Citizen-judge system will be effective if it reflects people's good sense -- Akahata editorial, February 5

A governmental task force on judicial reform issued a plan for the framework of the citizen-judge system that will pave the way for the general public to participate in criminal trials. At issue had been how to strike a balance in the composition between professional judges and lay judges. Based on a plan agreed by the ruling parties, the task force proposed placing three professionals and six citizen-judges in principle. Is this enough to reflect people's confidence in the new system?

Citizen participation is very significant and the need now is to develop a system that gives citizen-judges a substantive role to play.

Need to make citizen involvement easier

It is essential to secure a sufficient number of citizen-judges so that various ideas from various walks of life, gender, age, and occupation can be reflected and they discuss with professional judges on an equal footing. That's why the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, the Japan Lawyers Association for Freedom, and other civic organizations are unanimous in calling for around ten citizen-judges to be named for every one or two professional judges.

The Supreme Court and the Ministry of Justice have proposed holding down the number of citizen-judges sitting with three professional judges. If clinging to the three-judge system composition as called for in the draft framework, professional judges will lead trials and seize the initiative in all trial proceedings.

Furthermore, if the defendant admits to the allegation in the indictment and neither the prosecution nor defense have an objection, just a small trial will be held with one professional and four lay judges. In many cases, determination of appropriate punishment becomes a point of issue. Nevertheless, can such a small number of judges reflect people's various values and opinions?

The Judicial Reform Council's opinion has called for trials to reflect the people's sound social common sense ensuring that "the people can be involved with trials substantively and independently." In this respect, the task force's plan raised the question whether it is conducive to trials to really be open to popular participation.

The lay judge system, if enacted, will become the people's right and obligation, making it essential to provide conditions for easy public participation.

The task force plan states that a person can decline an appointment as a lay judge in case that the person is preoccupied with nursing care or child care in the family or that the appointment seriously impedes work obligations. A survey by a citizens' organization shows that many people call for the availability to day child care and similar services. A system of support is needed so that people who have to rear children or nurse the sick are not excluded from appointment.

The task force plan states that employers are required to allow a day off for the appointed worker to appear in court as a citizen judge and prohibits them from treating the worker disadvantageously. But it does not call for offenses to be punished.

In the profit-first corporate environment, a worker may be forced to decline the appointment because the employee will have to give work priority, even if that worker personally wants to accept. To prevent such a thing from taking place, it is necessary to guarantee nominees' participation.

Citizen judges will have the duty of confidentiality. A leak of what is being discussed in court will be subject to prison terms or fines. The threat of prison terms will discourage people from taking part in trials as citizen judges. Punishment should be avoided as much as possible and the imprisonment clause deleted.

For drastic change of criminal courts

To ensure that ordinary citizens can give impartial opinions in courts, it is necessary for trials to change away from the conventional approach centered on written evidences including affidavits into one in which witnesses and the accused testify in court.

Behind the call for a drastic judicial reform is the fact that the conventional approach regarding confessions as the strongest evidence, placing too much importance on written evidences, has produced many cases of false charges and imprisonment. The draft outline, however, is insufficient in meeting the call. The system of using a police detention room as a substitute prison, which was often the place where police forced the suspects to confess, should be abolished. All evidence that the prosecutor has should be made public. It is also necessary to keep records of visual and aural images during the interrogation process.

The lay judge system is an important component of the proposed judicial reform. Only by drastically improving the processes of criminal courts, the judiciary will be able to increase public confidence in court. (end)

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