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Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2007

In need of legal help? Just dial the center

JLSC operators are standing by to guide callers with life's problems


Staff writer

From marital woes to financial crises, people often require legal assistance for the problems they face in life.

News photo
Operators field inquires about legal problems at the call center of the Japan Legal Support Center in Nakano Ward, Tokyo. SETSUKO KAMIYA PHOTO

Enter the Japan Legal Support Center. Ever since its services began last October, thousands of people in need of legal help to protect their rights, including foreigners, have turned to the center, which is also known as Houterasu.

JLSC was established in April 2006 by the government to fill the gap between the legal community and a public that is often clueless about legal rights.

The center's creation was in line with ongoing judicial reforms aiming to improve the legal system both in terms of quality and quantity. JLSC is expected to play a key role in making the legal world more accessible so it can better serve to resolve the problems members of the public face, said Kazuho Seki, an official at the support center.

"The legal system was unfamiliar to the public for a long time, so even though there were many people who fell victim to fraud and were swindled, they endured in bitter silence because they didn't know who to turn to," said Seki, who is also a prosecutor.

Now when a troubled caller turns to JLSC, the operator can offer information on laws and the available legal options.

If further legal assistance is necessary, the caller will be referred to a local bar association, judicial scrivener association, municipality or other suitable organization where specialists are on hand to assess the problem and provide assistance. The specialists then handle each case separately.

All calls are received at JLSC's call center in Nakano Ward, Tokyo, where 80 trained operators take inquiries from Monday through Saturday. The majority of them are licensed consumer councilors, but they also include former court officials, Justice Ministry personnel and law school students.

Since July, lawyers are present at the call center so they can sometimes actually field inquiries when the problems are complicated. To help foreign residents who do not speak Japanese, an English-speaking operator is available.

While this may all sound simple and efficient, JLSC is in fact the first go-between for the public and the nation's legal circles.

Even though legal professional groups and local governments have had special venues for free legal consultations, Seki said it was only when JLSC was established that a nationwide database of such organizations was compiled and put to use, consequently increasing overall traffic.

Last year, a large number of inquiries to JLSC were related to debts, marriages, relationships and inheritance issues, which Seki said reflects social trends. In the case of foreigners, inquiries included employment, visas, marriage and parental rights issues as well as questions on how to file lawsuits in Japan, according to JLSC.

The center also helps people victimized by crime who often feel they have been left in the dark. In their case, special operators handle their calls and give necessary information, including referrals to lawyers and organizations that can help recoup damages.

JLSC's ultimate goal is to ensure more people benefit from the legal system. Its programs include giving loans to people in financial difficulty who need professional help in civil cases, such as for preparing legal documents and being represented in court. Foreigners with a valid visa and a registered address in Japan can apply for this civil legal aid if necessary.

The center has 50 branches nationwide to ensure lawyers and other legal aid are available in all areas. JLSC also dispatches staff lawyers to offices in remote areas. They not only work on civil cases but also criminal cases, including becoming court-appointed counsels for defendants who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

Despite the important role JLSC can play, Seki admitted the support center needs to work harder to promote and improve its services.

"We really want more people to call us," Seki said. "It's better to reach for ways to deal with problems as quickly as possible, because the longer it takes, the harder it becomes to resolve them."

The Japan Legal Support Center, or Houterasu, can be reached at 0570-078374. Overseas callers can dial 81-3-6745-5600. Operating hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. JLSC plans to set up an English-language Web site by the end of March. Further information in Japanese can be viewed at www.houterasu.or.jp


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