Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Reform Bid, Japan Opts for Trial by Jury ; Legal Experts Expect the New Law, Passed Last Month, Will Transform Japan's Judiciary

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Reform Bid, Japan Opts for Trial by Jury ; Legal Experts Expect the New Law, Passed Last Month, Will Transform Japan's Judiciary

Article excerpt

Japan passed a judicial reform bill in late May that has the potential to spark both major legal and social change - the introduction of a jury system.

The little noticed legislation will enable Japanese citizens 20 years or older to sit on a six-person jury and vote with a panel of judges on serious criminal cases such as murder.

The law, which takes effect in 2009, is an attempt to address a legal system plagued by delays and opacity. Questionable methods of gathering evidence and unorthodox decisionmaking currently weigh the scales of justice so heavily in favor of the prosecutor that Japan has a conviction rate of close to 99 percent. This compares with a rate of around 89 percent in US federal courts.

"The impact of its influence on the criminal justice system will be huge," says Mika Kudo, a staff attorney at the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.

Experts say the presence of a jury will increase scrutiny of the tools employed by the prosecution. Under the current cloistered system, judges' decisions related to the facts of a case normally defer to the prosecutor's wide-ranging and often unchecked powers of investigation. Because suspects can be held for up to 23 days without access to lawyer before being charged, prosecutors almost always succeed in extracting a confession of guilt.

"Ordinary citizens in the jury box will be placed in a position to examine the quality of evidence, the quality of prosecution," says Hiroshi Fukurai, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who is researching Japan's judicial reform.

If a defendant tries to retract or deny a confession in front of a jury, it will spotlight the issue and may lead to an eventual realization that confessions taken under such duress are inappropriate as evidence of guilt.

"Civic participation [in the court process] can effect changes in the way the investigation is done, how the evidence is being collected, how the trial is being prepared, how the evidence is being presented.... It has a ripple effect," which may lead to a fairer system for defendants in the long run, Mr. Fukurai says.

With citizens participating in the process, the court will need to make legal terminology understandable and also make trials amenable to a single continuous sitting. The adjudication process is currently broken up into stages, with up to a month between each. Consequently, court cases in Japan typically drag on for years. Sometimes the parties to a case die before it can be resolved.

Too few lawyers?

Japan's chronic shortage of lawyers is another cause - despite having a population around two-fifths the size of the US, Japan has less than one-fiftieth the number of lawyers. Until last year there was only one institution in Japan at which judges, prosecutors, and lawyers could become qualified to practice law, and the bar exam's annual pass rate was kept at a ludicrously low 3 percent. …

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