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COVID-19 triggers calls for altering lay judge system

  • May 20, 2020
  • , Jiji Press , 4:54 p.m.
  • English Press

Tokyo, May 20 (Jiji Press)–Calls are mounting for Japan’s lay judge system to be revised or implemented flexibly amid the novel coronavirus epidemic, with the system marking 11 years since its introduction on Thursday.


Lay judge trials have restarted in some regions after being suspended nationwide to prevent the spread of the virus. Some argued that the halt deprived defendants of the right to a swift trial.


At Matsue District Court in Shimane Prefecture, western Japan, the first hearing of a case involving dangerous driving resulting in death was held Monday. It was the first case to be heard since the government declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus, informed sources said.


According to the sources, the six lay judges were seated with acrylic plates set up between them, while two supplementary judges were seated with some distance between them.


Only about a third of the usual number of people sat in the visitors’ gallery. District court officials opened the doors during recess and ventilated the room with electric fans.


Aomori District Court also had acrylic boards between lay judges when it held its first hearing of a drunken driving case on Tuesday. The court had prepared a larger room than usual for private discussions between lay judges and professional judges, according to court officials.


With a variety of court sessions for criminal and civil cases postponed in April, many in the legal field said that the lay judge system would be the most difficult to restart. One veteran professional judge, however, said that the system can be used through changes to how it is operated.


But some 30 court hearings remain on hold at Tokyo District Court, as the state of emergency still continues in the Japanese capital. According to lawyer Akira Sugeno, secretary-general of the Center for Criminal Defense at the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, courts in cities that have large numbers of COVID-19 infections deal with many cases, and some hearings have been delayed to as late as autumn.


“Defendants in many court cases continue to be physically restrained, and their right to a speedy trial is being violated,” Sugeno said. He added that some in the legal field are calling for a reduction in the number of lay judges, or a legal revision allowing some cases to be exempt from the lay judge system.


“We don’t know whether the coronavirus crisis will die down by next year,” he said. “The partial use of information technology should also be under consideration.”



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