Photo/IllutrationU.S. lawyer Lawrence Repeta holds a news conference in Tokyo on March 8, 1989, after the Supreme Court gave its ruling on his lawsuit. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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The Tokyo District Court has rarely used a special system designed to preserve historically valuable trial records, meaning that documents on some epoch-making civil lawsuits no longer exist, The Asahi Shimbun has found.

Under the “special preservation” system that already existed in prewar years, the court is supposed to decide what could become historic trial documents or reference materials, and preserve them forever.

In response to an inquiry from The Asahi Shimbun, the Tokyo District Court surveyed its preservation situation and found that records on only 11 trials have been preserved under the special system.

Records on about 270 trials have been kept after their preservation periods expired, but their continued maintenance has nothing to do with the special preservation system, the court said.

The district court admitted that its management on the preservation and discarding of trial records has been inappropriate.

“We will proceed with preservation and disposal based on in-house stipulations,” a court official said.

Rules on preserving records of civil lawsuits are decided not by law but under in-house regulations and notices of the Supreme Court.

In the United States, even trial records dating back to 1790 are preserved at the national archives.

For Japanese legal cases, documents that describe court rulings are forever preserved at the National Archives of Japan.

However, other records, including witness statements and shorthand notes of questions in the courtroom, are preserved at courts for five years after the rulings are finalized. Then, they are discarded.

One legal expert said a stricter preservation system is needed.

“The court should not discard (the records) immediately but make judgments in consultation with outside people,” the expert said.

The discarded records at the Tokyo District Court include those for the “Asahi lawsuit” and the “Repeta lawsuit.”

In the Asahi lawsuit, social activist Shigeru Asahi sued the government over the interpretation of the “right to exist” stipulated under Article 25 of the Constitution.

He won in the district court ruling in 1960, which led to an improvement in public assistance programs.

In 1967, however, after the plaintiff had died, the Supreme Court ruled against Asahi.

In the Repeta lawsuit, U.S. lawyer Lawrence Repeta demanded that people in gallery seats of courtrooms be given the right to take notes. The Supreme Court supported such rights in 1989 based on Article 21 of the Constitution.

Repeta said he was shocked to learn that records from the trial were discarded. He pointed out that documents on whether the state was conducting fair trials or not have vanished.

“Courts should not only make judgments on incidents, but they also should be aware that they are making history,” said journalist Shoko Egawa, referring to the lost records of the Repeta lawsuit.

Shoddy management of official documents has emerged as an issue for the central government, and The Asahi Shimbun, using information disclosure system, looked into the record preservation situation at the Tokyo District Court, which has handled many renowned lawsuits.

Among the 11 trials for which records were preserved, two entered the special system in 2012, including one on the use of a square in front of the Imperial Palace, whose ruling was finalized in 1953.

Records on three of the trials, all held in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), became subject to the preservation system in 2017.

The documents of the remaining six trials were preserved in 2018. One of the trials was over noise pollution at the U.S. Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo. Another was on the bankruptcy of the Aum Shinrikyo cult.

A year after it carried out the deadly nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, Aum was declared bankrupt in March 1996.

Procedures to distribute properties to creditors, including victims of crimes committed by cult members, lasted for 13 years until March 2009.

Thirty-seven volumes of documents recorded the bankruptcy process. Their preservation period expired in March 2014.

The records on the 270 trials that were not discarded after their preservation periods expired include one on the constitutionality of school textbook screenings.

The district court is considering preserving the records of 40 of the 270 trials under the special system.