Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Lawyer-less lawsuits increasing

"Despite significant growth in the number of lawyers in recent years, the number of litigants who choose to represent themselves in civil lawsuits has also been rising steadily.

"According to Supreme Court statistics, 73 percent of civil lawsuits were undertaken without legal representation last year--up 14 percentage points from 2000. This contrasts with the growth of about 80 percent in the number of lawyers over the same period, as a result of reforms to the judiciary system.

"This state of affairs runs counter to the purpose of the judiciary reforms: to make it easier for people to hire lawyers. The increase in lawsuits undertaken without legal representation--in which plaintiffs or defendants are not represented by professional counsel--appears to reflect the high fees charged by lawyers, observers said.

"The Supreme Court's Legal Training and Research Institute is planning to conduct a survey on such lawyerless civil lawsuits.

"The number of lawyers in the nation rose from about 17,000 in 2000 to 30,000 in December. The increase was expected to encourage competition among lawyers, thereby resulting in lower fees, which would make it easier for people to seek lawyers' help.

"However, the Supreme Court's data showed the percentage of civil lawsuits without lawyers in district courts rose from 59 percent in 2000 to 73 percent, or 139,491 cases, between January and October 2010.

"The top court attributed the rise partly to an increase in lawsuits in which borrowers are demanding that moneylenders repay unlawfully high interest payments the borrowers made on loans.

"This type of civil suit--which has a particularly high percentage of cases without lawyers--has sharply increased since 2006, when the Supreme Court ruled that annual interest rates exceeding the maximum of 15 percent to 20 percent set by the Interest Rate Restriction Law are illegal.

"Even excluding these lawsuits, however, the percentage of civil cases without lawyers was mostly unchanged from 10 years ago at about 60 percent.

"This apparently is due to the fact that lawyers' fees remain high. Just the advance payment for retaining professional counsel can be hundreds of thousands of yen.

"With this and the risk of losing a court battle, many members of the public do not feel they can readily hire a lawyer.

"In addition, ordinary citizens now have better access to information about filing lawsuits through the Internet. As a result, some legal experts say, an increasing number of people consider filing lawsuits on their own.

""It's possible lawyers have avoided requests in which their pay would be low," a senior court official said. But a 37-year-old lawyer working in a Tokyo law firm said, "As the number of lawyers has increased, the competition to survive has intensified.

""Though one of a lawyer's roles is to serve the public interest, we can't afford to accept requests for unprofitable work," he said.

"Many lawyers have demanded improvements to the system to help finance civil lawsuits, under which offices of the Japan Legal Support Center (Houterasu) pay lawyers to represent people in court.

"In some lawsuits without lawyers, judges need to advise parties who are not legal professionals. This can be problematic, however, as it may draw criticism that the impartiality of the trial is being compromised.

"Therefore, the Legal Training and Research Institute will ask a panel comprising nine judges and scholars to study current conditions and the potential problems in lawsuits without lawyers, starting this year.

""I think there are two types of lawsuits without lawyers," said Prof. Satoru Shinomiya of Kokugakuin University, who worked on the judicial system reforms and headed a Japan Federation of Bar Associations office for research on judicial system reforms.

""In one type, lawyers are not necessary because the points under dispute are not that complicated. In the other, the parties asked for lawyers' help but were rejected," Shinomiya said.

""In provincial regions where there are still fewer lawyers than in urban areas, there must be many cases in which lawyers should offer assistance. Contributing to society and the public is a very important mission of lawyers. Bar associations also should conduct research on why there are more lawsuits without lawyers," he said."

By Yomiuri Shimbun (1/17/2011), Link to article (last visited 1/20/2011)