Japan is all set to introduce a new lay judge system in May this year, which will be similar to both continental European-style mixed courts and the American lay jury system. For the first time in the history of Japan the government has been running a huge PR campaign to win public support for legal reform. A list of prospective jurors has been drawn up, and the first post-reform trials are expected to be held in July 2009.
Ordinary Japanese are set to become lay judges
Criminal trials in Japan often last for months and even years. Most of these trials consist of 'chosho saiban', i.e. written records. All the evidence is submitted by the prosecutor as written statements, normally wrapped up in difficult legal jargon. This leaves no scope for live testimony and debates. It also makes the accused vulnerable to the influence of the prosecutor.
But come May 2009, and a new system will be introduced to address this problem. Known as 'saibanin', the system introduces lay judges in criminal trials. This move aims at making the system more transparent and protecting the rights of the accused.
Under the system, six randomly chosen citizens will join three professional judges in criminal cases. The trials will be for serious crimes like rape, murder and robbery resulting in death or injury. It is hoped a verdict can be reached in most trials after three days.The cases will be decided by a simple majority.
Campaign for the new system
The system was devised back in 2004. Since then, the Ministry of Justice along with the Supreme Court has been campaigning widely. "They’ve been doing many different things. For example, they’ve created new websites explaining the system", says Setsuko Kamiya, a journalist with the "Japan Times". "They started dispatching the judges and prosecutors to companies. A lot of mock trials have been conducted and we see a lot of posters."
300,000 prospective lay jurors were notified by the Supreme Court in November 2008. A call centre set up by the court also got callers requesting to be exempted from jury duty. So, the public reaction to the system is mixed. "We haven’t had any specific information or explanations from the government", says Junichi Yamamoto, a 24-year-old Japanese. "And we don’t know any guidelines about judging these people. I am not confident to say that I can make a sort of clear judgment or fair judgment."
The legal reforms in Japan gained pace with the formation of the Justice Reform Council in 2001. The 'saibanin' system was a direct offshoot of the council’s aim to establish a popular base for the justice system. However, some observers think that it is hard for Japanese society to adjust to these changes. Professor Curtis Milhaupt, Director of Japanese Legal Studies Centre, Columbia Law School explains:
"Japan obviously has no public notion, no public culture of a jury system. The last time there was any jury system in Japan was about 80 years ago. Its going to be very hard I think for the public consciousness to develop the sense of what actually goes on, how jurors perceive their experiences and alike."
The changes appear to represent a clear improvement in the legal system by placing members of the public alongside professional judges. But it remains unclear just how willing the Japanese are to play their role in the new style of trials. Much will depend upon their willingess to play their part.