National / Crime & Legal

Japan Supreme Court chief says lay judge system well received but tweaks needed to spur interest

Kyodo, JIJI, Staff Report

The Supreme Court said Wednesday that, while the country’s lay judge system has been well received by the public since it was introduced 10 years ago, improvements are needed in order to get citizens more interested in the administration of justice and ease burdens placed on citizen judges.

Surveys conducted annually over the 10-year period on citizen judges showed that over 95 percent of them think participating in trial processes has been a good experience, according to the court.

“The system has been accepted positively by the public,” Chief Justice Naoto Otani said during a news conference.

“The operation of the system is still in the developing stage, and improvements need to be considered,” he added.

Some 91,000 people had served as citizen judges through March this year, overseeing around 12,000 cases, according to the court’s review report.

The percentage of people chosen as candidates — but who later declined to serve — has gradually increased since the start of the system in 2009, the report said.

Last year, 67.0 percent of candidates declined to serve as citizen judges for various reasons, including their work situation, an increase from 53.1 percent in 2009.

The percentage of selected citizens who refused to attend a screening session has also increased, the top court said.

While the Supreme Court said the rate of people who asked to be exempted from the duty, averaging 62.5 percent during the 10 years, is not high enough to affect the operation of the lay judge system, the level of public interest in it is declining and longer trials are likely making more people reluctant to accept the task.

Under 2004 judicial reform legislation that was enacted with a goal of reflecting the mentality of ordinary people, citizens aged 20 or older chosen at random from the local electorate became eligible to act as lay judges in May 2009. Candidates can refuse to be subjects of the assignment procedure in advance if the court recognizes they have a valid reason.

Six lay judges, selected through a lottery, plus three professional judges, are on the bench for some district court trials of heinous crimes such as murder, robbery, arson and rape. They decide by a majority vote whether a defendant is guilty or not, and hand down a sentence following guilty verdicts.

The number of cases overturned by high courts initially declined after the system was introduced, but the rate for cases involving lay judges has climbed from 6.6 percent for the first three years to an average of 10.9 percent in the following years, according to the report. In recent years, rulings in trials without lay judges have been overturned at a lower rate than those involving lay judges.

In general, crimes of a sexual nature tended to be punished more severely under the lay judge system, according to the report.

The report also showed that the length of lay judge trials has been getting longer. The average period from the first hearing until the day of the ruling stood at 10.8 days in 2018, compared with 3.7 days in 2009.

Similarly, the average period of pretrial conference procedures, during which a prosecutor, an attorney and a judge narrow down issues, grew from 2.8 months to 8.2 months.

One veteran judge commented that lay judges “tend to impose more severe sentences in high-profile cases, but they often give sympathetic rulings” in other types of cases.

The judge also attributed the longer trials to “an increase in the number of complicated cases compared to the time when the system was new.” Cases handled by lay judges previously tended to be those in which defendants had made confessions, according to the judge.

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