Lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya has spent his career helping debtors overcome the burden of multiple loans, while pushing for legislation to reduce their numbers. An advocate for the underemployed, in 2008 he served as the honorary mayor of a makeshift “village” set up in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park sheltering idled temp workers.

Since becoming president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations in April, the 63-year-old has worked to fix the problems the ongoing judicial system reform has brought about, including the difficulty for young lawyers to find jobs, on top of being caught in a debt trap.

“If only rich people can become lawyers, we’ll have fewer lawyers who are willing to serve the poor and the weak,” Utsunomiya said, stressing that his efforts are aimed at helping society, not just lawyers.

“We have yet to see a culture where people regard problems surrounding the judicial system as their own issues, but I would like the public to think that this is their problem, too,” Utsunomiya said in an interview with The Japan Times.

In March, Utsunomiya won the JFBA presidential election in an unprecedented second ballot against Takeji Yamamoto, a former president of the Tokyo Bar Association.

Held every two years, the JFBA presidency has been won virtually every time by former vice presidents of the JFBA, like Yamamoto. Although Utsunomiya is well-known among the public for his activities to fight for the poor, he was an outsider in the politics of the legal profession.

Thus his victory surprised many and was regarded as a reflection of how many lawyers were opposed to the conventional leadership of the industry group.

“On the other side of the Pacific, the first African-American president was elected, and Japan has also experienced a change in government. Now, the JFBA has chosen to change, and I feel the responsibility,” said Utsunomiya of his victory.

Although fighting poverty was the pillar of Utsunomiya’s election platform, what apparently brought him votes was his promise to cut the annual increase in the number of new lawyers in half, to 1,500.

“We can raise the number again, once the legal infrastructure is in place,” he said, criticizing the slowness of revisions in other areas of the judicial system.

Recognizing the need for the poor to have access to legal help, Utsunomiya insists he is not opposed to increasing the number of lawyers. But first he says a system must be in place that provides subsidized legal aid.

The legal profession has failed to ensure that, as it moves forward to expand its ranks, Utsunomiya said.

Civil legal aid allows low-income people to borrow money from the government to pay for their lawyers.

An expert in the field, Utsunomiya explained that the problem with the system is that this supposed safety net for the poor requires that the money be paid back. In many other developed countries, people below a certain income level do not have to pay back the money, he said.

“Welfare is meant to secure for people a minimum standard of life. Forcing the poor to pay back that money runs counter to the purpose of legal aid,” he said.

Increasing the number of lawyers was a main recommendation made by the Justice System Reform Council in 2001.

In addition, the council proposed centering legal training around graduate-level law schools.

Before 2004, there were no schools that only were dedicated to teaching law, and anyone could take the bar exam — though only about 2 percent to 3 percent passed. But bar exams are now designed to be taken at the end of a law school education, which means anyone who wishes to become a lawyer must first go to law school.

The JFBA had continued to support increasing the number of lawyers. As a result, the total number of private-practice attorneys increased from about 20,700 in 2000 to around 31,440 in 2009.

But the speed of the increase has exceeded the capacity of law firms to hire, leaving many young lawyers out of work, according to Utsunomiya.

A new lawyer usually starts off by joining a law firm to gain experience and clients. Starting up a private practice comes years later.

But now, many have no choice but to go into practice for themselves without experience or clients, Utsunomiya explained.

“A lot of lawyers, especially in rural areas, told me they were initially glad to have young lawyers joining their firms, but the speed of the increase became too fast for them to continue hiring,” he said.

Many young lawyers are also in debt. A survey by the JFBA of current legal trainees showed that half had taken out loans to pay for their education — on average ¥3.18 million.

“Most older lawyers, including myself, were not aware of this situation because we didn’t have this problem,” Utsunomiya said. “The nature of the loan is indeed different compared with the debtors I’ve worked for, but the financial burden is definitely increasing for younger lawyers.”

On top of this, from November, those who pass the bar will no longer get a salary from the government during their mandatory one-year legal training with the Legal Training and Research Institute under the Supreme Court, adding to their financial burden.

Under the circumstances, “fewer people are applying to law schools, because people can’t afford to take the risk of not having any income for three to four years, and the future doesn’t look rosy,” he said.

“It’s about using taxpayers’ money to educate lawyers who serve to protect people’s human rights, and this is why we have government support (for the trainees),” he said. “But if we start to have more lawyers who think they can do what they want with the qualification they obtained on their own and only work for the money, that’s going to be a tragedy for society,” Utsunomiya said.

Shortly after taking over the presidency of the JFBA, Utsunomiya established two committees — one addressing poverty issues, including strengthening state legal aid, and the other to push the government to continue paying the salaries of legal trainees.

Utsunomiya noted that during the past 10 years, the JFBA has isolated itself and failed to work with the public. Speaking from his experience, the new JFBA president said he wants to work with more citizens who are beneficiaries of legal service.

“It’s necessary for the public to think about what sort of legal system and lawyers they want in society,” he said.

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