.

As part of the European Union, where there is no death penalty, Germany, for example, has a 30-year statute on crimes punishable by life in prison, a 20-year statute for offenses warranting sentences of at least 10 years and a 10-year statute for crimes that merit at least a five-year stretch.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk