A nationwide system now offers people easy access to legal advice and services. On Oct. 2, the services of Nihon Shiho Shien Senta (Japan Legal Support Center) or Ho Terasu (Law Terrace) became available to anyone, including those involved in civil cases or those who have been arrested on suspicion of committing crimes. This change to the legal system is welcome.

The center’s call center — dial 0570-078374 — is expected to be helpful to many people who seek solutions to their legal troubles (English is OK). Those who have become crime victims can call 0570-079714.

The center was established April 1 under the law for comprehensive legal support (enacted by the Diet in May 2004) to offer legal information and services nationwide. It has 50 offices — in the prefectural capitals and three other cities in Hokkaido — plus five other offices in remote areas where there are few lawyers.

The center is an independent administrative agency that will operate on about 20 billion yen in tax money annually. The central office is in Tokyo. An estimated 1.2 million people each year from across the nation are expected to call its offices for help.

The idea of establishing the center was included in a 2001 proposal aimed at bringing the administration of justice closer to people. The opening of the center is an important part of current legal reform efforts. By May 2009, a lay-judge system will be introduced in which randomly chosen citizens will sit with professional judges to try defendants on charges of serious crimes such as murder, rape, arson and kidnapping. To increase the number of lawyers, prosecutors and judges, new law schools opened in various parts of Japan in 2004.

The center provides several types of services. One offers necessary information to people who face troubles in their daily lives, including those related to money (e.g., a friend will not return borrowed money), divorce, rented real estate (e.g. a landlord has told a tenant to move soon), claims to an inheritance, and business and commercial contracts (e.g., a buyer wishes to nullify a verbal or written contract with a door-to-door salesperson).

The center will advise the caller as to which organization — be it a bar association, an association of judicial scriveners, consumer life center, local government department, etc. — is available and most likely to be helpful in the caller’s area.

The center will also provide free-of-charge legal advice by lawyers or judicial scriveners to those involved in civil lawsuits, and will have these law experts serve in civil lawsuits or negotiations, or write documents to be submitted in courts.

The center will lend money to low-income people to pay for lawyers or judicial scriveners. To improve legal services in areas where lawyers are scarce, the center will set up remote area offices where lawyers are stationed. At present there are such offices in five places: Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture, Iki Island in Nagasaki Prefecture, Kanoya in Kagoshima Prefecture, Esashi in Hokkaido, and Suzaki in Kochi Prefecture. Another one of these offices will be open in Kurayoshi in Tottori Prefecture in the near future.

People who have become victims of crimes, as well as their family members, can also get help from the center, which will provide information on available legal procedures, the systems that could lead to compensation for their sufferings, lawyers who can help crime victims and their family members, and associations for crime victims.

Assistance is also available to people who have become victims of traffic accidents, sex crimes and domestic violence. Children and elderly people maltreated by relatives, and consumers who have been defrauded by companies, also can receive the assistance.

The center will also nominate lawyers who will serve as court-appointed lawyers for defendants who cannot afford to hire lawyers in criminal cases. This month, not only those who have been indicted on charges of serious crimes, such as murder and robbery, but also those who have been arrested as suspects have become eligible to receive the services of court-appointed lawyers. In 2009, the system will cover more types of crimes for suspects. One problem is whether a sufficient number of lawyers will register with the center to serve as court-appointed lawyers.

Another problem is that as the center started its services, the practice of bar associations nominating lawyers to become court-appointed lawyers ended. Some lawyers fear that the nomination of lawyers by the center may be unfair to defendants and suspects because the center falls under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry. Allowing bar associations to nominate lawyers as before may be worth considering.

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