The Supreme Court’s July 24 decision that reduced the prison terms of a couple convicted of fatally abusing their daughter has highlighted the difficulty in balancing the need, on one hand, to have ordinary citizens’ views reflected in criminal trials through their participation as lay judges and, on the other hand, to maintain consistency with judicial precedents.

The top court ruling may serve as a caution against the tendency of lay judge trials to impose more severe punishments on defendants found guilty. But too much emphasis on precedent can defeat the very purpose of the lay judge system introduced five years ago.

In rejecting the district and high court rulings on the couple charged with assault that resulted in the 2010 death of their 20-month-old daughter in Neyagawa, Osaka Prefecture, the top court sentenced the victim’s father to 10 years in prison and gave an 8-year prison term to the mother.

The Osaka District Court in its March 2012 ruling in a lay judge trial gave both 15 years in prison — 1.5 times longer than the 10 years sought by prosecutors — and the Osaka High Court last year upheld the district court’s decision.

Of the 4,217 rulings on major offenses such as murder and assaults resulting in death handed down in lay judge trials as of the end of March, 43 rulings meted out longer prison sentences than sought by prosecutors — compared with two out of 2,290 such cases handled by professional judges alone between fiscal 2008 and 2013.

Records show that lay judge trials, in which randomly selected citizens sit alongside professional judges in district courts, tend to hand down harsher punishments on those accused of taking people’s lives, especially cases involving fatal child abuse, and sex crimes.

While last week’s decision was the first by the Supreme Court to reject a lay judge trial ruling upheld by the high court, there have been several cases in which prison terms handed down in lay judge trial decisions at district courts have been commuted by high courts.

The Tokyo High Court has so far reduced death sentences handed down in lay judge trials to life in prison in three cases. In some cases, the high court pointed to the tendency of lay judges to overemphasize the gravity of damage caused by the crimes and the risk of repeat offenses by the accused.

It is believed that this tendency by lay judges results in heavier punishments.

This tendency apparently reflects popular sentiment about the crimes, not the views of legal professionals, who tend to give priority to conformity with precedents. In its ruling on the Neyagawa case, the Osaka District Court said the prosecutors “failed to sufficiently evaluate the malicious nature of the abuse” which “bordered on murder.”

It also ruled that imposing more severe punishments than in the past on such crimes “is deemed to fit the social circumstances in which there is growing public calls” to protect children from parental abuse.

The Supreme Court said that lay judge trials do not need to be bound by judicial precedents but still need to take them into consideration to maintain fairness with other court rulings on similar crimes. It went on to say that courts need to show concrete and convincing grounds for decisions that overstep precedents set by earlier rulings, and determined that the Osaka court failed to do that.

The lay judge system is meant to have the views and sentiments of people at large reflected in criminal trials. If so, getting lay judges to respect precedents set by professional judges in earlier cases risks defeating the purpose of introducing the system. Criticism also persists that higher courts’ altering lay judge trial rulings in an increasing number of cases runs counter to the spirit of the system.

In a 2012 ruling, the Supreme Court said that a high court should not change a lay judge trial ruling unless the district court decision includes clear irrationality in determining the truthfulness of “facts” charged.

In last week’s decision, the Supreme Court said the role of lay judge trials to hand down decisions with the intention of changing the trend of past rulings should not be denied. Presiding justice Yu Shiraki noted in his supplementary opinion to the ruling that the trend in court sentences is not binding and can gradually change with developments in social circumstances and people’s consciousness.

Still, the justice said, it remains a basic requirement in criminal trials — including lay judge trials — to ensure fairness in punishment.

As Shiraki noted, professional judges of district courts will need to fully explain to lay judges the trend and the significance of judicial precedents, so that they will hand down rulings based on a correct understanding of the precedents. Such a process will be necessary to minimize the risk of unfair judgments. But there will also be a risk that such efforts could result in professional judges putting conformity with precedents ahead of having the input of lay judges reflected based on their perspectives as ordinary citizens — and in lay judges being discouraged from moving beyond precedents.

In discussing the ruling with lay judges, professional judges should be keenly aware of the tough challenge they face — reconciling conflicting needs and averting a return to the rigid operation of criminal trials dominated by legal professionals.

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