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Editorial: Restart criminal trials gradually with infection prevention measures

  • May 9, 2020
  • , The Japan News , 7:08 p.m.
  • English Press

The spread of the new coronavirus has forced many trials to be postponed. Chiefly, most lay judge trials, which deal with serious crimes such as murder, have been suspended nationwide since April.


In lay judge trials, anywhere from dozens to more than 100 candidates are summoned to a court for the selection of lay judges. When a trial begins, three judges and six lay judges discuss the case for a long time.


This process is likely to cause a crowded atmosphere, which could lead to the spread of infections. It is inevitable for trials to be postponed.


However, trial postponements prolong the detention of defendants. If a defendant is found not guilty or given a suspended sentence, prolonged detention would be extremely detrimental to them.


In the first place, there is a risk of infringing defendants’ right of access to a speedy trial, which is guaranteed by the Constitution.


It is necessary to gradually resume trials in areas where the number of people infected with the virus is low. In doing so, it is important to take thorough measures to prevent infection.


For example, when selecting lay judges, a spacious waiting area should be prepared. It is also necessary to devise a creative solution such as staggering the time for calling up candidates so that a large number of candidates do not gather at once.


If judges and lay judges are kept separate in several rooms during deliberations in a trial and connected to each other through a web conference system, they will be able to avoid crowding.


The law on lay judges stipulates that a case in which there is no dispute over the charge can be tried by one judge and four lay judges. Although there have been no such cases in the past, the number of candidates summoned is smaller than for a typical trial, which requires six lay judges. It is worth considering looking for ways to actively utilize this system.


Even in cases subject to lay judge trials, there is a provision that allows judges alone to conduct trials in cases involving organized crime groups or when extremely long trials are expected. In the future, whether such rules can be applied in the event of a pandemic can be put on the national agenda.


In 2016, the Supreme Court drew up an operation continuity plan that assumed an outbreak of an unknown infectious disease. Although the court decided on the types of trials that should be given priority, the total postponement of lay judge trials was beyond expectations.


The plan should be completely overhauled based on the lessons learned at this time.


It is also important to prevent defendants in detention becoming infected.


The Justice Ministry, in principle, bans defendants from meeting people other than lawyers at detention centers in prefectures that are on special alert status.


The purpose of this measure is to reduce the risk of infection, but in some cases it is necessary for defendants to meet with family members or others to prepare for trials. Flexible steps are essential.


— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 9, 2020.

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