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The Tokyo High Court on Dec. 17 upheld what was the first ruling under the newly introduced lay judge system. The high court’s decision will set a trend for high courts respecting rulings made in district courts, where, in most cases, six ordinary citizens serve as judges along with three professional judges.

The first lay-judge trial took place at the Tokyo District Court in August. A 72-year-old man was charged with stabbing to death a 66-year-old a neighbor in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, on May 1. While the prosecution demanded a 16-year prison term, the judges sentenced the man to 15 years behind bars.

During the subsequent appellate trial in Tokyo High Court, the defense counsel accused the district court of failing to consider the woman’s provocative behavior toward the man and said that even if the sentence reflected the feelings of ordinary citizens, it was too heavy in view of sentences handed down in similar cases. But the high court upheld the ruling, saying the findings represented rational thinking conforming to logic and experience-based judgment and that the prison term was appropriate.

What function a high court should fulfill under the lay judge system was an issue since judges at high courts are all professional judges. Last year, the Supreme Court’s Legal Training and Research Institute made public a study report which said that under the lay judge system, an appellate trial should respect the conclusion of an original trial as much as possible and should overturn it only in exceptional circumstances. The Tokyo High Court’s decision has confirmed this principle.

Therefore, it is all the more important to ensure that district court trials are fair. An important step in this direction would be to make it legally binding for public prosecutors to present all the evidence they have during their pretrial meetings with defense counsel members.

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