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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lay judge system reviewed after auspicious start


Now that the lay judge system is 3 years old, it is undergoing its mandatory evaluation.

Possible points of review include the confidentiality requirement for lay judges, the scope of cases that may be examined by citizen judges, and procedures in cases of crimes punishable by death.

Because the prevailing view is that the system is functioning fairly well, it is unclear whether the review will result in any changes.

The lay judge system was introduced in May 2009 with the aim of reflecting the common sense of ordinary citizens in court trials.

Supreme Court data show that as of the end of March, 3,601 defendants received verdicts in cases examined by lay judges. A total of 20,817 people served as lay judges and 7,257 people served as alternates.

Separate data from the Supreme Public Prosecutor's Office show that by the end of April, 4,708 defendants were prosecuted and 3,690 received verdicts.

Fourteen of them were sentenced to hang, while 18 were acquitted of all charges.

According to an annual questionnaire by the Supreme Court, in each of the past three years more than 95 percent of people who served as citizen judges regarded it as a positive experience.

The Justice Ministry is leading deliberations on the possible revamp of the lay judge system.

The ministry will make a final decision after hearing the opinions of an 11-member panel consisting of lawyers and representatives from citizens' groups and media organizations.

The panel, established in 2009, has already completed such tasks as examining the records of cases involving lay judges and listening to the opinions of professional judges, prosecutors and lawyers as well as court interpreters, psychiatrists and organizations representing crime victims. Since March, the panel has been working to sort out specific points of debate.

One possible point is whether citizen judges should continue to be involved in trials dealing with illegal drugs and sex crimes.

In most drug cases, lay judges have acquitted defendants, a trend that has sparked criticism that ordinary people are unfamiliar with drug-related offenses. Meanwhile, lay judges' involvement in sex crime trials is seen as posing a potential threat to the protection of victims' privacy.

Contentious issues to be considered by the advisory panel also include whether to keep letting lay judges participate in cases of crimes punishable by death.

The panel will also consider whether lay judges' confidentiality obligation should be relaxed.

An official at the Justice Ministry's Criminal Investigation Bureau expressed hope of reaching a final decision on the revision as early as possible.

In March, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations released proposals for overhauling the lay judge system.

The federation proposes, for example, that a death penalty verdict be reached unanimously by lay judges, instead of by a majority as at present.

It recommends that lay judges who violate the duty of confidentiality be punished only if the violation is malicious.

A group of citizens who have served as lay judges has also presented reform proposals to 60 district courts and branch offices across the country.

Among the proposals are requiring prosecutors to disclose all evidence to defense lawyers in principle and ensuring that lay judges are allowed to continue their deliberations until they are satisfied.

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