The Yomiuri ShimbunA group of ordinary citizens examines a non-prosecution decision by public prosecutors — it is essential that this system, Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution, functions properly.
Almost 10 years have passed since the introduction of the system under which mandatory prosecution can commence based on an inquest committee’s decision. This system started in 2009, along with the lay judge system, as part of reforms enabling greater public participation in judicial procedures.
Until that year, decisions by prosecution inquest committees had no legally binding force. The law’s revision strengthened their authority and, consequently, 13 people in nine cases have faced mandatory prosecution. Given that a reasonable number of cases have accumulated, it can be said the time has come to review the system and root out problems that have emerged.
Prosecution inquest committees consist of 11 individuals selected by a lottery of registered voters. In the committees, if eight or more members twice issue a decision calling for a case to be prosecuted, the defendant will definitely face mandatory indictment.
Several high-profile cases have noticeably been among those that have gone to mandatory prosecution, including cases involving the fatal derailment of a train on West Japan Railway Co.’s Fukuchiyama Line and the fund management organization of politician Ichiro Ozawa. Three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc. are defendants in a trial tied to the accident at TEPCO’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. A court decision in this case is expected in September.
Courts conventionally are places where an individual’s criminal responsibility could be pursued. However, when a case is prosecuted, a trial in court also has clarified the detailed sequence of events surrounding an accident or the flow of funds linked to a politician.
Offer more legal advice
Since the system was introduced, prosecutors have meticulously investigated cases and more carefully decided whether to prosecute, given the possibility an inquest committee could examine this decision. In many cases, following a decision by a committee, prosecutors have changed their mind from non-prosecution to making an indictment on their own.
Prosecution inquest committees are playing a certain role as monitors of prosecutors, who had held exclusive authority to prosecute suspects.
However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that in many mandatory prosecution cases, the defendants have been found not guilty. So far, guilty rulings have been finalized for only two individuals.
The committees examine cases in which prosecutors have decided they cannot prosecute because of insufficient evidence. Given this, the hurdles to establishing a defendant’s guilt are high from the outset. Even so, a person forced to stand as a defendant bears a huge burden, even if they are ultimately found not guilty.
Under the present system, individuals at the center of cases being examined by these committees are not even informed of this development, so opportunities to defend themselves are not legally guaranteed. For the committees, how to ensure people’s right of defense remains a major issue to be addressed.
Advice from a legal perspective becomes vital for these committees that make conclusions based on the views of ordinary citizens alone. The system through which lawyers provide advice as committee assistants should be more actively used.
Having prosecution inquest committees steadily make reasonable decisions will lead to greater trust in the mandatory prosecution system.