Washington International Law Journal


In Japan, the idea of citizen involvement in the judicial process has gained greater acceptance over the past decade. On May 21, 2009, Japan implemented its saiban’in seido or “lay judge system” as part of monumental legal reforms designed to encourage civic engagement, enhance transparency, and provide greater access to the justice system. About eight years before this historic day, a special governmental committee known as the Justice System Reform Council (“JSRC”) set forth wide-sweeping recommendations for revamping Japan’s judicial system. The underlying goals targeted three pillars of fundamental reform, namely: (i) a justice system that is “easier to use, easier to understand, and more reliable;” (ii) a legal profession “rich both in quality and quantity;” and (iii) a popular base in which citizens’ trust in the legal system is enhanced through their participation in legal proceedings. The JSRC viewed the judicial system as an engine capable of propelling both economic and societal change. It believed that lay judge participation could function as a piston in this engine by helping shift Japan away from centralized control and heavy bureaucratic regulation. Lay participation was consistent with the perceived need for Japanese citizens to not only break away from excessive dependency on the government, but also to develop greater civic consciousness, become more actively involved in public affairs, and better integrate community values into the justice system. From the outset, the creation and implementation of the lay judge system have been strongly controlled by the status quo such that direct impact on the outcome of individual criminal trials has been minimized. However, the value of this monumental court reform in Japan has been educational, indirect, and real. This Article examines the direct impact of the lay judge system, describes several of the indirect benefits of the new system, and then explores the potential of the system going forward. This analysis is done through the lens of Malcolm Feeley’s 1983 work entitled Court Reform on Trial.

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