Evaluating the lay judge system, 10 years on

The lay judge system, in which randomly selected ordinary citizens serve as lay judges and work alongside professional judges in criminal trials, was introduced 10 years ago this month. Given that it was launched to reflect the views of citizens in court decisions and promote public understanding and trust of the judiciary, the system may be deemed to have had some success. A February survey by the Supreme Court showed that more than 90 percent of the respondents were aware of the lay judge system — an indication of its high public recognition.

The past 10 years under the system have also exposed various problems. To sustain the system with public support, constant efforts must be made to improve the system to fix its problems.

Under the system, six lay judges sit alongside three professional judges and hand down rulings by majority. According to the Supreme Court, a total of some 1.2 million people were selected as lay judge candidates over the past decade, and 90,000 of them actually took part in court proceedings either as a lay judge or as a substitute. The survey found that more than 90 percent of the participants in lay judge trials gave a positive evaluation of their experience.

At the same time, more than 70 percent of the people chosen as a candidate to be a lay judge have declined to accept the duty, or failed to show up for the actual selection of lay judges for specific cases, citing various reasons such as pressing work duties that they could not skip.

This issue may relate to another problem in which the average length of lay judge trials is getting longer. When the system was introduced in 2009, it took an average of 3.7 days from the opening of the trial to the ruling; last year, it was nearly three times as long — an average of 10.8 days. The trial proceedings for a murder case at the Himeji branch of the Kobe District Court took a record 207 days before it wrapped up last November — meaning that the lay judges were tied up with the case for more than half a year.

The protracted period required for such trials is a problem that could undermine the public’s support of the lay judge system and must be addressed. Measures need to be taken to reduce the burden on people selected as lay judges. Steps should be explored to make court proceedings more efficient to stop them from becoming unnecessarily prolonged. Efforts also need to be made to facilitate the public’s participation in lay judge trials, such as urging employers to make it easier for their workers to take time off to serve as lay judges.

The introduction of the lay judge system has helped bring about changes in various aspects of the criminal justice system. The police and prosecutors have started to video-record their interrogation of suspects, and it will become mandatory in June for them to keep electronic records of the entire interrogation process in cases that are subject to lay judge trials to ensure the transparency of the process and to stop people from being falsely charged with crimes through forced confessions.

A system was also introduced to hold pre-trial proceedings in which the parties involved seek to narrow down the points to be contested in court, thereby preventing the trial process from becoming protracted. In recent years, however, the pre-trial proceeding itself has reportedly become longer.

More than 60 percent of the people who have experienced lay judge duty are said to have stated in the Supreme Court survey that the trial proceeding was easy enough to understand. The introduction of the lay judge system also aimed for a departure from the old practice in which criminal trial proceedings focused heavily on examinations of the documented depositions made during interrogations and a shift toward direct testimony and questioning of the accused and witnesses. These efforts need to be upheld to make the trial proceedings easy to understand for lay judges. At the same time, disclosure of all evidence, including that which does not support the prosecutors’ case, should be promoted to prevent wrongful convictions.

The lay judges take part not just in judgments but also in sentencing. It has been noted that since the system was introduced, the sentencing on some types of crimes has tended to become severe than when the trials were handled by professional judges alone, while suspended sentences are being handed down more frequently than in the past. In more recent years, however, the range of deviation from past patterns of court decisions is said to have become narrower. Whether lay judges are finding it harder to have their viewpoints reflected in the court decisions is worth monitoring.