Those of you who played the 4th Ace Attorney (逆転裁判) game would be aware of the new jury system being implemented in Japan, first proposed in cabinet review committee in 2001 and subsequently passed into law in 2004.

After five years of policy fine-tuning and mock trials, Japan held its first post-war jury trial on Monday. The system consists of a hybrid of six layman jury members (裁判員) and three professional judges (裁判官) and is reserved for serious crimes such as murder. A majority opinion has to be supported by at least one of the three judges in order to stand.

I am on the fence about this whole “democratizing the justice system” movement. The idea that judges in ivory towers often do not possess the necessary life experiences to understand the social context of the crimes they judge has some merits. On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that a handful of randomly selected voters possess the technical expertise to understand the law and how it should be applied.

For example, in a case that involves minority rights, there is little guarantee that individual members of the jury understand the implications of such abstract issues on society at large, hence risking a judgement that stems from narrow first-hand experiences. A judge is also liable to make the same mistakes, but the very fact that he/she is (supposed to be) a learnt legal scholar with a wealth of relevant experience mitigates the risk of unilateralism greatly. That is to say, in a court of law, the legal experience of a judge is likely to present more relevance to any given case than the range of expertises possessed by the jury, an important point that should not be overlooked in the structuring of the system.

As with most things in life, the most important rule of thumb is of course to seek the right balance between the two so as to avoid dogmatic inflexible rulings that have no grounding in reality and at the same time prevent the law from being completely reinterpreted with each new batch of juries. In that regard, I’m not sure if letting the jury decide the punishment is such a good idea. The fine line between justice and retribution is further blurred when professional judges are replaced by the everyman who is expected to bring personal experiences into play. It’s good that the judges can veto blatant abuses in Japan’s case, but it does not completely wash away the lingering stench of mob justice.

And while US opinions are almost universally favourable, the fact that the system is somewhat controversial in Japan also indicates a difference in mindset when it comes to legal justice. Many English-speaking commentators see this as an issue of democracy, when it really should not be. At the end of the day, the value of any jury system should be the varied perspectives and expertises it brings to a trial, and not some abstract idea of democracy. A small selected group of pre-screened voters is no more representative of society at large than a group of judges. If anything, general elections of judges would make more sense if democracy were the ultimate intend, which incidentally is a really bad idea if elected politicians are anything to go by. (Then again, the lack of judicial independence from the political organs of government is already an existing situation in many countries.)

Personally, I would prefer to see public oversight in the judicial system take the form of an auditing role instead. Oh well, as long as it works out.

And at the very least, this has very real implications on future Ace Attorney games. Will the bald and confused judge still be there? Or will he be sidelined by a group of nervous salarymen and loud gyarus? (Hurray for stereotypes.)

P.S. Yes, I’ve been playing Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth.

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