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In the past, court-appointed lawyers, who are paid with public money, were assigned to represent indicted defendants who couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer. In October 2006, lawyers started being appointed to represent suspects even before indictment in cases involving serious crimes such as murder and robbery, whose punishments can range from death to prison terms of at least a year to life.

On May 21, the scope of crimes in which court-appointed lawyers are assigned was expanded. Now, such lawyers are assigned to pre-indictment suspects of crimes such as theft, fraud and indecent sexual assault, in which the maximum punishment is imprisonment of more than three years. The types of criminal cases to which court-appointed lawyers are assigned have been expanded by roughly 10-fold.

The Legal Support Center, better known as Houterasu, has contracts with some 15,000 lawyers — an increase of 60 percent over 2006, when the center was established. Thus more than half the nation’s 27,000 lawyers now have contracts with the center. The center recommends lawyers for the court to appoint, and recently raised the remuneration for them.

It is now expected that court-appointed lawyers for pre-indictment suspects will be needed for 70,000 cases annually, compared with just 7,400 cases in fiscal 2008. It is imperative that Houterasu and the Japan Federation of Bar Associations secure a sufficient number of lawyers who can serve as court-appointed lawyers.

Despite recent improvements, the court-appointed lawyer system is far from perfect. It does not cover crimes in which the severest punishment is imprisonment of three years or less, including trespassing and the abandonment of a dead body. When investigating serious crimes such as murder, the police often arrest people on suspicion of having committed those crimes and then build their case — a practice that sometimes leads to false charges. A revision of the law is needed so that suspects in such crimes can use court-appointed lawyers from the time of their arrest.

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