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Japanese courts are going all out to make information technology available for judicial procedures, a move that has been in part spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the country lags behind in digital reform of judicial affairs.

In April last year, the Supreme Court launched a division in charge of promoting digital reform, where staff members have their own laptops and are free to choose where to work in the office.

No piles of paper are seen in their workplace, unlike an ordinary court office, as part of efforts to achieve a paperless administration in line with digitalization of court work.

The digital promotion division oversees efforts, including budgets, to digitalize the country's court administration in all fields, including for both civil and criminal trials.

"We'll lead this major challenge so courts can fulfill the expectation of the public in a digital society," said Takenobu Someya of the division.

There has already been progress in digital reform of the civil field. In 2017, the government started discussions at the request of businesses to speed up trial procedures.

The Legislative Council, which advises the justice minister, is in the final stage of discussions to use information technology in all procedures, ranging from filing lawsuits and holding hearings to handing down rulings, starting by fiscal 2025.

As part of reforms requiring no legislative amendments, an online meeting system connecting law offices with courts was introduced in February 2020 for judicial processes including to determine points of issues in trials.

The use of the web meeting system has surged due to the pandemic. Someya said that the pandemic "gathered momentum for digitalization." The system became available at family courts in December on a trial basis for mediation procedures including for divorce and inheritance.

For criminal procedures including investigations, discussions on digital reform are now under way among representatives of courts, public prosecutors, police and lawyers at a Justice Ministry panel.

Digitalization is being considered for procedures such as examination of witnesses. But there are many challenges including the handling of personal information, people familiar with the discussions said.

"Digitalization will change court equipment, work styles and trial methods drastically from the past paper-oriented culture," a veteran judge said, describing it as "one of the biggest reforms" of the country's judicial system since the end of World War II.

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