Editorials

Reviewing the lay judge trial system

The lay judge system, in which randomly selected ordinary citizens sit alongside professional judges in trials involving certain heinous crimes, was introduced in 2009 as an effort to get the diverse ways of thinking of regular people reflected in court decisions and promote a greater public understanding of and trust in the judiciary system. A study panel recently launched by the Justice Ministry comprising judges, prosecutors, lawyers, criminal law scholars and representatives from crime victim organizations is tasked with reviewing the system as called for in a 2015 amendment to the law that introduced the system. Some of the issues surrounding lay judges — including an increase in the number of candidates refusing to accept the duty as trial proceedings take increasingly long times to complete — hold the key to sustaining the system.

Over the past decade, the average time spent on lay judge trial proceedings from opening session to ruling increased from 3.7 days in 2009 to 10.6 days as of 2017. In a murder case that concluded last November at a local branch of the Kobe District Court, it took a record 207 days to hand down a life sentence to the accused. That meant the lay judges in the case, including ordinary salaried workers and housewives, had to bear the burden of attending court sessions for more than half a year. When the hearing schedule for the case was unveiled, roughly 80 percent of the citizens called on as lay judge candidates declined, citing “important tasks” at work that they could not skip.

Lay judge candidates are randomly selected from voter registration lists, but the ratio of candidates who have refused to fulfill their civic duty has increased from 53.1 percent in 2009 to 66 percent in 2017 — with the figure rising in proportion to the growth in the average time spent on each case. The rising number of people refusing to fulfill their civic duty could undermine the public’s understanding and support of the lay judge system. In fact, the 2015 amendment said that criminal trials that might take an extremely long period to deliberate in court can be handled solely by professional judges. But so far this has not taken place.

In an effort to make court proceedings smoother and reach faster judgments in cases handled in lay judge trials, the court, the prosecution and the defense lawyers attempt to narrow down the points that will be contested in the courtroom before proceedings begin. But when the accused plead not guilty, the examination of evidence in the courtroom tends to take a long time and extend the length of the proceedings.

Under the lay judge system, six citizens work with three professional judges to deliberate on serious crimes such as murder, burglary and arson that carry a maximum punishment of either death or life in prison, as well as deliberate acts of crime that result in the victim’s death such as fatal assault. On the other hand, there have been arguments — since before the lay judge system was introduced — that it imposes too heavy a psychological burden on ordinary people serving as lay judges to have them make decisions on capital punishment. A Diet resolution attached to the 2015 amendment also called for reviewing the wisdom of getting lay judges involved in the deliberation of cases that could result in the death penalty.

In 2014 a group of people, including those who had handed down a death sentence as lay judges, petitioned the justice minister to impose a moratorium on the execution of death row inmates and called for public disclosure of more information pertaining to capital punishment. A woman who served as a lay judge in a 2013 murder trial sued the government, seeking damages for an acute stress disorder that she says she suffered when she had to view grisly photos of the murder scene in court, charging that requiring people to serve as lay judges constitutes “involuntary servitude,” which is banned under the Constitution. Although the lawsuit was dismissed, there are views that the hardship of having to make judgments involving the death penalty should not be imposed on lay judges.

Not much substantial public discussion has been taken place on the issues surrounding the lay judge system. But these issues cannot be ignored in the effort to sustain the lay judge system as a crucial component of the judiciary system that reflects the civic sentiments and viewpoints of the public at large. These issues should be thoroughly discussed from diverse viewpoints, including those of ordinary citizens, especially those who have experienced lay judge duty.