For the first time, the Supreme Court on Oct. 25 heard arguments on whether Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) can legally force citizens to pay subscription fees to the public broadcaster.

The top court’s ruling is expected before the end of the year, and all 15 justices will decide the case, given its wide-ranging ramifications.

At the heart of the matter is the lack of a clear provision in the Broadcast Law that obligates households and businesses to pay subscription fees to NHK for its programming and other operations.

NHK has used regulations authorized by the communications minister to collect the fees, which totaled 676.9 billion yen ($5.9 billion) in fiscal 2016.

The broadcaster has argued that it can collect the fees on the basis of a Broadcast Law provision that requires individuals who have installed TV reception equipment in their homes to sign contracts with NHK to receive its programs.

The case before the Supreme Court centers around a Tokyo man who has been sued by NHK over nonpayment of the fees. The man has a TV at his home but has not signed the reception contract.

In the Oct. 25 hearing, a lawyer for the man argued that the regulations used by NHK to collect fees are not legally binding but only encourage a certain effort be made toward achieving the goal set out in the regulation.

The lawyer also argued that forcing anyone to enter into a contract with NHK is unconstitutional because it would seriously violate the freedom of individuals to enter into contracts.

Lawyers for NHK, however, argued that NHK has played a major social role in developing the broadcasting culture and strengthening the broadcasting infrastructure in Japan. They said the regulation is both necessary and rational--and clearly within the bounds of the Constitution.

NHK has the right to seek the subscription fees because a reception contract is entered into when NHK asks the other party to sign it, the lawyers said.

The district and high courts have ruled in favor of NHK on the grounds the regulation “conforms with social welfare,” citing the role NHK has played in broadcasting programs related to natural disasters.

Those courts have said the defendant’s broadcast reception contract will become valid if a ruling in favor of NHK is finalized.

The courts also said NHK can retroactively seek subscription fees from the time the TV was installed by the individual being sued by NHK.

After the Oct. 25 session, Izumi Hayashi, the man’s lawyer, criticized the public broadcaster for picking on individuals who are in a legally weak position.

“It is wrong of NHK to continue a stance of piling up judicial rulings that allows it to forcibly collect the subscription fees,” Hayashi said.

Since 2006, NHK has gone to summary court to force households that refused to pay the fees to cough up the money.

NHK eventually began suing households and companies that refused to sign the broadcast reception contract. About 4,000 such cases have ended up with a lawsuit being filed by NHK.