• Kyodo

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Over the past three years, more than 90 percent of the rulings by the Sapporo High Court have been handed down on the first day of a trial, triggering criticism from lawyers who say the judges aren’t looking into the cases carefully enough.

At the opening hearing of a murder trial in January, a judge at the high court dismissed a defendant’s call for acquittal after 10 minutes. The defendant wasn’t even asked a question.

The court’s rulings were handed down on the same day as the first hearing around 60 to 70 percent of the time in 2012 and 2013. But after Judge Toru Takahashi was appointed chief of the criminal case division in 2014, the figure jumped to 91 percent. In 2015, it rose to about 95 percent before easing to 91 percent in 2016.

At the Tokyo High Court, only 71 of 1,890 defendants, or about 4 percent, received rulings at their first hearing in 2016. The Takamatsu High Court did so in just 1 out of 222 cases, or less than 0.5 percent.

Asked why the figure is so high in Sapporo, a court official said it’s up to the judges to decide. But local lawyers have been critical.

At a gathering in Sapporo last summer attended by judges and prosecutors, the Hokkaido Bar Association lodged a protest, saying judges are dismissing cases without thoroughly examining them.

According to the association, Takahashi admitted that the high figure was “not prevalent” but said “as long as conditions are met to hand down the ruling, there is no reason to delay it.”

Experts voiced mixed reactions to the judge’s reply.

High courts are expected to check whether district court rulings are handed down fairly without necessarily going through each case from scratch, said Takayuki Aoki, a former judge who is now professor of criminal law at Hitotsubashi University.

“The important point is whether the judge has gone through trial records in detail, so handing down the ruling on the day it opened isn’t necessarily a problem,” said Aoki. “But it is another issue whether the defendant can easily accept the ruling if it is handed down immediately.”

Lawyer Akira Kitani, who served as a Tokyo High Court judge, called the high figure “abnormal.”

“Speed is important but if judges hand down the ruling just by reading trial records, there’s no meaning in holding a trial session,” said Kitani. “It may make the defendants feel that their cases haven’t been closely examined and discourage them from accepting the ruling.”

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