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Top court to rule on constitutionality of NHK reception fee system

The Grand Bench of the Supreme Court is seen in this March 15, 2017 file photo. (Mainichi)

The Grand Bench of the Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on the constitutionality of the subscription system of Japan's public broadcaster NHK on Dec. 6, a ruling expected to greatly affect the way the broadcaster collects reception fees.

Under Article 64 of the Broadcast Act, those who own "broadcast reception equipment," which includes TVs, must sign a subscription contract with NHK. In the latest court case, the broadcaster sued a Tokyo man who refused to sign a contract with NHK, demanding that he pay subscription fees. The main issue at stake is whether the Broadcast Act stipulation infringes on the freedom of contract guaranteed under the Japanese Constitution.

In addition, there are several points of contention regarding practical aspects of the contract. In the first and following appeal trials, with regard to the timing of the conclusion of a contract for someone who refuses to sign a deal with NHK, lower courts ruled that a subscription contract is considered concluded "when a court order that says a person who has a TV installed needs to accept the contract is finalized," rejecting NHK's claim that a contract comes into force when an application form arrives at the TV owner's home.

Courts have been divided in this regard, however, as there have been other cases that acknowledged NHK's claim.

If such automatic agreement of a contract is recognized by the top court, NHK could move forward with basic legal measures to demand payments not only from subscribers who fall behind in their payments, as it has been doing, but also from those who refuse to sign subscription contracts with the broadcaster. This means that the group could step up efforts to collect fees from non-subscribers believed to total over 9 million households across the country.

Issues at stake also include; when the obligation to pay subscription fees occurs, and from which point the five-year statute of limitations should be calculated when claimed by those who have TVs installed. If the broadcaster's claim on these issues is acknowledged by the Supreme Court, the days left for the statute of limitations would not pass at all before the subscription contract was signed, meaning that the TV owner would need to pay the entire amount of fees starting from the day the person installed the TV. On the other hand, if based on the Tokyo man's claim, even if he loses the case he will only need to pay fees from the day the ruling is finalized and onward, or even if he would have to make retrospective payment, the broadcaster could only go back five years.

Since detailed stipulation regarding the NHK reception contract is not set under the Broadcast Act, experts including Civil Code scholars and lawyers say that the issue should be resolved by legislative procedures rather than a legal interpretation.

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