Jury system starts in Japan
posted on Thursday, May 21, 2009 12:38 PM
Japan joined the ranks of many other countries Thursday in having a judicial system that enables ordinary citizens to try criminal cases, but many of the public remain reluctant to serve as jurors and some experts are critical of the excessive lifetime secrecy obligation imposed on them.
The first trial overseen by a panel of professional judges and lay jurors is expected to be held at the earliest in late July, while attention will be focused on whether the new system can bring a change to a trial process criticized for being too abstruse and out of touch with popular sentiment.
Seeking ‘‘faster, friendlier and more reliable’’ administration of justice, the lay jury system focuses on courtroom exchanges rather than traditional lengthy out-of-court perusal of investigative records.
The public will be participating in trials for the first time in Japan since the jury system that was operated between 1928 and 1943, which was then suspended amid the rise of militarism. Okinawa had a jury system under U.S. occupation after World War II, which lasted until 1972.
Until now, Japan has been the only Group of Eight nation with no system enabling the public to participate in criminal trial procedures.
Under a law that took effect Thursday, in principle, six citizens randomly selected from among eligible voters will examine serious criminal cases, such as murder and robbery resulting in death, together with three professional judges at district courts.
Jurors will also participate in determining the sentence, including the death penalty. In this sense, the system differs from the jury systems in such countries as the United States and Britain, where jurors determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant and judges determine the sentence.
The lifetime secrecy obligation imposed on jurors over the content of closed-door deliberations is also criticized by some as ‘‘too strict’’ compared with U.S. jurors, who are allowed to talk freely about such discussions after a trial ends.
The Japanese law on lay juries sets a maximum penalty of six months in prison or a 500,000 yen fine if they leak such information as who said what during the deliberations.
This issue has also drawn the attention of some ruling and opposition lawmakers, which formed a group on April 1 to seek a review of the system even though the law was enacted in 2004 after a unanimous vote in the House of Representatives.
The group has argued that heavy punishments for jurors violating the secrecy obligation could prevent them from blowing the whistle on mishandling of trials by professional judges.
They also find it problematic that constitutionally guaranteed freedom of thought and principle may not be accepted as reasons for jury candidates to refuse to serve, as there is no such stipulation in the law.
The lay jury law stipulates that the government will review the system, if necessary, three years after its introduction.
Criminal cases for which indictments are filed from Thursday onwards will be tried under the new system. Following the indictments, legal professionals will engage in a ‘‘pretrial arrangement procedure’’ that will aim to narrow down the arguments and evidence to keep the trial period short for the convenience of the jurors.
The procedure for the earliest cases with few points of controversy, involving prosecutors, defense lawyers and professional judges, is expected to be completed as early as mid-June. Courts will then call up about 50 to 100 lay judge candidates for each case.
The new system was proposed in June 2001 by a government judicial reform panel, which concluded that public understanding and support for the justice system will be deepened by having the ‘‘sound social common sense of the public’’ reflected more directly in judgments.
Behind the move were calls from the business world in the 1990s to enhance the role of the judiciary in settling disputes in an era of deregulation as well as question marks over the criminal trial process following a series of retrials in the 1980s that overturned finalized capital cases.
The overturned cases mainly involved forced confessions obtained during closed-door questioning by investigators.
Other criminal procedures have also shown a change prior to the start of the lay jury system, such as the partial videotaping of questioning to ensure greater transparency of investigations.
Kyodo News 2009