A new system has started in which crime victims or bereaved family members of crime victims can take part in criminal proceedings. They sit with public prosecutors and can question defendants and express their opinions about sentencing. The system represents a great change to Japan’s judicial system, along with the lay judge system to be introduced in May.

Under the revised Code of Criminal Procedure, the new system will be used in trials dealing with crimes in which a criminal killed a person deliberately or caused an injury leading to death, as well as with rape, sexual assaults, negligence leading to injury or death, illegal arrest and confinement, and kidnapping.

Judges will decide whether crime victims or bereaved families of crime victims can attend the proceedings based on requests filed via public prosecutors. The system is applicable to cases in which an indictment was issued on or after Dec. 1, 2008. After the public prosecutors’ summation and recommendation regarding sentencing, crime victims or bereaved family members of crime victims can question the defendant to prepare their own opinions on the degree of punishment. There may be cases in which they demand a harsher sentence than that called for by public prosecutors.

The revised law for protection of crime victims, which went into force together with the revised Code of Criminal Procedure, allows crime victims or bereaved family members of crime victims who sit with public prosecutors to seek damages from the defendant if the latter is found guilty. This spares them the trouble of initiating a separate civil lawsuit for damages. The judge who has handled the criminal trial will decide the amount of the damages.

Although the new system represents progress in expanding the rights of crime victims and bereaved family members of crime victims, utmost efforts must be made to prevent emotions from prevailing in criminal trials. Judges’ responsibility to conduct trials in a fair and coolheaded manner will become heavier than before. All parties to criminal trials should uphold the principle of presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

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