June 12, 2009 / 6:48 AM / 8 years ago

Japan brings reluctant public into crime trials

5 Min Read

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.

Japan's judges reach verdicts and pass sentences largely on the basis of paperwork. Many trials are very lengthy and usually end in a guilty verdict for more than 99 percent of cases.

One of the aims of the new system, from which defendants cannot opt out, is to reach a verdict in a few days.

Public Unease

Some Japanese reject the lay judge system entirely, and are campaigning to have it suspended. Family relations consultant Hiromi Ikeuchi says acting as a judge will be a needless burden on people who are not trained or paid to deal with the stress.

"It doesn't suit the Japanese temperament," she said. "I would not want my own 20-year-old daughter, for example, to have to examine disturbing photographic evidence from a rape-murder."

"If they want to open the legal system up to the public, they should just broadcast trials on television," Ikeuchi added.

Others are calling for changes in the system, which comes into force months after a previous legal shift allowed victims or their families to question the defendant in court.

"I supported the system at first," said Setsuo Miyazawa, a law professor at Aoyama Gakuin University. "I thought lay people would uncover the many cases of bad police investigation, especially the way they question people," he added.

But Miyazawa says he now fears victims' families may hold too much emotional sway over lay judges.

Japan's police are often accused of using violence and intimidation to obtain the confessions that form the basis of most convictions. Attempts to stamp out the problem by introducing full recording of questioning have so far failed.

In the latest case, Toshikazu Sugaya was released from jail last week after 17 years when his conviction for the killing of a four-year-old girl was overturned after DNA evidence was found not to match. He told media an initial confession had been drawn from him under duress.

Opponents of the death penalty, though a minority in Japan, are also concerned about the new system.

"Through our own negligence, we let this bill pass without debating it properly," said lawmaker Shizuka Kamei, a former policeman and deputy leader of the small People's New Party.

"We assumed it was just like a jury system, but it requires people to pass sentences, including the death penalty, by majority verdict," he added. Kamei says death sentences should be passed only by unanimous vote.

The new trial system is set to be reviewed after three years, but Kamei says he hopes to push changes through sooner if the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party loses power, as opinion polls show it may, in an election that must be held by October.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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