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HOME > About the JFBA > The Japanese Judicial System > The Japanese Judicial System

The Japanese Judicial System

1. The Japanese Judicial System and Judicial Proceedings

(1) The Japanese Courts

There are five types of courts in Japan: the Supreme Court, High Courts, District Courts, Family Courts and Summary Courts. Japan adopts a three-tiered judicial system and a summary, family, or district court will be the court of first instance depending on the nature of the matter.

1) The summary courts handle, in principle, civil litigation cases involving claims which do not exceed ¥1.4 million. The summary courts also handle civil conciliation cases and demands for payment. Furthermore, they handle criminal cases related to relatively light offenses. 2) The family courts handle lawsuits related to personal status, adjudications and conciliations for family affairs cases, adjudications for juvenile cases, etc. 3) The district courts handle the first instance of most types of civil, criminal, and administrative cases. Most of civil and administrative cases are normally deliberated by a single judge, except for cases for which the court has decided that it shall be tried by three judges. Regarding criminal cases, generally a single judge handles a case except for certain serious crimes which are tried by three judges. In Japan, the Saiban-in (lay judges) system started in May 2009 under which, lay judges chosen from citizens serve alongside professional judges in examining cases involving certain crimes at district courts (see IV-2, "Saiban-in (Lay Judge) System"). 4) The high courts handle appeals (koso appeals, appeals filed against a final judgment rendered by a lower court (usually a district court) and most kokoku appeals, appeals filed against a ruling or an order turning down a motion relating to proceedings without oral argument) filed against judgments rendered by district courts, family courts or summary courts, or certain decisions by administrative agencies. In addition, on April 1, 2005 the Intellectual Property High Court, which specializes in intellectual property cases, was established as a special separate branch of the Tokyo High Court. 5) The Supreme Court is the highest and final court that handles appeals against judgments rendered by high courts (jokoku appeals) and certain special kokoku appeals that are prescribed under the procedural laws. It is composed of the Chief Justice and 14 Justices, with a Grand Bench comprised of all 15 Justices and three petty benches each comprised of 5 Justices. The cases are first assigned to one of the three petty benches, and those cases that involve constitutional questions are transferred to the Grand Bench for examination and adjudication.


(2)Judicial Proceedings

Civil Cases

Civil cases are legal disputes between private individuals. The classic examples are disputes over the lending of money or property leases. Indeed, the vast majority of legal disputes are civil cases. When these cases are disputed in courts, they are referred to as "civil litigation cases" in which the individual's rights and obligations are ultimately determined by the judgment.

When an individual is not satisfied with a decision made by the central or local government, she/he may also seek a judgment by a court as administrative litigation as well as file an appeal to the administrative agency. This category of cases is referred to as "administrative cases". Examples include demands for the cancellation of taxation imposed by the tax authorities or nullification of an election. The court of first instance for a civil case is a district court or summary court, and a district court for an administrative case, which judges in accordance with the Code of Civil Procedure or the Administrative Case Litigation Act.

Labor cases are another important form of legal dispute. There are two basic types: "individual labor cases" between an employer and an employee and "collective labor cases" between an employer and a union. In April 2006, Japan introduced the Labor Adjudication System for individual labor cases. Under this system, three labor adjudicators (one serving as judge and one each representing the interests of the employer and the employee) form a Labor Adjudication Committee that seeks to resolve the dispute in no more than three sessions by providing conciliation or adjudication. The objectives are to resolve cases quickly, appropriately, and effectively. Cases that cannot be resolved by this system are referred to ordinary judicial proceedings.


Procedures in civil cases


Family Affairs Cases

As their name suggests, family affairs cases are disputes involving the family, for example marriage annulments/cancellation and divorces, custody over children, and inheritance. In the resolution of family affairs, particular attention must be given to emotional conflicts and privacy considerations. Japan has applied a system of conciliation where family courts around the country dispose of family affairs cases with closed proceedings when the parties have difficulty resolving the cases themselves. Conciliation is conducted by a Conciliation Committee comprised of a family court judge and members from the general public. This system results in conciliations for roughly 50% of the cases filed at the family courts. If the case is not resolved by conciliation, it is settled through adjudication by a family court or litigation. Whether the case is settled through adjudication or litigation depends on the case and relevant laws.


Criminal Cases

Japan has a three-stage trial system for criminal cases (however, the defendant also has the right to file for a "retrial" after a guilty verdict has been finalized if new evidence or the like is found, based on which a determination of innocence may be made). Public prosecutors have the authority to prosecute cases. A period of twenty-three days is allowed for arrest and detention before an indictment, and there is no pre-indictment bail system.

Trials focus on the examination of evidence. Procedures to arrange evidence and points of dispute may be held prior to a trial or between trials.

Previously, Japan had assigned court-appointed attorneys for defendants only after indictment. However, from October 2006, as part of the new judicial reforms, court-appointed attorneys must be assigned for suspects of certain serious crimes in custody prior to indictment. The scope of this court-appointed attorney system has been expanded to include suspects facing servitude or imprisonment for a maximum of over three years since May 2009. The JFBA has long advocated a court-appointed attorney system for suspects and this has finally been achieved.

For further information on problems in the criminal justice system and the JFBA's efforts to improve criminal procedures, see V-4, "Efforts to Improve Criminal Procedures".


Procedures in civil cases


Juvenile Cases

Juvenile cases are cases involving juveniles ages 14 to 19 who have committed a crime (juvenile offenders), and those cases concerning juveniles under 14 who have violated a criminal law or ordinance but are not considered as offenders under the Penal Code because of their young age (juveniles who committed illegal acts).

In order to realize the principles of the sound rearing of juveniles articulated in Article 1 of the Juvenile Act, Japan has applied a system where every juvenile case is referred to a family court after the investigation by the police and/or prosecutors. The family court investigates the accepted case and starts hearing proceedings. Hearing proceedings of juvenile cases differ from those of ordinary criminal cases. One difference is that juvenile hearing proceedings are not open to the public. Juvenile hearing proceedings may result in non-punishment or protective measures, such as referral to juvenile training schools or children's self-reliance support facilities. In certain cases, the family court may refer a case back to the public prosecutors for trial under ordinary criminal proceedings. In this case, the same criminal proceedings as those for an adult are conducted for the juvenile.


2. Civil and Criminal Legal Aid Systems
(1)Civil Legal Aid

The Japan Legal Support Center was established by the government to offer support to citizens with limited financial resources through free legal counseling (support for legal consultation) and loans for attorney's fees (attorneys' remuneration and actual expenses for the trial) for legal representation in a civil trial (including family affairs cases and administrative cases)(support for representation), and loans for attorney's fees for preparation of documents to be submitted to the court (support for document preparation). Foreign nationals may use the civil legal aid system if they have residence in Japan and are lawfully residing in Japan.


(2)Criminal Legal Aid

(a) Suspects/Defendants
A court will appoint defense counsel upon request by a suspect with limited financial resources who is detained for a crime subject to servitude or imprisonment for a maximum of over three years. In case there is an indictment and a trial is scheduled, a court-appointed defense counsel will be appointed upon request by the defendant. In principle, the entire sum of remuneration and expenses for the court-appointed defense counsel will be paid through public funds, and actual calculation and payment of services are provided by the Japan Legal Support Center. This service is available to foreign nationals with limited financial resources, regardless of their status of residence.


(b) Juveniles
For certain serious cases, the court may appoint a public attendant who is an attorney at its discretion. If the court orders the public prosecutor to appear before the court, a public attendant who is an attorney must be appointed for the juvenile. Remuneration and expenses for the court-appointed attorney attendant are also calculated and paid by the Japan Legal Support Center.


(3)Crime Victims

Under the determination of the court, victims of certain serious crimes are permitted to attend the criminal trial, to state their opinion and examine the defendant and witnesses by themselves or through support of an attorney retained by the victim. In case the victim has limited financial resources, the court will appoint an attorney who will support the victim's participation in the criminal trial at the victim's request (court-appointed attorneys for victims). Remuneration and expenses for the court-appointed attorneys for victims are also calculated and paid by the Japan Legal Support Center.



The systems described above in (1) through (3) are all operated by the Japan Legal Support Center with public funding under the Comprehensive Legal Support Act. However, there are cases which have not been covered by legal aid by public funding. Therefore, the JFBA is providing the funds for cases where the need for redress of rights is significant, and implementing a legal aid system through entrustment of the administration of calculation and payment of the actual remuneration and expenses to the Japan Legal Support Center. The nine areas where these systems have been implemented are (1) aid for defense of criminal suspects (those that are out of scope of the court-appointed attorney system); (2) aid for attorney attendants in juvenile cases (same conditions as above); (3) legal support for crime victims (same conditions as above); (4) legal support related to refugee adjudication; (5) legal aid for foreign nationals (in case they lack lawful resident status); (6) legal support for children; (7) legal support for mentally disabled persons; (8) legal support concerning the Act on Medical Care and Treatment for Persons Who Have Caused Serious Cases Under the Condition of Insanity; and (9) legal support for the aged, disabled or homeless.