Japan brings reluctant public into crime trials

Fri Jun 12, 2009 2:44am EDT
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By Isabel Reynolds

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Japan is counting down to its biggest legal revolution in 60 years, opening up its criminal justice system by bringing the public into court as lay judges -- but many say they'd rather leave it to professionals.

The new system, aimed at speeding up trials that have often dragged on for years, will require six members of the public chosen at random to join three professional judges to pass verdicts and sentences in serious criminal cases.

Media say August 3 will mark the start of the first of what are likely to be 2,000-3,000 such trials each year.

But opinion polls show almost half the population does not want to take part and many more are worried.

"Some people have said the trial system was difficult to understand, or that it was hard for ordinary people to use or to feel familiar with," said an official at the Justice Ministry, explaining the reasons for the change.

"Occasionally there were verdicts that didn't seem to quite chime with the views of the public," said the official, who declined to be named.

Japan introduced a limited jury system in the early 20th century, but suspended it during World War Two. Despite calls for it to be re-introduced, verdicts and sentencing have been the province of professional judges since then.

Neighboring South Korea has introduced a consultative jury system, but many prosecutors and even defense lawyers are reluctant to abandon the old way of doing things.   Continued...