Sunday, February 28, 2010

"1 lawyer, 1 island, 3 years, 1,000 cases

"SADO, Niigata--For three years, 29-year-old lawyer Satoko Tomita has been working on Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture, as the first person to be assigned from a program to give far-flung areas desperately needed legal services.

"In those three years, Tomita has handled more than 1,000 cases--a remarkable number for an island of just 65,000 people.

"Sent by the Houterasu program run by the Japan Legal Support Center, she helps residents of the Sea of Japan island solve legal issues, including numerous debt-related cases. In that time, Tomita said she has managed to help residents secure 410 million yen in total refunds related to excessive interest payments.

""Every day, I felt as if I was looking at Japan through this small island," Tomita said.

"But this will soon end--next month Tomita is to be reassigned to Okinawa Prefecture.

"Sado Island is about 1.4 times bigger in area than the combined 23 wards of Tokyo. Before the Houterasu office opened, there was only one lawyer on the island, a 70-year-old man.

"Tomita volunteered for the Sado assignment, and recalled thinking, "I want to do everything on my own in the remote area to force myself to grow professionally."

"Tomita first decided to become a lawyer when she was in high school. She studied law at Tokyo Metropolitan University, where she also served as the head of the university's hot-air balloon club.

"While studying there, she passed the national bar exam and worked as an intern at a law firm in Tokyo for two years. When her dispatch to Sado Island was decided, one of her senior colleagues told her, "There'll probably be only a few cases [to handle]."

"However, the day before the Houterasu office opened on the island, the telephone would not stop ringing.

"Over the three years she has dealt with more than 1,000 legal consultations, about 40 percent pertaining to multiple debt.

"Recently, she helped a fisherman in his 50s tackle a 40 million yen debt by helping him apply for voluntary bankruptcy procedures, letting him restart his financial life.

"The man inherited his father's debt on the purchase of a new fishing boat plus the payment burdens on his own housing loan. Because his income was hit by a decline in fish prices, he failed to repay the debts on schedule and his home was auctioned by creditors. "Before, I didn't know what I should do first," the man said. "Now, I can get a sense of where my life can go from here on."

"Agriculture and fisheries are big industries on the island, where ties between residents are strong. This means that usually there are not many major conflicts in daily life.

"However, most residents have only small sources of revenue and incomes are generally low, making it all too easy for a person who has borrowed money to fall behind on interest payments and drop into a financial abyss.

""People close to a person [with financial trouble] support one another to prevent him or her from declaring voluntary bankruptcy," Tomita said. "It complicates debt problems."

"She learned to ask clients who visited the office for the first time whether other family members also were in debt.

"Often she found her clients were being forced to make interest rate payments higher than limits set by the Interest Rate Restriction Law. She helped file more than 300 lawsuits demanding refunds for excessive interest payments, and her clients have received a total of about 410 million yen.

"But the individual circumstances of her clients have varied widely. In one case, an elderly person had become a victim of a vicious sales scheme and the person's home was auctioned off. In another case, a young woman repeatedly borrowed money from unmanned loan-dispensing machines to buy rice.

"In another case, a woman with dementia began shouting at her home care helper, fearing she would be robbed of money. Tomita consulted a local social welfare council and became the woman's legal guardian.

"Tomita managed the woman's assets and signed a contract with a nursing care service facility so that the woman would be able to use the services of the helper.

""If experts in different fields, such as legal, welfare and nursing care services, collaborate, we can support many people. I have begun to see new potential for lawyers. I want to be a lawyer who is a do-gooder in clients' neighborhoods," Tomita said.

"In March, she will begin work in Okinawa as a lay judge trial lawyer.

"Houterasu offices started activities in 2006 as branches of the Japan Legal Support Center, which became an independent administrative entity under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry. The offices were opened to offer the public easier access to legal services.

"Usually, the offices provide information about payments for lawyers in civil suits, how to use a system of state-designated lawyers in criminal trials and other legal issues.

"There are 97 Houterasu offices nationwide with about 200 lawyers working at them. Fifty are located in areas with district courts and 26 in rural places where there have been a dire shortage of lawyers, such as remote islands.

"There were 68,910 cases in fiscal 2007 and 80,442 cases in fiscal 2008 in which people used the system to pay for their civil lawsuit costs. In fiscal 2009, the number is estimated to reach 100,000. "

By Yomiuri Shimbun (2/28/2010), Link to article (last visited 2/28/2010)

*Japan Legal Support Center

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Family Law Reform

"TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The Justice Ministry unveiled on Friday at a policy meeting the outline of a bill to revise Japan's Civil Code which would enable married couples to choose whether to have the same family name or keep their birth names.

"Justice Minister Keiko Chiba hopes to gain Cabinet approval by the end of March, and the government is considering submitting the bill -- which also includes abolishing inheritance discrimination against children born out of wedlock -- to the Diet during its current session.

"Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has said he supports the idea of allowing people to retain their surnames after marriage, but Cabinet minister Shizuka Kamei, leader of the People's New Party, one of the Democratic Party of Japan's two ruling-coalition partners, has repeatedly expressed opposition, making it unlikely that coordination within the Cabinet will go smoothly.

"In a broader revision to the law, couples could make a one-time choice of whether to have the same or different family names when they get married. And if they decide to have separate names, the family name of their children should be unified with either one of them.

"Couples married before the revision, on the other hand, would have a year after the revision to make their choice, but the family name of their children would remain the same.

"Other proposed revisions include shortening to 100 days the current six-month prohibition period for divorced women to remarry, raising the legal marriage age for women from 16 years old or older to the same as men -- 18 years old or older -- and setting "living separately for more than five years against the purpose of marriage" as legal grounds for divorce.

"The DPJ has attempted a number of times since 1997 to legislate the proposal to revise the law since it was first put forward by a Justice Ministry advisory panel in 1996.

"But it has never succeeded due mainly to opposition from the then ruling Liberal Democratic Party which argued that allowing married couples to have different family names would lead to family breakdowns and destroy traditional Japanese values."

By Mainichi Shimbun (2/20/2010), Link to article (last visited 2/23/2010)

Guest Post

Cherry Blossom Festival in DC

Springtime, perfect for having picnics, wearing shorts and admiring the Cherry Blossom in DC. The National Cherry Blossom Festival is an two-week (per annum) event that celebrates springtime in Washington, DC as well as the 1912 gift of the cherry blossom trees and the enduring friendship between the people of the United States and Japan.

DC Attractions include multiple festivals, museums, monuments, and more. The National Cherry Blossom Festival, Inc., is a 501(c)(3) organization that coordinates, produces, and supports creative and diverse activities promoting traditional and contemporary arts and culture, natural beauty and the environment, and community spirit and youth education. It's also begins peak season for an influx of tourists to Washington, also brought in by the thousands of historical landmarks, museums, and other buildings. The National Museum of Crime & Punishment, located in Washington, D.C. is one of those such buildings, with excellent depictions of historically famous crime scenes along detailed information concerning past wars, forensics, organized crime, and more.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Limiting parental rights

"Child welfare institutions and foster families caring for children who were abused by their parents often face a serious stumbling block.

"When they attempt to carry out procedures or sign contracts meant to benefit an abused child, the child's parents have the right to block such actions, and many do.

"For example, some parents refuse to give consent to medical treatments and hospitalization for their children. Or they don't agree to let their children be transferred to classes for children with disabilities.

"In severe cases, parental child abuse leads to a child's death. Last month, Fukuoka prefectural police arrested the parents of a 7-month-old child on suspicion of murder. The baby died after the parents apparently refused to allow medical treatment to be performed.

"Parental rights are legally defined as the obligations borne by parents to rear their children. They concern such matters as education, supervision, asset management and legal representation.

"For children in foster care because of abuse or other reasons, the Child Welfare Law allows directors of children's institutions and foster parents to make decisions about a child's life on behalf of the child.

"But parental intentions are often given precedence when it comes to education, career and assets. In too many cases, for example, parents withdraw money from their child's bank accounts without permission.

"Justice Minister Keiko Chiba has asked her ministry's Legislative Council to work on revising the Civil Law to prevent parents from abusing their parental rights. The council's task is to work out a system to restrict parental rights when the parents are abusing the child, temporarily handing control to the heads of welfare institutions and foster parents.

"The government plans to submit a revision bill to next year's regular Diet session.

"The current law allows a family court to declare parental rights terminated when the parents have abused those rights. But this punitive action is only taken in severe cases. That is because the court decision is recorded on the family register and deprives parents of all parental rights indefinitely.

"In many cases, concerned parties, including the heads of child consultation centers, hesitate to take such a drastic step.

"One solution would be to suspend parental rights only temporarily in cases where the lives and future of the child are threatened, allowing a reversal of the suspension to take place if the situation improves. That would better protect the child's safety and make it easier to rebuild the parent-child relationship at a later date. We hope the revisions will establish such a system.

"But the involvement of the courts is essential to prevent related administrative organizations from suspending parental rights for an unnecessarily long period.

"In its report released in January, a Justice Ministry study group proposed setting in the law an upper limit on the term of a suspension and allowing a family court to decide the suspension period. This proposal is worth serious consideration.

"Decisions on restoring parental rights should be made carefully and according to strict criteria, such as clear improvement in the parents' behavior.

"One worthwhile idea would be to empower the family court to order abusive parents to receive counseling from experts. The court would then decide when and whether to restore parental rights and the necessary support after observing the parents' attitudes during such counseling.

"An effective system should be established to monitor and support both parents and children to protect the children from repeated abuse.

"The current provisions concerning parental rights in the Civil Law were formulated during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and are based on outdated views about the family. In one good example, the law gives parents the legal right to discipline their children. This provision can be used in court trials to justify child abuse. Scrapping this outdated provision should be a top priority in revising the law.

"The guiding principle behind changing the law should be that parental rights must be exercised only in a child's best interests."

Asahi Shimbun (Editorial, 2/18/2010), Link to article (last visited 2/19/2010)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Saiban-in System

"It has been six months since the lay judge system was launched. This new approach has clearly changed the very foundations of the nation's judicial system.

"Inaugurated last August, the new system in its first six months has seen more than 1,000 ordinary members of the public participate in the judging of about 200 rulings.

"Many of these people say they joined deliberations over their judgments with mixed feelings, agonizing over whether they were qualified to judge others. Some of them wondered if they accurately assessed the testimony and evidence. But they did their duty. We applaud their commitment to democracy.

"If the volume of cases remains the same as seen since last August, the number of lay judges called to serve is likely to reach around 10,000 nationwide this year.

"So far, almost all citizen judge trials have been cases in which defendants have not contested the indictments. As a result, citizen judges have only been asked to weigh in at the sentencing phase.

"From here on, however, citizen judges will have to consider cases in which accused insist on their innocence, the death penalty is a possibility or other complications arise.

"Last week, a woman was arrested in Saitama and charged with killing a man she met on an online marriage website by making his death from asphyxiation appear as though he had committed suicide by burning charcoal briquettes. If she is indicted for murder, her trial will be among those in which citizen judges sit on the bench.

"Mistakes are sometimes made by professional justices. One high-profile example is the recent retrial of Toshikazu Sugaya, who was falsely convicted and imprisoned for the murder of a young girl in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, nearly two decades ago. Above all else, bringing in ordinary citizens whose common sense and fresh perspectives will hopefully prevent such erroneous charges and miscarriages of justice is very welcome.

"Citizen judges will soon be asked to render tougher rulings. As such, this year will be a stern test of whether the system is workable over the long term.

"In a court-conducted questionnaire given to lay judges, many said they felt the time devoted to examination and deliberations during trials was inadequate.

"However, to shorten the time spent examining the evidence, the citizen judge system adopted an intensive hearing approach that keeps the trial in session for successive days, rather than over lengthy weeks or months. This was done in part to lighten the burden on citizen judges, who must be absent from their job and family responsibilities to serve.

"But if complaints continue to be voiced about insufficient deliberation, then extending the trial time is a feasible alternative.

"During pretrial procedures, steps must be taken to avoid an excessive narrowing of the issues and examination of evidence simply in the quest for speed. Toward that end, we recommend opening up the procedures to public disclosure and outside checks.

"With many citizen judge trials yet to commence, the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office has directed prosecutors nationwide to promptly disclose evidence to defense lawyers in those cases. It is crucial that all available evidence be submitted, even if some is against the prosecutors.

"To develop a sound defense, meanwhile, lawyers must be granted ready access to defendants from the time they are arrested and detained as suspects. In this area, much still remains wanting in terms of the quality and quantity of preparedness by bar associations nationwide.

"Many court proceedings also require improvement, such upholding the privacy of sex crime victims.

"In some cases, innocent suspects have been pressured into making false confessions. Guilty parties, meanwhile, sometimes refuse to admit to their crimes. In such situations, should a punishment be meted out or is an innocent verdict called for? Every possible effort must be made to foster a judicial environment that empowers citizen judges to render decisions with the confidence that they have reviewed the full facts."

By Asahi Shimbun (Editorial, 2/3/2010), Link to article (last visited 2/4/2010)

"Born in Japan, but ordered out

"TOKYO -- Fida Khan, a gangly 14-year-old, told the court that immigration authorities should not deport him and his family merely because his foreign-born parents lacked proper visas when they came to Japan more than 20 years ago.

"During the past two decades, his Pakistani father and Filipino mother have held steady jobs, raised children, paid taxes and have never been in trouble with the law.

""I have the right to do my best to become a person who can contribute to this society," Fida told a Tokyo district court in Japanese, the only language he speaks.

"But the court ruled last year that Fida has no right to stay in the country where he was born. Unless a higher court or the Minister of Justice intervenes, a deportation order will soon split the Khan family, sending the father, Waqar Hassan Khan, back to Pakistan, while dispatching Fida and his sister Fatima, 7, to the Philippines with their mother, Jennette.

"Aggressive enforcement of Japanese immigration laws has increased in recent years as the country's economy has floundered and the need for cheap foreign labor has fallen.

"Nationality in Japan is based on blood and parentage, not place of birth. This island nation was closed to the outside world until the 1850s, when U.S. warships forced it to open up to trade. Wariness of foreigners remains a potent political force, one that politicians dare not ignore, especially when the economy is weak.

"As a result, the number of illegal immigrants has been slashed, often by deportation, from 300,000 in 1995 to just 130,000, a minuscule number in comparison to other rich countries. The United States, whose population is 2 1/2 times that of Japan's, has about 90 times as many illegal immigrants (11.6 million). (...)"

By Blaine Harden, The Washington Post (1/17/2010), Link to article (last visited 2/4/2010)