Promote digital tech in criminal justice system while protecting information

The use of digital technology in criminal justice system procedures, such as investigations and trials, can be said to meet the demands of the times. It is necessary to expedite the study of efficient procedures while taking all possible measures to prevent information from leaking out.

An expert panel set up by the Justice Ministry has held its first meeting to discuss the introduction of information technology in criminal justice procedures. The panel plans to work out issues for the realization of online request and issuance of items such as arrest warrants, electronic data management of criminal records and using online systems in trials.

The digitization of the judiciary was included in a new IT strategy decided during a Cabinet meeting in July last year. In civil lawsuits, online meetings between courts and lawyers’ offices have already started. However, criminal justice procedures in principle are still handled on paper.

Regarding the arrest of a suspect or the search of related premises, police officers are among those who directly go to a court to obtain an arrest or search warrant from a judge. In some cases, it takes several hours to make a round trip from a remote island and other special situations in order to obtain a warrant. Online procedures will help speed up investigations and reduce the burden on investigators in the field.

If in-person communications can be omitted, it will also become a measure against infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

Lawyers have also called for the introduction of electronic data into indictments and documentary evidence. Documentary evidence gathered by the prosecution is disclosed to the defense after a suspect is indicted. However, since the defense is not allowed to take it out of prosecutors’ offices, it becomes necessary at times to make copies of up to tens of thousands of papers.

As the cost, time and effort required to do so is extensive, some lawyers say that obtaining prosecutors’ documentary evidence in such a conventional manner hinders their activities. If documents can be managed using electronic data, it would surely help investigative authorities and courts go paperless.

Investigative information handled in criminal justice procedures in particular is highly confidential. Thorough security management is essential when establishing a network linking police, prosecutors and courts and when disclosing evidence.

When a state of emergency was declared due to the coronavirus pandemic in the spring last year, many trial schedules, including lay judge trials, were canceled. In other countries, there have also been moves to explore the use of online systems in trials.

In Japan, mainly in order to reduce the burden on victims of sex crimes, a video-link system has been introduced in which victims testify in a separate room connected by video to the courtroom. The panel is expected to consider expanding the number of trials in which such a method can be used, among other topics.

Currently, judges face defendants and witnesses in court and determine whether the defendants are guilty or not guilty. It is hoped that the panel will thoroughly discuss whether using online systems in trials will hinder the way judges form a firm impression of defendants and how to balance the online systems with the principle of an open trial.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on April 7, 2021.