RIGHTS-JAPAN: Lay Judges Open Up Judicial System

  • by Suvendrini Kakuchi (tokyo)
  • Inter Press Service

'The new system is encouraging soul-searching for the first time,' says lawyer Yukio Yanagida. 'As a result, I see the lay-judge system as a landmark in fostering democracy in Japan.'

He even argues that the relatively new quasi-jury system, which was implemented only in May 2009, is particularly welcome now that the Japanese seem to have become less socially responsible.

'Japanese society is increasingly dealing with crimes now linked to poverty, family disorder, and mental breakdown,' observes Yanagida. 'It is time people begin to think crimes are no longer isolated incidents but rather a social problem. The lay-judge system is one way of doing this.'

The system certainly took long to make and implement, being one of the legal reforms pushed in the aftermath of Japan’s economic downturn in the 1990s.

But even a 2001 report by the Justice System Reform Council had argued that having lay judges may 'deepen the people’s understanding and support' for the judicial system, whose notorious secrecy had made it alien to the public.

It was also hoped that bringing ordinary citizens into the courtroom to judge their peers would not only help them appreciate the judicial process in a country that generally shuns lawsuits, but would also encourage the public to look deeper into the issues that lead people to commit crimes.

Japan’s lay-judge system applies only to trials involving major criminal offences, which range from rape to murder, to arson. Six people are chosen randomly from the pool of registered voters in the district where the crime was committed. They are then joined in their tasks by three professional judges.

Deliberations are done in secret. The judges’ votes must be unanimous for a death sentence to be meted, while only a majority vote is needed for life imprisonment. Decisions handed down by lay-judge courts may be appealed before a court in which a professional judge presides.

Last Nov. 18, the first defendant ever to be meted a death sentence by a lay-judge court was urged by the court itself to appeal the judgement. The defendant had been found guilty of double murder.

On Nov. 25, a 19-year-old was sentenced to hang by another lay-judge court, after being found guilty of killing two women and seriously injuring another individual. His counsel advised him to file an appeal, although he said he was accepting the court’s judgement.

While the death sentences seem to come one after another, court observers note that it took the lay-judge system more than a year before it handed down such judgements. The system had its first trial only in August 2009. Since then, more than 1,330 cases have passed through it.

Criminal lawyer Satoru Ooshiro says he expects the reformed justice system to promote a serious discussion on the death penalty, one that in the end could challenge the popular view that the grief of the victim’s family needs to be eased.

'The public belief is that the death penalty deters crime and brings justice,' says Ooshiro, who heads Lay Judges Net, a group set up to help citizens discuss their inhibitions and personal stress they encounter while serving as lay judges. 'But as ordinary people become involved by participating as lay judges, I expect diverse viewpoints to appear.'

Support for capital punishment was above 70 percent in a poll conducted by the Justice Ministry in August. In December 2009, more than half of Japanese polled in one survey said that those who commit heinous crimes should pay with their lives, and many also believed that abolishing the death penalty would lead to more crimes.

Interestingly, a survey on lay judges conducted in early May by the ‘Yomiuri’ newspaper indicated that the rehabilitation of defendants was top priority for the citizen judges, while the feelings of victims were at third place.

At a press conference that followed the first case in which a lay-judge court handed down a death sentence, one of the lay judges admitted that he realised how difficult it was to pass such a sentence.

Ooshiro says that a key aspect in Japanese justice is the feelings of remorse expressed by the defendant, a factor that can influence lay judges who tend to view a case based on their emotions. By comparison, professional judges rely more on legal precedents.

But lay judges may be taking after their professional counterparts soon.

Iwao Takasu, a massage therapist who sat as a lay judge in late 2009, says, 'The experience was mind-boggling. The first day I was angry with the accused, but the second day, as the proceedings went ahead, I began to think calmly and logically. In the end, the judgement we delivered was definitely not based only on narrow personal sentimentality.'

He and his fellow judges — lay and professional — meted a suspended jail term on a man who admitted to molesting and injuring a 16-year-old girl.

Takasu, who says his lay-judge stint gave him the 'most important life lesson' he has had so far, has since joined the Lay Judges Network, which also aims to raise awareness about an individual’s social responsibility.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service