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Editorial: Lay judge system needs a review as eligibility age lowered to 18

  • December 13, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 12:59 p.m.
  • English Press

The lower age limit has been reduced from 20 to 18 for lay judges, who take part in criminal trials on serious cases.

 

The change should be used as an opportunity to reaffirm the significance of the lay judge system, which is designed to ensure citizens’ participation in justice and develop it into one deep-rooted in society.

 

Eighteen-year-olds have had the right to vote for five years. The age of adulthood in the Civil Law will also be lowered from 20 to 18 next April.

 

There is no reason for continuing to exclude 18- and 19-year-olds from the duty of lay judges, who work with judges to decide whether defendants are guilty or not and, if guilty, what punishment they deserve.

 

Citizens are serving on juries from age 18 in the United States, Britain, Canada and elsewhere. The expanded eligibility for lay judge duty in Japan should be taken in a positive light.

 

The lay judge system was introduced in 2009 with a view to bolstering the foundation of justice through the participation of diverse people and improving trial procedures.

 

Having ordinary citizens play a role in the exercise of judicial power, one of the three powers of modern democracy, will prompt them to actively and autonomously engage in society afterward. It is significant that a path for such experience will be opened early for young people.

 

A concern is that the change in law that allowed this to happen is little known among the public, including young people who will be directly affected by it.

 

When the voting age was lowered to 18, lawmakers chose not to make corresponding changes to eligibility ages in criminal justice, in particular in the Juvenile Law, saying the matter requires careful consideration.

 

A bill was passed in May to reduce the eligibility age for lay judges and prosecution councilors in line with an amendment to the Juvenile Law. But Diet deliberations on the bill were focused on the portion concerning the Juvenile Law, and legal experts and media outlets paid no special attention to other changes.

 

For reasons of register compilation work, 18- and 19-year-olds are expected to be appointed lay judges in spring 2023, at the earliest.

 

The government, courts and education workers should do their best to publicize the new institutional setup and the date it takes effect to ensure a smooth transition.

 

The latest amendment provides a golden opportunity for taking a fresh look at the state of trial proceedings.

 

Sixty-six percent of lay judge candidates were excused from service in 2020, and the percentage has been on the rise.

 

Ways should be sought in earnest to improve the situation because a high rate of decline could undermine the system’s objectives of reflecting the diverse viewpoints and sense of randomly selected citizens in trial procedures.

 

Judges, prosecutors and legal counsels should check to see whether they have created an environment that allows lay judges to ask questions in court and frankly state their opinions during deliberations.

 

They should also reflect on whether they have presented and substantiated their arguments in a plain manner.

 

Being a student who has to concentrate on schoolwork is recognized as legitimate grounds for being excused from lay judge duty. However, some students may be able to and willing to participate if trial procedures last only for several days.

 

Officials should always try to operate the system in a manner that those who are willing will be given an opportunity.

 

Teachers at junior high and senior high schools should assume that students may have chances of serving as lay judges in the near future.

 

The lowered age of adulthood also means that young people will be qualified to be party to contracts from age 18.

 

In view of this and other consequences of the change, there should be more extensive education to link daily lives and the law in a concrete manner.

 

–The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 11

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