Emphasize Importance of Preserving Historical Materials

Records of incidents that have had a significant impact on society are the common property of the people. Courts must urgently establish a system to preserve court records of historical value for future generations.

The Supreme Court has released an investigative report on the discarding of court records, including those for the 1997 serial child murders and attacks in Kobe.

The report states that of the 87 juvenile cases and civil lawsuits that were examined by the top court for how their records were discarded, the records for more than 70 had been disposed of automatically, without even consideration of whether they should be preserved within the courts.

The top court, in its internal regulations and other rules, stipulates that records of juvenile cases be preserved until the perpetrators reach the age of 26. It also states that records of the cases that have attracted the attention of society, which are valuable as historical materials, should be preserved de facto permanently.

Records of incidents are useful for examining the social background of crimes and preventing recurrences. The handling of the records by various courts was very sloppy, as they were disposed of without even examining the contents. It also wounded the feelings of the bereaved families who wanted to know why their families were victimized.

The report said that the reason for the successive destruction of records was that courts considered that “the primary role of courts was to resolve disputes, and records were in principle destroyed after their retention period had expired.”

Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court notified each court of the need to prevent the volume of records being preserved from growing too large. This led to a reluctance to preserve records.

From now on, however, the top court will seek to establish the idea that records of historical and social significance are “property to be shared with the people.” Court officials and others must change their mindset that is based on the premise of discarding records.

As time goes by, the historical evaluation of incidents becomes ambiguous, and court staff members are also replaced. It is important to ensure that the procedures for permanent preservation of court materials are carried out when trials are finalized, not when the perpetrators turn 26 years old.

The Supreme Court intends to establish a third-party panel to create a system for the proper preservation of records.

Another reason why court records were discarded was a lack of storage space. Since the standard for permanent preservation was clarified in 2020, the number of cases being preserved has been increasing.

Securing storage space is a pressing issue. It may be worth considering the transfer of records that have been decided to be permanently preserved to the National Archives of Japan or other facilities.

The judiciary field is undergoing a shift to digitization. If records are digitized, preservation should become easier.

How will the preserved court records be utilized in society? While giving consideration to the privacy of those involved, a disclosure mechanism should also be considered so that the records can be used for academic research and other purposes.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 7, 2023)