Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Citizen judges in court

"South Korea has started a system in which the public takes part in criminal court cases as a jury. In one case, reporters were able to talk to jury members during court recesses and interview them after the court closed. Likewise in Germany, where citizens try a case along with the judge, there are no limits to media access to the jurors.

"In both countries, participating citizens are all bound by confidentiality obligations. They are not allowed to disclose what went on in the deliberations that decided the verdict. However, they shared with reporters their thoughts and impressions of having participated in a trial.

"What is it like to pass judgment on someone charged with a crime? As we promote citizen participation in judicial proceedings, it is essential that the participants are allowed to convey these first-time experiences to people who might be chosen as the next lay judges.

"The key to the success of Japan's citizen judge system, due to begin on Thursday, is whether the public can share each other's experiences as lay judges.

"In an opinion poll conducted by The Asahi Shimbun, nearly 80 percent of the respondents said they would rather not take part as lay judges, or that they definitely do not want to take part. People are probably worried about whether they can try people. To alleviate their anxieties, sufficient disclosure of relevant information about citizen judges' experiences is crucial.

"Lay judges are bound by rigorous confidentiality duties. They face either imprisonment of up to six months or a maximum fine of 500,000 yen if they leak information about closed-door deliberations among the six citizen judges and three professional judges or confidential information learned outside the open court, including names and addresses of other lay judges.

"Understandably, if the content of the deliberations, such as what each judge or lay judge said, were to come out arbitrarily, then free discussion would become difficult.

"The new citizen judge system allows lay judges to comment on things like whether the judges, the prosecutors and defense lawyers were easy to understand and whether the presiding judge willfully moved the deliberations toward a certain conclusion.

"Lay judges are also allowed to say what they personally think after serving as a citizen judge.

"On the other hand, the comments they make during the deliberations on the verdict are regarded as confidential. But is it going too far to ban them from making those comments public after the trial, if they themselves wish to do so?

"The people with whom the sovereignty lies have a right to know what the citizen judge system is really like. That right must not be restricted as long as the fairness of a trial is preserved. Moreover, it can be said that the right of the lay judges to express their views is part of the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

"In terms of protecting the public's right to know, there is something we would like to ask of the judges, prosecutors and lawyers.

"We urge them to open to the public the pretrial proceedings where only the judges, the prosecution and defense counsel meet to identify the points of dispute and the relevant evidence. These pretrial proceedings are already in place to speed up the court process, but they are currently closed to the public.

"This gives the impression that the three parties of the justice system are cliquishly taking care of matters well before the citizens can come in. Pretrial proceedings are an important component of the trial that can well affect the outcome.

"There is also the principle that trials must be made public. The government must move toward making the pretrial proceedings public without delay."

By Asahi Shimbun (Editorial, 5/18/2009), Link to article (last visited 5/20/2009)

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