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As Nihon Shiho Shien Senta (Japan Legal Support Center) started its service in October (dial 0570-078374 in Japanese or English), so did a new system of court-appointed lawyers for criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire lawyers. Now not only defendants indicted in serious crimes such as murder and robbery but also those arrested as suspects in such crimes can obtain the services of court-appointed lawyers.

In its first month of operation, the center nominated court-appointed lawyers for suspects in 653 cases. But in the future the Japan Federation of Bar Associations is likely to have trouble finding enough lawyers willing to serve. About 5,400 lawyers have registered their availability, and their number is believed to be enough to cope with the estimated annual 7,400 cases in which they will be needed. Suspects can obtain the services of court-appointed lawyers if they have been arrested in connection with a crime that attracts a penalty of death or life imprisonment or whose most lenient penalty is at least one year’s imprisonment.

From 2009, however, suspects will be able to obtain the services of court-appointed lawyers if they have been arrested in connection with a crime that attracts the death penalty or whose severest penalty is at least three years’ imprisonment. This includes most crimes, even theft and fraud. Court-appointed lawyers are expected to be needed in about 100,000 cases annually. In predicting future demand, the federation has assumed that 9,100 lawyers will be available and has divided the nation into 207 areas. It concludes that court-appointed lawyers may be unavailable for 23,000 suspects in 177 areas.

The findings underline the federation’s need to recruit more lawyers. At the same time, legal authorities must try to remove the restrictions that many lawyers fear will result from the fact that the support center (which falls under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry — not local bar associations) is responsible for nominating court-appointed lawyers.

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