Awareness lacking on importance of passing on materials to future generations

The records of incidents that significantly impacted society are important materials to pass down through history. The courts involved in the disposal of such documents must inspect how this happened and use the findings to review their record preservation system.

It was recently revealed that the Kobe Family Court in 2011 discarded all records of the 1997 case in which children in the city were attacked and murdered. The lost records are believed to cover a wide range of materials, including statements made by and psychiatric evaluation reports of the juvenile offender.

The then 14-year-old boy assaulted five elementary school students, killing two of them. How he went about the crimes, such as mutilating a victim’s body and sending a letter claiming responsibility to a newspaper company, sent shock waves through society, spurring the move to lower the age at which criminal penalties can be applied from 16 to 14.

Bylaws stipulate that courts preserve the records of juvenile cases until the perpetrator turns 26, while incidents that have attracted the public’s attention are effectively preserved in perpetuity under special preservation provisions.

In 2019, some courts were found to have disposed of important civil court records, a revelation that prompted the clarification of criteria for cases subject to permanent preservation, such as “at least two major daily newspapers have reported on the incident in their national editions.”

It goes without saying that the Kobe case falls under the category of records that should have been preserved.

Despite that, why were all the records of the Kobe case discarded? The circumstances of how this happened have remained unclear. An investigation should be carried out to discern who decided to dispose of the documents and when, so as to improve the record preservation management system.

Juvenile trials are closed to the public, thus the bereaved family members in the Kobe case were unable to attend the hearings. The families were naturally enraged over the discarding of the records, with one family member saying, “The possibility of coming closer to an answer to the question of why my son’s life was taken has been lost forever.”

The 2004 incident in which an 11-year-old girl killed her classmate in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, was among the other cases for which records were revealed to have been discarded.

Only 15 juvenile cases nationwide have had their records preserved permanently. This could be attributed to the practice of leaving it up to each court to decide whether to preserve a record permanently amid vague criteria.

The Supreme Court will hold a meeting with a panel of experts to examine how to manage the preservation and disposal of records. Whether criteria for permanent preservation have been sufficiently disseminated to courts across the nation and appropriately implemented should also be inspected.

The digitization of court trials is underway. Once digitized, the preservation of records will likely become easier. With this in mind, it is important to discuss preservation rules.

In recent years, the careless administrative management of official documents has undermined public trust. People connected to the matter should reaffirm that records of important trials are also assets to be shared with the public and thus need to be preserved for future generations.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 7, 2022)