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

2 comments:

campbell said...

All the other comments now seem superfluous.This is disturbing news.




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