In late November last year, Iwao Takasu, 55, became one of the first six people in Ibaraki Prefecture to serve as a lay judge in a criminal trial.

Including three professional judges, the nine-member panel at the Mito District Court tried a 45-year-old man who had admitted to groping the breasts of a 16-year-old high school girl and injuring her hand by pushing her down. After hearing all of the evidence and deliberating thoroughly, they handed the man a suspended five-year prison term and ordered supervision by a probation officer.

Feeling a sense of accomplishment, Takasu thought he could put the experience behind and return to his normal life. But that wasn’t the case.

“I kept thinking of many things — like what will happen to the defendant from here, what the victim might be thinking. . . . It was an experience that influenced my view of life,” Takasu said.

He even had a hard time talking to his wife about his experience. While lay judges are permitted to express their thoughts, they are prohibited from disclosing details of the deliberations, and the line between the two remains vague.

In the year since the nation’s first lay judge trial in August 2009, more than 3,000 citizens served as lay judges across the country. While the new criminal justice system appears to be running smoothly, some people have begun to raise concerns about the stress that comes with serving as a lay judge.

A telephone help line has been created for lay judges who may be in need of professional consulting, but some feel that’s not necessarily the best solution for reducing their stress.

Believing there are former lay judges who may want to connect with others who have similar experiences, Takasu and a few other former lay judges joined the launch of a group in August that helps these people meet one another.

The group, called Saibanin Keikensha Nettowaku (Lay Judges Network), also aims to share their experiences with other citizens, as they believe people shouldn’t hesitate to serve when called by the court. The group also includes lawyers and citizens working to improve the system and promote a better understanding of it.

Lawyer Shigeru Makino, one of the legal professionals supporting the group, said extra care will be taken not to violate the confidentiality clause.

“It would actually help to have us legal professionals present, as we will be able to tell them to stop talking further, because the line can be unclear for them,” he said.

Experts say many elements that come with the new duty can cause stress — from viewing gruesome photographic evidence to having intense discussions with strangers or even having to miss work for long periods.

Since the system began, the Supreme Court has operated the help line with the support of clinical psychologists appointed by the court.

A phone number and a log-in ID to contact the support center via e-mail are given to lay judges before they are released from service. Depending on their needs, they are also offered face-to-face meetings with clinical psychologists.

By law, lay judges can express their thoughts about serving, as well as matters that were open during the hearings, but they are prohibited from disclosing details of the closed-door deliberations. However, the Supreme Court said that speaking with clinical psychologists about deliberations will not be regarded as a violation of confidentiality so long as it is done to help reduce stress. This is because clinical psychologists are professionals pledged to confidentiality, the top court said.

The Justice Ministry shares the same interpretation, and added this also applies to clinical psychologists and psychiatrists that the former lay judges find on their own for the same purpose.

According to the top court, the support center was set up with a general assumption that former lay judges exhibiting symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, bad dreams, loss of appetite and feelings of sympathy for those involved will seek help. As of the end of June, the help line had received 18 requests for health consultations and 26 requests for mental consultations, the court said. Details of the calls were not disclosed.

Calling the help line may serve some people, but Takasu said talking to other lay judges who have gone through similar experiences made him feel much better.

“Even though we served in different settings, just to acknowledge with each other what a tough experience that was, it was so much different,” he said. “Meeting them face to face made me feel relieved.”

Sharing Takasu’s view is Tsutomu Yamazaki, 46, who took part in a case at the Tokyo District Court in January. The trial involved a 29-year-old man who was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison for robbing an Edogawa Ward woman in her 80s of money and jewelry.

“Even though we don’t discuss the deliberations in depth, it feels a lot easier just to be able to say among one another ‘that was some experience, wasn’t it?’ ” he said.

Yamazaki added he wants to share views with others about issues he faced for the first time because of the lay judge experience.

“I had never thought of things like whether putting someone in prison would really work as rehabilitation, whether that would help the defendant return to society without becoming a repeat offender,” Yamazaki said. “I don’t think people would usually think about this if they didn’t become a lay judge. But we did, and I’d like to continue that kind of discussion.”

Since the group announced its launch Aug. 3, several have made contact through its website, Makino said. He added that the first meeting of people in the Tokyo area will take place next Monday. So far, the group has chapters in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka and may also expand to Fukuoka, Aomori and Sapporo, Makino said.

Clinical psychologist Kaoru Ichikawa, who is licensed both in Japan and California, says the group is a good idea, because some of the stress that lay judges suffer can be resolved better by meeting and talking to others with the same experience than one-on-one meetings with clinical psychologists.

Ideally, such group meetings should be held among those who served on the same case as this would make it easier for them to talk, Ichikawa noted, but still, meeting in groups in general can be helpful.

In the United States, reducing “juror stress” has been a major issue for some time, with the National Center for State Courts issuing a manual in 1998 that shows courts how to reduce the impact on jurors. One recommendation from the manual is to hold debriefing sessions for jurors after the trial. This is often a session for jurors to speak among one another about their experiences and concerns.

Ichikawa, who is also executive vice president of the human resources consulting firm J.EAP. Co., says courts should hold debriefing sessions right after the end of trials because it would help educate the participants on how to cope with stress that they may feel for the next few weeks.

“Generally, people who come to receive counseling often seek help because they have problems. But in these cases, the stress is caused by an unusual external event — serving as lay judges — which makes it harder for them to acknowledge that they feel stress,” she said. “That is why debriefing is helpful. It helps them become aware that they could be experiencing stress and can seek the help they need.”

In fact, “judges may be best suited to lead the debriefing sessions because they are presumably more skilled in dealing with court-related stress than lay judges who will go through this only once,” Ichikawa said.

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