Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A dearth of lawyers in rural Japan

A story in today's NYT comments on the concentration of Japanese lawyers (50%) in Tokyo -- and their accompanying shortage in rural Japan. The dateline is Yakumo, a small city of almost 20,000 within a legal district of about 50,000. Journalist Norimitsu Onishi reports that it is not unusual for cities five times that size to have not a single lawyer.

When a lawyer arrived in Yakumo pursuant to a national campaign to increase the number of lawyers in the hinterland, residents were slow to notice him. Here's an excerpt about the town's new lawyer, Katsumune Hirai:
He was perplexed that, so far, few had come to him for advice on handling debts, the biggest source of work for lawyers right now. “Tokyo’s economy is doing well these days,” said Mr. Hirai, a baby-faced 33-year-old who has been practicing law for four years. "* * * The economy’s very weak in the countryside, so we see a great number of consultations nationwide about debts, especially from people with highly urgent matters.”
So far, Mr. Hirai mostly deals with land disputes, and he speculates that before he set up his office here, these clients would have sought counsel in a larger city or "resigned themselves to their fate." The story echoes questions I have earlier raised here: what happens in rural places where lawyers are unavailable? Do people resolve disputes on their own? take matters into their own hands, as through self help?

The story also reports on Japan's goal, as reflected in the new lawyer's presence in Yakumo. The report indicates that increasing the number of lawyers is part of wider judicial reforms. Other measures have included the founding of 74 law schools in the past four years. The current system, purusant to which only 3 % of those who take the national bar exam pass it, will be abolished in 2011.

The Japanese government had expected the country to have 3,000 new lawyers by 2010, but the bar pass rate has not been as high as it anticipated so that goal will likely be unmet.

Another (related) question that occurs to me is what, exactly, Japan is trying to accomplish by making lawyers more accessible throughout the nation. More litigation or less? Presumably it does not wish to foment conflict. The story reports that the clients who came to see the new lawyer on a recent day were embarrassed at doing so. Mr Hirai indicates that his goal of dispelling such shame is why he established his office in such a prominent place in the town:
After all, this is a small town * * * Because I’m right in front of the train station, everybody will know if a person came to this office. If I’d settled instead in a more secluded part of town, people might think that this is a shady business after all, and that I’m a bad guy.
But is this embarrassment about consulting a lawyer a Japanese thing? or is it about being rural and priding themselves on being able to sort out such conflicts on their own, as research indicates is the case in the U.S.? Does informal order exist in these rural places--an informal order the Japanese government hopes to replace by making legal advice more accessible? Or is providing the lawyers about assisting residents in relatively remote areas to navigate their conflicts with larger institutions, such as creditors, with whom informal resolution is not viable?

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