Japan Marks 10 Years Since Start of Lay Judge SystemSociety
Majority of Cases Result in Guilty Verdict
Japan instituted the lay judge (saiban’in) system in May 2009 in order to better reflect public sentiment in criminal cases. Together with professional judges, citizens aged 20 and over selected at random from electoral rolls participate in criminal trials, including homicide cases where prosecutors are seeking life imprisonment or the death penalty.
According to a Supreme Court report, of the 12,081 lay judge trials held up to the end of March 2019, 97% resulted in guilty verdicts. The death penalty was handed down in 37 cases, life imprisonment was given in 233 cases, and in 104 cases, defendants were found not guilty. The average duration of trials has nearly tripled over the decade from 3.7 days in 2009 to 10.8 days in 2018.
Participation a Positive Experience, But Fewer Willing to Serve
The ratio of citizens who refuse to serve as lay judges has steadily increased, going from 53.1% when the system was introduced in 2009 to 67% in 2018. The attendance rate for the lay judge selection procedure, when prospective lay judges are called to the court to be vetted, dropped from 83.9% in 2009 to around 60% today.
The Supreme Court report ascribes the rising refusal rate and dropping attendance rate to length of trial proceedings, population aging, and declining public interest in the lay judge system.
When asked for their opinions about participating in a trial, over 95% of lay judges polled said that the experience had been “very worthwhile” or “worthwhile,” indicating a positive perception of the system among participants. Around 60% to 70% of respondents agreed that trial proceedings had been easy to understand.
(Translated from Japanese. Banner photo: The Supreme Court building, Chiyoda, Tokyo, photographed in June 2016. © Jiji.)