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Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010


Improving inquest panel system

A long with the introduction of the lay judge system, another great change was made to Japan's judiciary system in May 2009. A law revision that took effect then has empowered prosecution inquest committees to override prosecutors' decisions not to file an indictment in a criminal case, if their voting meets certain conditions. The committee consists of 11 randomly-selected people.

Widely reported decisions by such panels imposing indictments include those against a vice police station head accused of failing to prevent a July 2001 stampede in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, which killed 11 people; three former West Japan Railway presidents accused of failing to prevent an April 2005 train accident in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, which caused 107 deaths and injured 562 people; and former Democratic Party of Japan leader Ichiro Ozawa, allegedly involved in fund reporting irregularities.

The new system is designed to reflect citizens' voices in criminal procedures. But the system needs revamping if it is to take root. In the lay judge system, six lay judges and three professional judges discuss the case before reaching a conclusion. In contrast, legal professionals do not take part in the discussions by prosecution inquest committee members. At present, a lawyer gives advice on legal matters related to handling of a particular case. One wonders if just one lawyer is sufficient to do his or her job adequately.

People who face indictment and their lawyers are not allowed to state their case before a committee. A revision should be made so that they can speak before committee members. Efforts also should be made so that the public can know what opinions were expressed by committee members before they reached a conclusion.

Court-appointed lawyers indict suspects if prosecution inquest committees' votes override prosecutors' no-indictment decisions. They should be given sufficient support from the investigative authorities. But what if they find committees' arguments, or evidence, too weak to file an indictment? One wonders whether experts had discussed such a possibility when revising the law.

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