The proceedings of lay judge trials — in which randomly selected citizens join professional judges to deliberate on criminal cases — are taking increasingly longer to conclude. The average period from the opening of a lay judge trial to the ruling, 3.7 days when the system was first introduced in 2009, has stretched out to 10.5 days as of September this year. A trial at the Himeji branch of the Kobe District Court, in which a man was convicted earlier this month of murder and sentenced to life, took a record 207 days to conclude. As trials run longer, more people chosen as candidates for lay judges are declining to take up the duty. Steps need to be taken to speed up the trial process in order to reduce the burden on lay judges.

Under the lay judge system, roughly 120,000 to 130,000 people randomly selected from voter lists are annually chosen as candidates for lay judge trials, which handle serious crimes such as murder. It was introduced for the purpose of reflecting ordinary citizens’ ways of thinking in court rulings. However, the ratio of people who decline to take up the duty after being selected as candidates has picked up from 53 percent in 2009 to 67 percent at the end of September. The ratio has increased as the average time spent on lay judge trials became longer. There are concerns that more people are shying away from the duty in light of the growing burden.

For the murder case at the Himeji branch court, more than 70 hearings were held — a pace of roughly four sessions a week — before the ruling was handed down Nov. 8. It was a complicated case in which the accused pleaded not guilty to most of the charges against him, while the bodies of two of the three victims were never found. As many as 80 witnesses were called in to testify. When the schedule for the trial proceedings was revealed, 420 of the 501 lay judge candidates called on to show up at court declined to take up the duty, citing pressing work obligations. After the trial opened in April, three of the six lay judges who sat alongside the three professional judges to handle the case requested to be relieved of their duty, which was accepted by the court.

The previous record for longest-running lay judge trial was the case that wrapped up in November 2016 at the Nagoya District Court. That one took 160 days to hand down a life sentence to a man accused of killing two women in Gifu and Fukui prefectures in 2009 and 2011. The November 2017 ruling by the Kyoto District Court on a serial cyanide murder came 135 days after the trial opened. For that trial, 431 of the 586 potential lay judges called by the court declined. These cases have raised questions as to whether it’s appropriate to keep citizens tied up in a lay judge trial for extended periods.

Before lay judge trials were instituted in 2009, a system of pre-trial proceedings was put in place in which the court, prosecutors and the defense counsel of the accused hold talks to narrow down the points to be contested in the trial. It was intended to speed up the trial process and avoid placing too great a burden on the citizens serving as lay judges. In recent years, the pre-trial proceedings have been growing longer — reportedly from an average of 2.8 months in 2009 to 8.3 months in 2017. The Legal Research and Training Institute of the Supreme Court has compiled a report urging courts across the country to expedite proceedings by focusing on issues that pertain to the guilt or innocence of the accused and their sentencing in the case of the former.

Citizens serving as lay judges sacrifice their work or daily routine as they carry out their civic duty — and face the heavy burden of deliberating on serious criminal cases and making tough judgments in handing down verdicts, possibly including the death penalty. It makes sense to take steps to reduce their burden by expediting trial proceedings where possible. More people shunning lay judge duty due to the heavy burden might result in distorting the composition of the lay judge pool, which would run counter to the purpose of the system — to reflect the diverse views of ordinary citizens in judiciary decisions. Steps need to be taken to cope with these problems to sustain the system.

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