The Upper House is discussing bills that will allow crime victims and their family members to sit with prosecutors and question defendants and witnesses in trials for serious crimes such as murder, manslaughter, rape, kidnapping and confinement. If the accused are found guilty, crime victims and their family members will be able to ask the same court to decide on compensation by using evidence presented by prosecutors in the criminal trial.

The proposed system responds to complaints from victims that their voices and feelings have not been properly reflected in criminal trials. It also will lighten their burden in seeking compensation from perpetrators. But since the bills will greatly change the traditional system of criminal proceedings, the Upper House lawmakers must carefully deliberate them.

Under the bills, victims and their family members will first ask the court to allow them to take part in the proceedings. Those whose requests have been accepted will be able to question defendants concerning facts and to ask witnesses about defendants’ circumstances. But the questions must be examined by prosecutors beforehand. Victims and their family members will also be able to demand punishment for defendants although the demand will be viewed as an informal opinion.

The burden of defendants and their defense counsel will become heavier because they’ll have to deal not only with prosecutors but also with victims and their family members. If victims and their family members become emotional on the assumption that defendants are guilty, problems will arise.

Another problem is that the introduction of the proposed system is expected to take place about six to 12 months before the introduction of the lay judge system — May 2009 at the latest. Lay judges will sit with professional judges to decide guilt or innocence in trials for serious crimes. The possibility cannot be ruled out that lay judges will be swayed by emotion.

Lawmakers must do everything to ensure that objective evidence remains the basis of court rulings, and that no punishment is meted out if uncertainty exists about guilt.

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