Japan: a land of many courts and relatively few judges

The Japan Times has an interesting article on the relatively small number of formal judges in that country, given its large number of courts. Japan has over 1,000 courts within its judicial hierarchy, but fewer than 4,000 total judges. And many of those judges have mostly administrative, as oppossed to courtroom, roles. That poses an challenging question for a country which works to take many cases to trial: how are there enough judges to hold all the trials guaranteed under the law?

The answer lies in a combination of (1) a broad network of judicial assistants, many of whom serve as shadow judges; and (2) resolving cases short of a full-blown trial. As the article explains:

How do they manage it? They get a lot of help; there are approximately 10,000 judicial clerks (shokikan) who play a key role in case management and documentation. Those with plenty of experience might well be called “magistrates” in that they effectively run some proceedings, such as bankruptcy and enforcement matters, where the need for formal judicial determinations of fact or law is limited. Some even end up as summary court judges.

In some family and civil proceedings, lawyers are also used as part-time “judges” (though they are not referred to by that term). Family and civil courts also rely on thousands of part-time conciliators from the neighboring community (including members of the local bar association) to help disputing parties arrive at mediated settlements. District courts also host labor tribunals that resolve labor cases using a mixed panel of a real judge and representatives of both sides of the employment relationship.

Still, most these proceedings are not “trials,” the right to which is supposedly guaranteed by Article 32 of the Constitution. In English, this bit of the charter appears to guarantee “the right of access to the courts,” but in Japanese it actually refers to “the right to a trial in a court.” That many cases are not actually trials is convenient because it means they can be resolved in closed proceedings (since constitutionally only “trials” must be conducted in open court) with fewer due-process protections.

Even when a case is or becomes a full-blown trial, it is not uncommon to hear lawyers complaining about judges cutting corners in civil cases to get them off their docket. This can often involve pressuring parties to settle. Some may be tempted to attribute this to cultural factors, but settlement is also just easier for judges — they don’t have to write a judgment or worry about being overturned on appeal.

The astute reader will identify many similarities to the current state of the American civil justice system, for better or for worse.

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