Japan Marks 15 Years Since Lay Judge System Introduced; Survey Finds Most Participants Had Positive Experience

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Wakayama District Court in Wakayama, where a lay judge trial was to be held, in December 2022.

Japan marked the 15th anniversary of the introduction of its lay judge system Tuesday, with a Supreme Court survey finding that most participants found their experience to be a positive one.

However, a number of issues remain to be addressed in the lay judge system, which calls upon ordinary citizens to help reach a verdict in criminal cases.

Pretrial conference procedures — in which judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers select the key issues in contention and the main points to be addressed at trial — have become prolonged. Also, the percentage of lay judge candidates who decline to participate remained high.

Hard to combine with work

The lay judge system was introduced on May 21, 2009. As of February this year, about 4 million people had been listed in the registry of lay judge candidates, and a total of 124,017 had been selected as lay judges or substitutes, according to the Supreme Court. Substitutes step in when a lay judge cannot serve due to illness or some other reason.

In a survey conducted by the Supreme Court, 95.8% of those who had served as a lay judge deemed it to be a “very good” or “good” experience, and 66.4% said the proceedings were “easy to understand” or “easy to follow.”

However, 53.1% of lay judge candidates declined to participate in 2009, and the percentage has increased over the years. Since 2017, the rate has been more than 66%, with two out of every three candidates refusing.

The increase is believed to stem from the fact that court hearings are taking longer.

The average number of days spent on lay judge trial proceedings from the opening of a trial to judgment increased from 3.7 days in 2009 to 17.5 days in 2022 and 14.9 days in 2023.

A 42-year-old company employee served as a lay judge in an attempted murder case at the Tokyo District Court for about a month from October to November 2023. The woman said she had to change her work schedule as a result, inconveniencing her clients and colleagues.

“I had a valuable experience, but it was difficult to adjust my work schedule. I can’t strongly recommend it to people in the working generation if they can’t secure the understanding of their workplace,” she said.

Another major issue is the lengthening of pretrial conference procedures. In order to conduct hearings properly, trials must be held while the memories of those involved in the case are still vivid.

However, the average time spent on the procedures was 11.1 months in 2023, about four times the length when the system was first introduced.

“The length of time [required for a trial] may cause witnesses’ memories to fade, which could interfere with holding a proper trial,” said Supreme Court Chief Justice Saburo Tokura at a press conference before Constitution Day on May 3.

First trial emphasized

A total of 16,046 defendants had been sentenced in lay judge trials by the end of February. Of these, 98.9% were found guilty, the same level as in professional judge-only trials before the lay judge system was introduced.

The number of defendants whose convictions were overturned in higher courts was 512, or 9.4% of the total as of 2023, down from 17.6% in the three years before the system was implemented. This underscores the stance of the courts to place more emphasis on the first trial.

However, eight of the 46 death sentences handed down by the end of February of this year were overturned. This appears to reflect the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that caution must be exercised in the use of the death penalty.

A panel of lay judges at a district court sentenced the defendant to death in a trial related to the 2012 attack in which two people were fatally stabbed in Shinsaibashi, Osaka. However, a higher court overturned the verdict and gave the defendant a life sentence. The Supreme Court ultimately finalized life imprisonment for the defendant.

“The feelings of the lay judges, who took the case seriously, were easily overturned. I hope legal professionals will repeatedly ask themselves the meaning of the [lay judge] system,” said Yuki Minamino, 54, who lost her husband in the attack.