Japan’s Citizen Judges

In sweeping reforms to Japan’s criminal justice system, a law has been passed that turns ordinary citizens into lay judges.

The new model of adjudication in Japan consists of three professional full-time judges sitting with six citizen judges who participate as equals in the fact-finding and sentencing of criminals. Three back-up lay judges are also seated in case one or more of the lay judges is unable to continue.

Japan does not operate with a jury system so the introduction of the people’s views is an important step lending credibility to the criminal justice system.

Citizen judges are only used in serious cases of murder, robbery and other offences which cause death or severe injury.

The trials are streamlined so that evidence can be heard in a much shorter time. With extensive cooperation prior to trial between the prosecution and the defence, just the issues that are contentious are heard.

In a recent case, a panel of nine judges, including six lay judges, convicted the driver of a vehicle whose dangerous actions resulted in the death of two innocent victims. More surprisingly, the panel also convicted the two passengers in his vehicle for aiding and abetting, by permitting him to drive while in a state of intoxication. The driver was sentenced to 16 years in prison while the passengers received two years each, although the public prosecutor was asking for eight years each.

A preliminary assessment of the effect of lay judges reveals that lay judges pronounce more severe sentences on sex offenders, grant probation periods for suspended sentences more often than professional judges alone did and have garnered fewer appeals from their decisions. As well, longer sentences were imposed on violent rapists.

In November 2010 a judicial panel delivered a death sentence to an accused who killed and dismembered two men. Lay judging is not for the faint of heart.

Under the guidance and direction of professional judges, I believe Japan may have found a way to have the sensibilities of the common man and woman play an important role in their system of criminal justice.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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4 thoughts on “Japan’s Citizen Judges

  1. Interesting to compare and contrast citizen judges in Japan with lay magistrates in England. One obvious difference is that the Japanese citizen judges hear only the more serious cases whereas in England it is the other way round.

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