Overall, few citizens selected to serve as judges in criminal trials quibble with the rulings handed down, but a survey by The Asahi Shimbun showed that many respondents feel the system needs tweaking.
May 21 will mark the 10th anniversary of the start of the lay judge system that was designed to include the sensibilities of ordinary citizens in judicial rulings.
Questionnaires were sent in March and April to 1,772 citizens who served as lay judges and whose contact points were known by Asahi reporters. Responses were received from 748 individuals.
The respondents were asked if they felt a gap in sensibility between themselves and the professional judges overseeing the case during the closed deliberations leading to a decision on the verdict. Six lay judges join the three professionals to reach a ruling.
While 46 percent of respondents said they felt a difference, 47 percent said they did not.
However, 77 percent of respondents said they were comfortable with the subsequent verdict handed down in the case. Only 18 percent of respondents took issue with the verdict.
Respondents were also asked their views on changes in the punishment for certain crimes since the start of the lay judge system.
For example, penalties for sex crimes have generally become stricter. Eighty-four percent of respondents said the heavier punishment was appropriate.
Fifty-five percent of respondents described as “appropriate” lighter punishment in some murder cases to reflect mitigating circumstances, such was when a family member ends up killing an infirm and elderly loved one due to accumulated stress and fatigue over many years.
While the survey responses show that many of the lay judges found the experience to have been a positive one, problems continue to dog the lay judge system itself.
One issue is the increasing number of citizens who turn down requests to sit for a trial due to work or child-rearing responsibilities.
In 2018, a record 67 percent of candidate lay judges were allowed to remove themselves from trial duty because of such responsibilities.
One reason may be that many companies still do not have a system in place that allows employees to take time off from work to specifically serve as a citizen judge.
Only 35 percent of respondents said such a system was available to them. Seventeen percent said they took paid leave instead to serve in the courtroom.
Thirty-two percent of respondents said they had no leave program to begin with. Most of those were the self-employed.
One factor behind a reluctance to serve stems from concerns that when defendants maintain their innocence, the proceedings could become prolonged.
Respondents were asked whether extended trials should exclude lay judges. While 22 percent of respondents said there was no need to make lay judges exempt from long trials, 26 percent said those expected to last a month or longer should not be covered by the lay judge system. Thirty percent said those projected to last three months or longer should be excluded.
Some legal experts take issue with a provision requiring lay judges to keep confidential the contents of the trial deliberations. They contend that the restrictions hamper awareness within society about the meaning of the lay judge system because citizens cannot talk freely about what they felt during the trial.
However, 76 percent of the respondents said the restrictions on confidentiality were appropriate.
The lay judge system only applies to cases before the court of first instance. That led to some dissatisfaction that higher courts overturned the ruling reached in courts handled by the lay judge system. Forty-two percent of respondents said it was inappropriate for higher courts to overturn the rulings, while 23 percent said such rulings were appropriate and 36 percent were unsure.
At the same time, other questions about general rules regarding criminal trials led to somewhat disturbing trends.
While 58 percent of respondents said there were no trial rules they felt uncomfortable with, 17 percent said they had problems with defendants who exercised their right to remain silent. Fourteen percent were not comfortable with the concept of innocent until proven guilty, while 12 percent questioned the notion that prosecutors were responsible for submitting evidence to prove the crime.
(This article was compiled from reports by Gen Okamoto, Takuya Kitazawa and Shunsuke Abe.)