Why are Chinese judges resigning?

Much has been written on why Chinese judges are resigning (but not enough about Chinese prosecutors–to be the subject of a later blogpost), but this blogpost (written on the road) adds some more detail and analysis. Comments (and criticism) are welcomed.

In May (2016), Chen Haiguang, the head of the judicial management department of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) revealed that over 1000 judges had left, which he described as about 1% of the judiciary. The number appears to be an underestimate.  The legal Wechatosphere often mentions that a Wechat chat group of former Beijing-based (including the SPC) judges has reached its maximum of 500 members.

More data and analysis comes from two sources: a survey conducted in the fall of 2015 and published by Wusong (a big thank you to another “authoritative person” for bringing this to my attention) and a recent article by one of the more popular Wechat public accounts, Empire Lawyers ( 法客帝国).

Respondees to survey

0662a683-7b08-44ac-8da0-1e7b1c3fb915

Six hundred former judges responded to the survey, conducted through social media, of which 72% had left within the past year, while almost 19% had left within the past 2-3 years.

Who is leaving

4b273593-308c-4a1f-a27e-8d735f68f6fa

Judges resigning, by sex (82.2% men, 19.67% women

It is mostly men leaving the judiciary, out of proportion  with the ratio of men:women in the judiciary (2:1). (This confirms what I have been saying when I have spoken on this issue). The survey gives the rationale that men are more interested in a challenging career than women, and are able to deal with a more pressured life.

Judges are resigning in their 30’s, for the most part (see below), and my own analysis is that the reason women are staying in the judiciary is that (married) women at that age also have responsibilities to children and elderly parents. Women are prepared to deal with the stresses of working in the judiciary because the work is more “stable,” and does not involve marketing work after business hours.

Age and education

Over half (55%) of the judges resigning are in their 30’s. Most (70%) have been in the judiciary for at least 6 years, with practically all (91%) with at least 4 years of experience, over 99% with an undergraduate degree and 37% with a master’s degree.

Type of court and area of work

dd6bb700-caac-45b4-9fdb-b41af327a469

Most judges who have resigned recently  are from the basic level (78%) and intermediate level courts (18%).

4b768706-e200-46af-8d25-1d07bbce9765-1

Many (almost 80%) of the judges who had resigned were in the civil/commercial divisions, with division chiefs and deputy division chiefs accounting for 14% and 19% respectively.

Reasons for leaving:

  • benefits insufficient (66% selected this as primary reason);
  • too much pressure and too much work (60%);
  • not enough opportunity for promotion (34%);
  • professional risk and lack of professional respect (31%).

Those that have resigned are generally pessimistic about judicial reform (47%) or can’t say for certain whether it will be successful (32%). Their “judges’ dream” is to be able to try cases independently, without reporting their case up to the leadership, worrying about parties to the case petitioning because they are unhappy with the outcome, etc.

Another analyst (the editor of the Wechat account Empire Lawyers) gave three reasons for the wave of judges submitting their resignations.

  • Wechat;
  • Judicial reform;
  • Other factors (especially money).

Why Wechat?  Because it has given them a new universe of social connections outside the judiciary. It also gives them easy access to information about the life of former judges similar to themselves. Moreover, through Wechat they can create a circle of friends and connections who can provide moral support when they have made the decision to resign. According to the editor, Wechat is often a vehicle for judges preparing to resign. Some judges establish their own Wechat public accounts while still in the judiciary, publishing articles that bring much more attention from legal professionals to their expertise than their judgments ever do.

The increased stresses of judicial reform are another set of factors–the lifetime responsibility system,  case registration system, and particularly, the bright line quota on the number of judges (no more than 39%) means that promotions will come more slowly than previously and others will not even be eligible to participate in the examinations for qualifying as a judge.

Other factors?  The editor cited money, particularly judges in major cities with high costs of living.  The fact remains that middle-class life in China’s major cities, particularly for couples with a child, is expensive and judicial salaries, tied to civil service rank, are inadequate.   As the editor mentioned, some judges supplement their wages with (legal) inome from writing or lecturing. (It seems likely in the current atmosphere, fewer judges are willing to risk soliciting illegal income.)

There is also the rigidity of the Party/state cadre management system. While law firm partner classmates are posting photos of themselves at Yosemite or in the Grand Tetons on Wechat, judges must obtain permission to leave the country

Finally, this couplet is popular on legal oriented Wechat:

网上流行一个段子:

Q: Do you regret resigning from the court?

问:从法院辞职,你后悔吗?

A: Regret.

答:后悔。

Q: Why do you regret it?

问:为什么后悔?

A: I regret that I left too late.

答:后悔出来晚了。

Supreme People’s Court’s new bankruptcy information platform

Screen Shot 2016-08-06 at 12.12.56 PMOn 1 August, President Zhou Qiang of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) inaugurated the SPC’s new enterprise bankruptcy and reorganization electronic information platform, linked here and accessible through the Supreme People’s Court’s website (www.court.gov.cn).  The English title and slogans could have benefited from a 5-minute consultation with a native speaker, but more importantly, some of the functions still appear to be in Beta mode.  The platform has three parts.

It provides information for the public on:

  • Debtors (债务人信息). :

 This function seems to be in Beta mode because when you click further for more details,Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 9.03.31 AMno further information is available.  This section is intended to provide the most recent annual report, related litigation, and information on assets of the company from the industrial and commercial authorities’ database and enable “one-stop shopping” for distressed assets.

Bankruptcy notices, such as this one with a plan on the distribution of the assets of a Xinjiang tomato processing company;

  • Bankruptcy rulings made by the local courts, such as this one by the Qidong (Jiangsu) court on accepting the bankruptcy case of a Nantong marine engineering company;
  • Laws and regulations (primarily SPC regulations related to bankruptcy);
  • Bankruptcy related news, primarily reports on new regulations issued and bankruptcy-related initiatives or conferences, such as this one in Zhejiang, on the crisis in Zhejiang’s ship-building industry);
  • Typical (model) bankruptcy and liquidation cases (see an explanation of typical/mode cases here), so far just a re-publication of the typical cases that the SPC issued in June.

Second, bankruptcy administrators are required by these regulations to upload information to issue to parties to the bankruptcy.

Third, judges are required to upload their bankruptcy/liquidation rulings to this platform.

For parties, the platform enables them to have current information on the status of their cases and upload documents to submit to the court or bankruptcy administrator.

The SPC issued regulations on the operation of the platform in late July, available here. It seems likely that the SPC considered the bankruptcy platform of other major jurisdictions in the process.  This platform is part of the SPC’s Internet Plus/smart courts policy to provide greater transparency, easier access to information, and “greater informatization,” for some of the reasons described in this short article–particularly having tangible results and promoting the use of information technology.

For anyone seeking to drill down into the details of how bankruptcy and liquidation law is being implemented in China’s political and economic environment, and particularly for lawyers and others doing due diligence and distressed asset investors (domestic or foreign), the platform is unquestionably very useful.

 

 

 

 

How China’s non-guiding cases guide

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 12.13.38 PM  What few recognize is that the millions of non-guiding cases on the Supreme People’s Court’s China Judgments Online website (and its commercial counterparts, such as 无讼(and any internal version that there may be)) are guiding the development of Chinese law, including what arguments lawyers make and how judges decide cases.  I note that this coming week’s U.S.-China Judicial Dialogue: In Support of Economic Growth and Reform includes the role of precedent as one of the topics of discussion, and I hope this brief blogpost (to be expanded later) can indirectly contribute to the discussion.

The conventional wisdom among both foreigners and Chinese writing about China and case law is that with the exception of a small number of guiding cases approved by the SPC, previous cases do not make law.

Those closer to the world of practice in China know that previous cases, or some portion of them, are indirectly shaping the development of Chinese law. From a Chinese perspective these cases are not directly guiding, or binding, but provide cases that lawyers and judges use as reference (参考), to persuade a judge or other decision-maker that a previous case has decided the same or similar issues. This phenomenon relates to cases in a broad range of issues and occurs in several ways:

  • A significant number of Chinese judges and lawyers follow Wechat legal public accounts. One type of article that frequently appears is one focusing on a specific legal issue and uses the case database to generate relevant cases.  A typical example is this article published on 29 July, analyzing six cases relating to changing the name of a child.  This type of article affects arguments lawyers make and the judges consider.
  • A second way is judges themselves will search a particular issue to see how other courts have decided a particular issue or the elements to which they have looked when deciding a particular issue. Lawyers perform similar analysis when preparing to argue a case.
  • Additionally, lawyers sometimes submit a relevant court decision when making a submission in an administrative proceeding, such as to the Trademark Review and Adjudication Board and more often, when making submissions to court.  Lawyers will evaluate, however, whether the judges hearing the case will take the submission positively or will consider it an indirect criticism of their professional competency. Lawyers will submit cases from courts higher than the court that they are litigating–so that a lawyer litigating in a Beijing district court may attach a relevant case decided by the Beijing Higher People’s Court, for example.
  • Among the many sources of information SPC judges use when drafting judicial interpretations is searches of previous judgments relevant to the issues under consideration, because those will indicate which questions are unclear for the lower courts.
  • Legal services companies, such as Itslaw, are training young lawyers in case searching and retrieval (guiding and non-guiding cases), using keywords analogous to Westlaw’s and LexisNexis’ products. They are doing this training because prior cases are being used in advocacy in China.

How are cases from China Judgments Online being used in China in practice? This is where we can see how case law, Chinese style, is developing. The SPC has been focusing its efforts on its guiding cases and it is unclear whether they have noticed this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Supreme People’s Court diversified dispute resolution policy (updated)

U12968P1591DT20160602112052

Opening of court-annexed mediation center of Qianhai court

On 29 June 2016, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued a policy document on diversified dispute resolution (Opinion on the people’s courts more deeply reforming the diversified dispute resolution mechanism) (Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion)(关于人民法院进一步深化多元化纠纷解决机制改革的意见). The document uses the term “diversified dispute resolution” (consistent with Chinese practice) rather than “alternative dispute resolution” (more often used outside of China) to reflect the central place of mediation, arbitration, and conciliation in Chinese dispute resolution.(This updated version reflects comments by an authoritative person (and a very careful reader).

It was accompanied by regulations on court-appointed mediators.  For those interested in the way the SPC works, it is another example of an SPC policy document in the form of an “opinion” (discussed here) accompanied by regulations  (a type of judicial interpretation, discussed here).

The policy document sets out in a consolidated form the SPC’s latest policies on mediation, arbitration, and its relationship with litigation.  It provides a framework for further reforms. It is intended to inform the lower courts as well as related Party/government agencies of forthcoming reforms.  It signals to the central leadership that the SPC is on course to achieve one of the reform targets set out in the 4th Court Reform Plan. The current head of the SPC’s judicial reform office, Judge Hu Shihao, spoke at the press conference announcing the Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion, indicating that the office took the lead in drafting it.

A summary follows below, highlighting, based on a quick reading, focusing on its:

  • objectives and origin;
  • signals and practical implications.

A very useful academic article on diversified dispute resolution, with survey data and more on the political background, can be found (behind a paywall) here. (To the many academics and practitioners who have written on this topic, please feel free to use the comment function or email to expand/contradict, or correct this).

Objectives & origin

The SPC issued the Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion as a way to implement one of the targets in the 4th Judicial Reform Plan:

46. Complete diversified dispute resolutions mechanisms.Continue to promote mediation, arbitration, administrative rulings, administrative reconsideration or other dispute settlement mechanisms with an organic link to litigation, mutually coordinate and guide parties to choose an appropriate dispute resolution. Promote the establishment of dispute mechanisms that are industry-specific and specialized in the areas of land requisition and property condemnation, environmental protection, labor protection, health care, traffic accidents, property management, insurance and other areas of dispute, dispute resolution professional organizations, promote the improvement of the arbitration systems and administrative ruling systems. Establish an operating system that links people’s mediation, administrative mediation, industry mediation, commercial mediation, and judicial mediation. Promote the legislative process of a diversified dispute settlement mechanism, establish a system for a systematic and scientific diversified dispute settlement system.
The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion is a product of the 4th Plenum decision. Its underlying approach was approved by Xi Jinping and other top leaders. Judge Hu, who mentioned at the press conference that at a 2015 meeting, the Leading Small Group on Comprehensive Reform approved a framework policy document (not publicly available) on improving the diversified resolution of disputes (关于完善矛盾纠纷多元化解机制的意见) and the General Offices of the State Council and Central Committee followed with an implementing document. The principal reason that this topic merited top leadership time and involvement is because of its direct links to maintaining social stability and reducing social disputes.

Similar to other SPC policy documents discussed on this blog, comments on the draft were sought from the central authorities, lower courts, relevant State Council ministries and commissions, industry association, arbitration organizations, scholars, and the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion was approved by the SPC judicial committee.

Signals

The objective of the document is to promote a more sophisticated, efficient, and effective approach to dispute resolution that will reduce social tensions. Part of the objective is to reduce the number of cases filed, heard, and tried by courts. For commercial disputes, it is intended to push disputes to institutions that can more competently, efficiently and timely mediate cases.  These institutions include those affiliated with industry associations, arbitration commissions, or specialized mediation associations.  The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion also calls for better mediation of cases within the courts by involving court-annexed mediators, before or after the person or entity files suit. The implications of this document for the reform of labor and rural land contract dispute resolution remain to be seen.

The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion requires better linkages between other diversified dispute resolution institutions and the courts and particularly stresses the role of mediation.  Depending on the type of mediation, it may be done by mediation commissions affiliated with government, people’s mediation committees, arbitration commissions, or other institutions (further information here).  One particular issue that is addressed is easing procedures for enforcing mediation agreements  by courts.  (Because a mediation agreement is a type of contract, it cannot be enforced directly without further procedures, such as being notarized, issued as an arbitration award, or recognized by the courts (through a special procedure under civil procedure law). It emphasizes that the courts can leverage forces outside the judiciary to resolve disputes. The document calls for reasonable borrowing of dispute resolution concepts from abroad.

Practical implications to expect in the medium to long term

  • For the foreign investment community (and their lawyers), a signal that the SPC is working on a judicial interpretation concerning the judicial review of foreign and foreign-related arbitral awards (“standardize judicial review procedures for foreign-related and foreign commercial arbitration awards”) (规范涉外和外国商事仲裁裁决司法审查程序). As this blog has reported earlier, this was signaled at the November 2014 National Conference on Foreign-related Commercial and Maritime Adjudication and last year’s One Belt One Road Opinion. It is unclear whether the future interpretation will change the prior reporting procedure, for example, to give parties a chance to submit arguments orally or in writing, or whether it is intended to consolidate the principles the SPC sets out in its responses to lower courts (released to the public in one of the SPC’s publications), summarized in comprehensive overviews of Chinese arbitration law, such as this one.
  • Changes to labor dispute resolution, as highlighted by the 2015 Central Committee/State Council document mentioned earlier. This is important in light of the uncertain economy and increasing number of workers being made redundant. in recent years, judges in different areas of China have published devastating criticism of the current labor arbitration system and labor dispute resolution generally. The judges pointed out the current labor arbitration system is not independent of the government, fails to protect labor interests equally, and . The judges also criticize the brief statute of limitations in labor disputes and lack of a specialized labor tribunal. It appears from reports that Zhejiang Province is taking the lead in providing greater choices and professionalism in labor dispute resolution, but it unclear how far those reforms go.
  • Further attention to rural land arbitration.The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion mentions better linkages between the courts and rural land arbitration. This area is important, as the government seeks to encourage farmers to expand their landholdings and mortgage their land, but the merits of the system are not the SPC’s issue. A 2014 report highlights the lack of independence of these arbitration commissions, lack of arbitrators, and absence of qualified arbitrators. A 2016 paper by several China Banking Regulatory Commission staff on the mortgage of rural land notes that those arbitration commissions need improving.
  • Local courts to establish “court-annexed mediation centers” to encourage and give parties “one stop shopping” for choices in mediating some of the cases most often seen in the courts–family, conflicts between neighbors, consumer, small claims, consumer, traffic accident, medical disputes;
  • “Improving” criminal conciliation and mediation procedures. Reforms in this area bear close monitoring because, as discussed in earlier blogposts, criminal conciliation and mediation procedures are often used to avoid embarrassing more powerful institutions (such as schools) and people especially in cases involving claims of rape, sexual assault, and child molestation;
  • Recognizing the results of and encouraging litigants to use neutral valuation organizations, for civil and commercial disputes such as medical, real estate, construction, intellectual property, and environmental protection, the results of which could be used as the basis of mediation;
  • More small claims and expedited procedures for minor civil disputes;
  • more lawyers to be appointed as court-appointed mediators;
  • Improvements to administrative dispute resolution procedures.

 

Cameras in the Chinese courts

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.33.43 PM

Fraudulent fund-raising criminal trial

One of the less recognized aspects of China’s judicial reforms is the live streaming (and video archiving) of Chinese court hearings. other than the coverage of the Bo Xilai case.  (I put myself in the category of the persons who were formerly unaware of this development). This blogpost looks (briefly) at SPC policies, current developments, and some very thoughtful analysis of the issues by members of the Chinese judiciary. It follows from my previous blogpost  on online broadcasts of Supreme People’s Court (SPC) public hearings.

Several times this month (July, 2016), President Zhou Qiang has highlighted live streaming (and video libraries) of court hearings, most recently on 18 July, when he spoke about China’s “Smart Courts” and the SPC’s 3.0 Initiative, and reflects the information technology orientation of the Chinese courts (see this brief article on the topic).

In streaming court cases, the SPC and local judiciary are part of a worldwide trend. Even the US federal courts are experimenting with them, with the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit taking the lead.  The courts of Queensland (Australia) have recently issued a paper, looking at the issues from an Australian law perspective and very usefully providing a survey of the law worldwide on  major issues.

What are the Chinese courts doing?

The Chinese courts are implementing live broadcasting and video libraries of a selected, but increasing number of cases, with courts in more prosperous areas taking the lead. The Guangzhou courts were among the courts to broadcast court proceedings first. A minority of those cases are found on the SPC’s Court Tv website and most are found on local court websites, often on that of provincial high courts.  The cases tend to be primarily civil cases, with some criminal and a few administrative cases.

On the website of the Beijing courts for example, there are total of approximately 500 cases, of which 364 are civil cases, including an unfair dismissal case brought against Carrefour, 106 criminal cases, including one with an unrepresented defendant, and quite a few cases involving methamphetamine trafficking. The most popular one is a 2014 corruption case. There are 12 administrative cases, including a case against challenging a housing demolition decision by the Fangshan government.

The Zhejiang High Court seems to have video libraries of hearings in two places: this one has links to hearings for sentence commutation, such as this one, while another website has a broad range of cases, including this recent one from the Wenzhou courts, in which the defendant is being prosecuted for trafficking women into prostitution.

SPC’s 2015 report Judicial Transparency of Chinese Courts highlighted the broadcasting of Chinese court trials, noting that by the end of 2014, there were 519 live broadcasting of court trials through the SPC’s China Court’s Live Trial website (http://ts.chinacourt.org/). and that the local courts had streamed over 80,000 court trials. The numbers are much higher than that (close to 5000 on the SPC’s website) and certainly many more on local court websites.

Legal and Policy background

Streaming of Chinese court hearings is based on 2010 SPC regulations (Provisions on the Live Broadcasting and Rebroadcasting of Court Trials by the People’s Courts) and is linked to the 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan:

15. Establish mechanisms for audio and video recording the entire course of hearings.Strengthen the establishment of technical courtrooms, promoting the full audio-video recording of trial proceedings.

Streaming is also linked to the SPC’s five year plans related to information technology:including  a 2013-17 plan on the Informatization of the courts (人民法院信息化建设五年发展规划(2013-2017)) and two ongoing ones, the Five Year Plan on the Informatization of the People’s Courts, 2016-20(人民法院信息化建设五年发展规划(2016-2020)  and the SPC’s Five Year Informatization Plan (最高人民法院信息化建设五年发展规划(2016-2020)).

The 2010 Regulations do not provide specific protection for the rights of individuals, but focus on the type of cases to broadcast and approval procedures for broadcasts.

Article 2 The people’s court may choose the openly tried cases of higher public attention, greater social impact, and of legal publicity and education significance to make live broadcasts of and rebroadcast court trials. The live broadcasting and rebroadcasting of court trials are prohibited for the following cases:

(1) cases that are not openly tried in accordance with the law since any national secret, trade secret, individual privacy, or juvenile delinquency, among others, is involved;

(2) criminal cases on which procuratorial organs clearly require the non-live broadcasting and rebroadcasting of court trials for justifiable reasons;

(3) civil and administrative cases on which the parties clearly require the non-live broadcasting and rebroadcasting of court trials for justifiable reasons; and

(4) other cases of which the live broadcasting and rebroadcasting are inappropriate.[Translation from Chinalawinfo].

Comments from some local judges 

While the SPC leadership is highlighting the virtues of the streaming of trials, some local judges, likely writing from their personal experience, and comparing Chinese rules with counterparts worldwide, are more critical.

These judges from the  Guangzhou courts (judges with several years of experience with trial streaming) raised issues concerning privacy rights, the right to a fair trial, and the public’s right to know.

  • The privacy of litigants is not respected sufficiently; they are concerned that their private matters will be released online;
  • Open justice is necessary to consider the relationship between state power and individual private rights, but also the public’s right to know and the right to privacy of the parties must be balanced.
  • For criminal cases, for the defendant, the trial webcast is equivalent to a disguised form of a public rally– it could mean that the person has the label of  “criminal” for life .
  • In civil disputes, some statements in court may involve aspects of the private life that the parties or other related persons do not want publicized. Meanwhile, network videos and enormous destructive power of “human flesh searches” combined with public opinion on the parties and their families will have a significant impact, which are likely to lead to their privacy being violated.
  • Not all the information and all the facts of the case should be disclosed online. Some information  can be shielded, such as date of birth, place of work, home address, ID card number, bank account information, and the personal information of related parties, such as close relatives, witnesses and other participants.
  • Parties should have a veto over the trial webcast, and in criminal cases, the victim and his or her family should be consulted as well.  They also suggest shielding some information from broadcast.

As a staff member of theChengdu  courts noted, similar issues are raised by the database of court decisions, such as a case in which the plaintiff’s claim for damages from a traffic accident (including the loss of the ability to procreate) made him the laughingstock of his workplace.

Other local judges have commented that the cases selected for broadcast are not representative, too simple, and that they are sometimes selected for political reasons.

The underlying problem both for online streaming of cases and the court database is that there is not enough Chinese privacy law to protect individuals. Whether the SPC will issue more detailed regulations on privacy in internet broadcasts of court proceedings is unclear.

It does seem clear, that an important rationale for streaming cases is to educate the masses–杀鸡敬猴。Politically sensitive cases are not generally streamed.

For the observer of the Chinese courts, it is a fascinating resource in many ways, whether it is noting the number of cases with people’s assessors, women prosecutors, judges, demeanor of the legal professionals, parties, and bailiffs.

 

 

 

Supreme People’s Court starring on Court TV

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 2.13.22 PM

Nestle v. TRAB hearing in SPC

From 1 July 2016, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) is (in principle) broadcasting live all its public trials (public hearings) (better understood by those from a common law jurisdiction as an appellate court hearings) on its own Court TV website.

SPC broadcasts also include hearings by the #2 Circuit Court (in Shenyang) and #1 Circuit Court in Shenzhen.   The technical platform is provided through Sina.com and a private company.  The SPC describes its online broadcasts as its fourth transparency platform.

Some of the cases that the SPC considers do not have public hearing procedures, such as its capital punishment review and judicial review of decisions concerning foreign and foreign-related arbitral awards.

As of 14 July, there almost 30 cases for which the videos are available, many of which involve lending, either bank or private lending and real estate-related disputes, and are primarily civil cases.  Some of the cases include:

It provides a window into the world of Chinese commercial disputes.

Rationale

SPC Vice President Jing Hanchao, who was apparently tasked with implementing this development, is quoted by the official press as saying:

the live webcasts will be significant progress for judicial openness. With full transparency of trials online, the public can better play their supervisory role.

Live broadcasts will also drive judges to strengthen their capabilities, thus improving the judicial system…

..live webcasts will create a large amount of data that will help jurists study China’s legal system.

Having their advocacy broadcast on line may also drive lawyers to strengthen their advocacy skills as well.

For persons interested in the Chinese judiciary, it provides easy access to SPC court hearings, without the hassle of special permission, letters of introduction, and trips to Beijing.

Lawyers in Beijing do not seem to be aware of this development, at least judging by the lawyer acting for TRAB, who arrived in the courtroom after the hearing began.

Some outstanding questions

This decision by the SPC raises a number of questions.

  • Were the parties asked whether they consented to having their case broadcast on line? It is not apparent from the recordings that I have seen.
  • Individual parties read out their personal identification numbers on the recordings.  Could this be an invasion of their privacy?
  • The recently promulgated People’s Court Courtroom Rules (translation here (thank you Chinalawtranslate.com) and original here) lacks any type of balancing test:
  • Article 11: In any of the following situations, for trial activities that are conducted openly in accordance with law, the people’s courts may use television, the internet or other public media to broadcast or record images, audio or videos.
  • The 2010 regulations on the broadcast of cases (关于人民法院直播录播庭审活动的规定)  lack specific procedures enabling individuals to protect their rights. Do judicial reforms contemplate more specific procedures enabling litigants (or defendants) to refuse to have their case broadcast online?

 

Note:

Mac users may find that the platform works better through the Safari browser than Google Chrome.

Supreme People’s Court judge convicted of taking bribes

45288972BA_14_fp

Bottega Veneta man bag (©BV)

In a blow to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s efforts to bolster its prestige and that of the Chinese judiciary, a ruling recently published on the SPC’s court database reveals that Ms. Zuo Hong, formerly a judge (with division level rank) in the SPC’s Trial Supervision Tribunal was convicted of accepting bribes.    The published ruling omits her full name and that of others involved in the case.

The initial judgment by the Beijing Eastern District People’s Court (District Court), dated 10 March 2016, from which she appealed was upheld by the #2 Beijing Intermediate People’s Court on 31 May 2016.  Because the amounts involved were small (approximately RMB 70,000, particularly in comparison to many of the other corruption cases that have come to light in the last two years), her one and a half year sentence was suspended for two years.  Although she avoided a jail term, she will be unable to draw on her state pension and cannot be involved directly in the legal profession.

The facts, according to the ruling (which summarizes Zuo’s confession and witness statements of others involved in the case):

The then Judge Zuo received as gifts US dollars (USD) and a BV bag (men’s style) from Judge Hui of the Shanghai Higher People’s Court, Trial Supervision Tribunal (USD $6000) and Mr. Yang, Deputy General Manager of Zhongxia Construction Group (Zhongxia, a Shaoxing, Zhejiang-based private company) (bag and USD $2000). (It appears that the bag was originally intended for Judge Hui.)

Judge Hui and Mr. Yang were classmates.  Judge Zuo, who was contacted by Judge Hui, involved herself in a private lending case in the Shaanxi Higher People’s Court in which a Zhongxia subsidiary was a party (the related judgments are listed in this article). The SPC had ruled on the Zhongxia subsidiary’s re-trial petition and remanded to the Shaanxi Higher People’s Court for further proceedings. During 2014, Judge Zuo traveled to Xian four times on the matter, where she met with Judge Hui and Mr. Yang. Judges Zuo and Hui met with their contacts at that court to set out Zhongxia’s position and to have those views conveyed to the judges directly involved. According to the judgment, the Shaanxi judges met with Judges Zuo and Hui because she was from the SPC and given the hierarchical relationship, it was awkward to refuse to meet.   The case was further discussed by the collegiate panel and  judicial committee and eventually remanded to the Xian Intermediate Court for retrial on the basis that the facts were unclear.

According to this article, the case came to the attention of the Supervision Bureau of the SPC in January, 2015, when its personnel were investigating other cases and her iPhone and BV bag came to their attention.  In April, 2015, the Supervision Bureau opened an investigation file for her case. Judge Zuo  cooperated with the Supervision Bureau’s investigation and handed over the money and bag to investigators.  Her case was transferred to the procuratorate on 12 June 2015, when she was taken into custody. She was arrested at the end of that month.

On 1 February 2016, the Communist Party Central Political-Legal Committee designated her case as one of seven typical cases of leadership interference in the judicial process. By that time she had been expelled from the Communist Party under its disciplinary procedures.  At the end of August 2015, Ms. Zuo was formally removed from office.

Comments

It appears from Judge Zuo’s case that the Central Political-Legal Committee’s need to issue a set of  typical cases of leadership interference to scare judges and other members of the political-legal establishment into compliance trumped respect for the formalities of the operation of the criminal justice system. (It is unclear whether the Central Political-Legal Committee considered the impact of that lack of respect on retaining highly qualified judges (and on other legal professionals)).  (This blogpost highlighted the first set of these cases). It is likely that the Central Political-Legal Committee relied on the Party disciplinary decision in her case (see a description here) to make a determination that her case should be made public.

Senior court personnel involving themselves in cases, whether motivated by friendship or bribes, is an ongoing problem. What the two judges did is prohibited by SPC 2015 regulations and previous SPC rules. It is likely that Judge Hui has also been punished for his role in this. It seems unlikely that the Shaanxi judges were punished, as the case does not show that the internal advocacy did not affect the eventual outcome.

The case also illustrates that structural aspects of the court system have left space what is now considered “improper interference” by senior judges and were previously common practice. It also shows that internal court procedures in this case seem to have operated to blunt that interference.

The trial supervision procedure had been one of the soft spots for “improper interference,” although reforms of the trial supervision procedure under the 2015 judicial interpretation of the Civil Procedure Law (and further 2015 SPC trial supervision regulations) should diminish abuses.  Chinese law had given trial supervision judges relatively broad discretion in deciding whether to re-open a case, which is important because China has a two instance system.  (Current reforms require the application for re-trial to be sent to the opposing party and permit the reviewing judge to hear arguments from both sides). Judge Zuo is only one of many trial supervision judges who has been convicted of bribery.  (See recent cases in Liuzhou, Shanxi, and Putian.)

As Professor Li Yuwen of Erasmus University has previously written (and which I quoted in an earlier blogpost):

judicial corruption cannot be divorced from its social context…It is unrealistic to expect judges to operate completely outside the social environment, especially in the absence of a workable system to reduce the incidence of judicial corruption…certain shortcomings of the court system leave the door open for corruption. For instance, the flexible use of the re-trial system [trial supervision] leads to the easy re-opening of cases if influential people wish to interfere in a case.This not only diminishes the finality of a case but also creates opportunities for using personal networking to change a court’s judgment.

Furthermore, the relatively law judicial salary makes judges an easy target for corruption…In modern-day China, a profession’s income is too often linked to the profession’s social status. Judges’ low salaries are not conducive to building self-respect amongst the profession and, moreover, they constitute a major ground for fostering judicial corruption.

How low was Zuo Hong’s salary, that she thought it worth her while to risk her freedom and career for USD $8000?