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A new day for Japanese justice

Here comes the (lay) judge.

Japanese police try to control reporters outside the Tokyo District Court. Inside the courthouse and in others across the country, a more orderly but still radical change is taking place to Japan's judicial system in which lay judges will work together with professional judges to arrive at verdicts in court cases. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

TOKYO — In a radical change to Japan's modern justice system, lay judges will now be involved in trials of serious crimes: Six lay judges will sit on the bench alongside three professional judges at trials.

Reaction is mixed. While many welcome the change, some Japanese are expressing a reluctance to decide the fates of their fellow citizens. Still others, including some legal professionals, have voiced concerns about the plan.

Unlike jurors, these “saiban-in” will actually deliberate with the regular judges on matters of factual evidence and sentencing, in addition to assessing guilt or innocence. But the most groundbreaking element of the change may be the power these "saiban-in" will have to question defendants and witnesses.

Japan has long faced criticism from international groups, including Amnesty International, for its legal system: They've highlighted prolonged detention without access to lawyers, alleged forced confessions and almost 100 percent conviction rates at trial. But few in Japan believe that this was the catalyst for change.

“Outside pressure was not so important to the current reforms; defense lawyers here have long been critical of the trial system,” said Hiroshi Kawatsu, a trial attorney who heads the Japan Federation of Bar Associations’ (JFBA) Research Office for Judicial Reform. Kawatsu studied trial advocacy in the U.S., and has been training young Japanese lawyers to prepare them for the new system.

One beneficial side effect of the changes will likely be a faster criminal justice process, as the current practice of spreading trials out over months, and sometimes years, will end.

“Judges sometimes work on dozens of cases at a time, sitting one day a month on each trial, spending the time between reading case documents,” Kawatsu explained. The need for lay judges to return to their normal lives will make this impractical, and Japan is thus adopting a more focused approach to pre-trial procedures and evidence.

Some observers have raised the specter of lay judges being dominated by the professionals, but Kawatsu said trials will be closely monitored with this in mind.