They tried on the black robes, sat in the high-backed chairs, and asked about everything from what to wear to how long they'd be away from work. It was just the basics for Japan's opening day of Jury Duty 101.
Organized by the Justice Ministry, this week's seminar at a Tokyo courthouse offered the public its first chance to find out about jury trials being introduced as part of the country's most drastic judicial reforms since World War II.
At present, the courts don't use juries, relying instead on panels of three judges.
The new system, expected to start by 2009, would let ordinary Japanese be jurors, giving them the right to determine guilt or innocence in serious criminal cases.
"We want the public to feel they are part of the judicial process," court justice Kazunori Karei told some 50 participants.
Takashi Fujinami, 60, thinks that's a positive step.
"I've only seen the courts on TV. Juries would make me pay more attention to trials," said Fujinami, a small business owner.
Under legislation approved by parliament last May, registered voters 20 years or older would be chosen by lottery to sit on a six-person jury for trials at any of Japan's 50 district, or lower, courts. Exemptions will be granted for religious beliefs, child care and illness, but other details, such as stipends, are still being worked out.
Other reforms are expected to boost the ranks of Japan's 20,000 judges, lawyers and prosecutors, which have been limited by the bar exam's tough requirements. The changes would help shorten trials, which are only held about once a month and can plod on for years, Karei said.
Human rights groups say they hope the reforms will also bring fairness and more transparency to the justice system. They have criticized police and prosecutors for interrogating suspects without defense lawyers present.
That's a concern because verdicts often hinge on a crime suspect's written confession, and 99 percent of criminal cases brought to trial end with a conviction, said Kenta Yamada, a lawyer and director at the Japan Civil Liberties Union.
"The new system should ensure the rights of defendants," Yamada said.
For instance, defense lawyers should be able to see the evidence against a client before a trial starts, but don't now, he added.
Yamada also expressed concern about restrictions that prevent participants from publicly discussing the trial even after it's over.
Japan's system will differ from those of other countries. Japanese jurors will participate in trials of serious crimes, such as murders, arson, child abuse and hit-and-run traffic accidents. They will sit alongside judges at a semicircular bench at the front of the courtroom, and will vote together with judges on verdicts and sentencing. Decisions will be reached by majority.
By contrast, in the US and Britain, jurors can take part in either civil or criminal cases and usually sit at the side of the courtroom, away from the judge. Their job is to determine guilt or innocence in both types of trials but they also decide on damages in civil cases.
For the participants in Wednesday's seminar, no detail was too minor to tackle.
One participant asked what jurors should wear. Another wanted to know how much time he'd have to take off from work. (On average, you may spend five or six days in court over a span of eight months.) Others asked about training sessions and jury trials for minor crimes. (None.) Afterward, they zipped up the black, pleated robes, and tried out the swiveling, padded jurors' chairs.
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