Supreme People’s Court to require prior case search

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 12.13.38 PMIn August, 2016, I wrote about how non-guiding Chinese cases are guiding the development of Chinese law.  I described what I saw as a prevalent practice in the Chinese judiciary that judges 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. In that blogpost, I questioned whether the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) had noticed this practice.  Under a recent SPC policy document that will become effective on 1 May, this prevalent practice will become a required practice. The SPC’s Opinions on Putting a Judicial Responsibility System in Place and Improving Mechanisms for Trial Oversight and Management (Provisional) contains the following phrase:

6. All levels of people’s courts shall give full play to the professional judges’ conferences and adjudication committee’s roles in summarizing trial experience unifying judgment standards; and on the foundation of improving working mechanisms such as consulting similar cases and judgment guidance; a mechanism is to be established requiring the search of similar cases and relevant cases, to ensure a uniform judgment standard for similar cases, and the uniform application of law.

六、各级人民法院应当充分发挥专业法官会议、审判委员会总结审判经验、统一裁判标准的作用,在完善类案参考、裁判指引等工作机制基础上,建立类案及关联案件强制检索机制,确保类案裁判标准统一、法律适用统一。

This requires judges to do what many of them have been already doing –searching the case databases for prior cases that raise the same or similar issues and other issues related to the principal one(s). This principle will be applicable to judges hearing all sorts of cases–civil, criminal, administrative, enforcement, and intellectual property. It will not be evident to the reader of a Chinese judgment or ruling that searches have been done because non-guiding cases may not be cited.

Requiring a search of prior and related cases is an important step in the evolution of the Chinese case law system.  That system (as I wrote recently), supplements and informs judicial interpretations. Judicial interpretations often take years to be finalized.  National legislation (by the National People’s Congress and its Standing Committee) is hopelessly inadequate for the needs of the court system.  Case law is needed to fill in the gaps.  Judges, who are assuming greater individual responsibility for their decisions, need case law for more specific guidance.

In her remarks in November, 2016 focused on intellectual property, Justice Tao Kaiyuan revealed the thinking of the SPC leadership:

The construction of the case guidance system [Chinese case law] is not to create a new legal source, but to…uncover the broader consensus of the industry, to further refine legal rules and to provide better law for society. It is also expected to lay the foundation for the drafting of judicial interpretations…The function of the intellectual property case guidance system is to enhance the predictability of the judiciary by establishing an intellectual property case guidance system to promote the unity of judicial standards.

 

 

 

China’s 19th Party Congress & Judicial Reform

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29 March meeting of Party leading group on judicial reform

Meng Jianzhu, Politburo member and head of the Communist Party Central Political Legal Committee, held a meeting in late March (photo above), to convey Xi Jinping’s message–those in leadership positions must do all possible to ensure that judicial system reform responsibility targets are basically achieved before the 19th Party congress (努力实现党的十九大召开前基本完成司法体制改革努力实现党的十九大召开前基本完成司法体制改革任务的目标). For those not familiar with Chinese political-legal jargon, “judicial system” (司法体制) means here the political-legal institutions–the courts, procuratorate, public/state security, and justice administration.   “Responsibility and targets” are also Chinese political jargon. Xi Jinping’s message dates from early January, when he highlighted this goal in instructions transmitted to the Communist Party Central Committee’s national political legal work conference.  He emphasized that the cornerstone of the judicial system reform is the judicial accountability system.  Part of the message  is that 2017 is a critical time, during which there is a “decisive battle” for deepening judicial reform, the battle intended to achieve those targets.  “Decisive battle” is also a core part of Chinese political jargon.

Since late March, Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang and other senior SPC leaders have been publicizing the target of completing judicial system reform, particularly the judicial accountability system, before the 19th Party Congress.  The SPC leadership has been doing that through meetings, both of the SPC itself (and the circuit courts) and the provincial-level courts and through SPC media outlets. President Zhou Qiang did so during a recent visit to Anhui, while on April 7, executive vice president Shen Deyong, vice-president Li Shaoping, and Political Department head Xu Jiaxin transmitted that message on a nationwide court video conference. This message is likely to be repeated in the months leading up to the 19th Party Congress.

In recent days, the SPC’s judicial reform office has been explaining these reforms to the public that reads SPC professional publications, such as the People’s Court Daily and China Trial, with some of the core content in the form of FAQs.  The reforms outline the way a post-reform court should operate. Some of the points were previously set out in the SPC’s February, 2017 judicial reform white paper.

A brief summary of the responses follows below:

  1. Why is the responsibility system the critical part of the judicial system reform (司法体制改革的“牛鼻子”)? Answer: because Xi Jinping said it, and judicial power and accountability/responsibility go together; accountability limits power.
  2. What is the responsibility of a presiding judge? Answer: take the lead in a case, by outlining the hearing of the case, allocating responsibilities, taking the lead at trial and in post-trial discussions, and in cases of significant differences of opinion, submit the case to either a specialist judges’ committee or judicial committee.
  3. How should the system of court president’s and division chief’s hearing cases be improved?Court leading cadres have multiple identities, including Party administrative responsibilities, and they must concurrently plan, announce and implement Party construction and adjudication [substantive] work, and for those who are quota judges, they should hear some cases too. Those cases should depend on a person’s background and strengths and should be major, difficult, complicated, or new cases which are representative.
  4. What is the relationship between judicial teams and court divisions? Answer: A Judicial team is comprised of judges, judge assistants, clerks and other auxiliary personnel, formulated respective lists of responsibilities of judges, judge assistants, and clerks, established the new judicial work mechanism with judges at the core and the team members cooperating with each other closely,
  5. When judges are randomly assigned to cases, how should the judge in charge of the case be determined? Answer: random selection should be primary, supplemented by assigned cases.
  6. How should the reform of having judges sign judicial documents [judgments/rulings, etc.] be understood? Answer: Judges who hear cases should sign their judgments and senior court leaders should no longer review or sign the judgments on the cases when they had not been personally involved.
  7. How should the reform of having a conference of professional judges be understood? Answer: judges in different substantive areas can organize committees to provide their views to other judges on problematic issues, reducing the number of cases referred to the judicial committee.
  8. In courts where there are many judges, how large should the conference of professional judges be? Answer:basically, it depends on the profile of the cases and the number of judges.
  9. What type of management and oversight responsibilities will a court president have besides hearing cases? He (she) will monitor judgments and rulings, sometimes recommending the matter go the judicial committee (see further details in the white paper).
  10. What type of management and oversight responsibilities will a division chief have in addition to his responsibilities hearing cases? As delegated by the court president, a division chief can review matters such as extending a defendant’s period of arrest or detention, or other compulsory measures or extend the period for submitting evidence.
  11. When judicial power is delegated down in judicial reform, how can it be monitored? The old system of having senior judges sign off on judicial documents, including ones that they had not heard, and they are also forbidden from approving cases in an indirect way, such as giving oral instructions. Senior judges should be working on a macro, not micro level.
  12. How can the judicial committee reform move forward reliably? Answer: from now on, the focus of the work of judicial committees should change from discussing individual cases to summarizing experience, and discussing major cases, with exceptions (foreign affairs, social stability, etc. (see the analysis in the white paper).

Comments

These questions and answers reflect the challenges the SPC faces in moving the Chinese court system (including its own operations) away from the traditional model that fuses judicial authority with traditional Chinese [Communist Party] administration.  The post-reform concept of the judiciary is a more professional judiciary that gives judges greater professional autonomy (and therefore can retain the sophisticated talent that is leaving for law firms) but retains control in specified areas. How successful will these reforms be in moving courts and judges away from old patterns of behavior remains to be seen. It seems to be happening in at least some of the pilot courts (from my discussions), but that does not mean these will be successful in other less sophisticated areas.  Presumably, the SPC’s judicial reform office is monitoring the pilots in a more systematic way.

The reasons for stressing the importance of accomplishing these reforms by the 19th Party Congress are assumed, not explained. I understand it as intended to show that the judicial system reforms that have been undertaken in recent years are correct, have accomplished what they were intended to accomplish, and are effective in improving China’s judicial system.  I expect that the system described above is reflected in the redrafts of the People’s Court Organizational Law and the Judges’ Law.  To what extent will these reforms (apparently accompanied by increased political study) be able to retain the talent currently in or being recruited into the courts?

 

Veneration rights litigation in China

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tombstore states “veneration rights”

In honor of the Qingming Festival, one of the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC) media outlets, Faxin, published a set of cases on veneration rights (祭奠权).  The cases were previously published in Selection of People’s Court Cases (人民法院案例选, edited by the China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence (Applied Jurisprudence Institute) (one of the research institutes affiliated with the SPC).  This publication is one of the authoritative case collections of the SPC. Litigation related to the honoring of deceased relatives has been on the increase in recent years, a sign of fundamental changes in Chinese society.   Among the cases in this category are:

 

  • rights to be informed about the death of a relative or friend and the location of burial;
  • rights related to burial or storage of ashes; and
  • rights relating to tombstones, with a number of cases involving a sibling omitting the names of others on a parent’s tombstones.

This is one of the many areas where there is a blank space in Chinese law, but where litigation is on the rise.  The principal case highlighted was a 2007 case tried in Beijing’s Fengtai District People’s Court, published in a 2009 collection:

Cui Yan v. Cui Shufang.  Cui Yan was the granddaughter of a deceased couple, Cui Jinshu and Li Runhua.  She sued her aunt, Cui Shufang, for failing to inform her about the death of her grandmother (the grandfather passed away many years before).  The court ruled that the aunt did not have a legal obligation to inform the granddaughter, although informing her would be in accordance with good morality, but Cui Yan did not visit or care for her grandparents during their lifetime and that was more significant than saying farewell to the departed.  The facts of the case are familiar to people around the world–the grandmother left her apartment to her daughter in her will, excluding her other children.  The aunt, in defense of what she had done, alleged that Cui Yan’s parents had abused the couple.

Huang Bin,  researcher of the Applied Jurisprudence Institute, who edited the case, noted that the case raised three questions: whether Chinese law protects the right to venerate ancestors; if it constitutes a right, then what constitutes a violation of that right; and conversely, what circumstances do not violate that right.

Huang noted that Chinese law does not protect that right, currently, but in his view, it should, looking to legal theory to support his argument and analogizing it to the right of privacy.  A breach should be covered by the elements of tort law:  infringement of rights protected by law;  fault; damage to the infringed party; an causation. Although these cases occur frequently, the editor remarked that few people research this. It raises issues such as: who should enjoy this right, what type of notice should be required, how to calculate damages, and exemptions.  The editor suggests looking at resources outside the court, such moral reasoning, administrative assistance, mediation and so on, in order to save court resources.

Although statistics on the number of cases are not available, a quick search of one of the judgment databases revealed about 100, arising primarily in Beijing, Shanghai, and Zhejiang.  According to a recent press report, a Beijing court recognized veneration rights of a bereaved father. The father had sued his son in law for damages in the amount of 100,000 RMB for removing his daughter’s ashes without informing him and seeking the right to determine where the ashes should be stored. The court ordered the son in law to pay 20,000 RMB damages to his father in law for inflicting mental distress, compensate him for the cost of a portrait of his daughter, but said the widower had the right to determine where the ashes should be stored.

Brief Comment

The drafting of China’s Civil Code is underway and unbeknownst to the world outside of China, whether the Civil Code should recognize veneration rights is part of the discussion.  The fact that these cases are on the increase is significant for what is means for changes in Chinese society, how ordinary Chinese people are using the courts, and the place of traditional customs and morality. These cases are one of many in which Chinese judges find themselves having to deal with claims to individual rights in the absence of clear law.

 

 

 

#2 Circuit Court’s case guidance on administrative cases

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On August, 2016, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) #2 Circuit Court issued a set of 30 case summaries (literally important points, 案例要旨)on administrative cases, selected from the many administrative cases heard in the first year and a half of operation.  The #2 Circuit Court hailed it as a new type of case guidance (审判新指南) in March, 2017. This type of case guidance is mentioned in my forthcoming article in the Tsinghua China Law Review.  Although this document does not have any formal status (at least yet) in the universe of SPC case guidance, it has been approved at a conference of administrative judges in Liaoning, Heilongjiang, and Jilin, and the rules it sets out should be considered highly persuasive to courts in those three provinces.

It is likely that these cases will provide background material for a more comprehensive judicial interpretation of the Administrative Procedure (Litigation) Law than the one issued shortly after the amended law was promulgated.  Some of these cases have also been incorporated into the SPC’s 10 model #2 Circuit Court cross-administrative region commercial and administrative cases. The document does not include a summary of the underlying facts, but some of the full case reports are found elsewhere.  Each case (most relate to land disputes) provides a glimpse into the behavior of local government vis a vis ordinary Chinese citizens and companies, the (limited) scope for review of administrative action under Chinese law, and the unusual legal issues in the review of administrative action. Brief commentary follows each case summary restatement.  on 1 April, Wang Cailiang, the deputy chair of the All China Lawyers Association, published Wechat commentary on administrative litigation and judicial reform.  Highlights of some of his comments follows the case summaries.

#5. Fan Chunsheng v. Heping District, Shenyang Government: issue–compulsory administrative act and administrative compensation case:

If the administrative organ illegally demolishes the plaintiff ‘s house, the compensation standard must not be lower than the compensation standard that the plaintiff may obtain according to the administrative compensation scheme. The plaintiff’s request for compensation must be upheld by the people’s court in accordance with the amount that can be obtained through the compensation scheme.

[The full text of the case is found here. It involved a man whose home was demolished. The court determined that the parties had not come to an agreement about compensation and the District Government had not gone through proper procedures to expropriate Mr. Fan’s property. The facts are similar to some of the model demolition cases released by the SPC several years ago.]

#16 Siping Haifeng Garden Real Estate Development Co. v, Siping (Jilin) People’s Government: issue–are government meeting summaries actionable?

A government meeting summary that is considered to be an internal government document setting out possible approaches in dealing with certain problems, but without a real impact on the rights and obligations of the parties, will be considered an administrative act that is not actionable. However, if the government uses the form of a meeting summary to make an administrative decision with legal effect, it is considered an actionable administrative action. The “externalization” of the meeting summary is necessary for the meeting summary to be actionable. Even if the contents of a meeting summary has been notified or delivered to the relevant parties, but if it remains a description of possible approaches, rather than an effective administrative decision, it will be considered a non-actionable administrative act with no real effect on the parties’ rights.

[The rule here indicates that is how the document is being used, rather than the form of document that determines whether a court can review it.]

#19, Zhang Qinghai v. Benxi Municipal Government–issue: is a decision by a provincial level government to expropriate land actionable

According the provisions of Article 30 (2) of the Administrative Reconsideration Law and Reply of the SPC to a question concerning  Article 30(2) of the Administrative Reconsideration Law, a decision by the State Council or provincial level governments concerning the expropriation of land and a related administrative reconsideration decision is considered acts of final decision and is not within the scope of cases than can be accepted under the Administrative Litigation Law.

[A brief search of some other jurisdictions reveals that this type of decision can be challenged under the law of some other jurisdictions: United States federal and state law and German law, for example].

#23, Han Yawen v. Zhaoyuan County, Heilongjiang People’s Government–issue: is an agreement not to petition (息诉罢访协议) actionable

An agreement not to petition between an administrative agency and a petitioner is an agreement with rights and duties under administrative law between an administrative agency with a petitioner to maintain social order and stability, in the public interest and in furtherance of administrative functions, according to the localism principle, the relevant government provides money or other benefits and should be considered a type of administrative agreement. When a people’s court accepts this type of case, it should review the legality of the content of the agreement according to law.

[Further background on the case found here. the SPC rejected Han’s application for retrial because the statute of limitations had lapsed).  (A form of agreement found here.  This 2011 book chapter mentions that these agreements could be challenged in theory, but the inclusion of this principle shows that petitioners often seek to challenge them, at least in the northeastern provinces.]

A summary of remarks by Wang Cailiang, on whether the amended Administrative Litigation Law, in effect for almost two years, will be able to make progress:

  1. On government interference:  “I can responsibly say that most grass-roots courts consciously or unconsciously play the role of a subordinate department of the local government…. in recent years when local governments promote the redevelopment of shantytowns, major projects, development zones, with which the local court also either actively or passively cooperates, there exists a conflict between the citizens right to administrative review (reconsideration) and litigation. Moreover, the Government on the one hand needs the court to give support in implementing the project; the other hand, the government wants to spend less money.  It creates an enormous obstacle to hearing administrative cases fairly and equitably.
  2. More hard work needed to resolving social conflicts (contradictions): in 2016, there were high numbers of administrative litigation and petitioning, with old and new issues, caused by housing condemnation, land expropriation, administrative enforcement…Affected parties sought to protect their rights through the courts,  and 225,000 administrative cases were accepted by the courts, with a clear increase of cases against county governments accepted by intermediate courts, and even the SPC had accepted over 2000 by the end of September. This has to do with the amended Administrative Litigation Law and clarity that county governments are the parties to expropriate land [under the relevant legislation], which means that the rate at which government is losing cases is rising, although the SPC hasn’t released 2016 data.  In July-August, 2016, documents issued by the State Council General Office and the SPC on administrative agencies responding to law suits has improved matters.  Also, under the new law, the reconsideration organ is the joint defendant with the original authority, so this changes the venue for these law suits, giving affected parties more hope…In 2016 there were major issues with demolition disputes after courts determine that administrative action by the court is illegal, some local governments reject the decisions and refused to take the initiative to correct the error, failure to make timely compensation to the plaintiff is very common…Even in cases where people should be prosecuted for criminal violations, not one has…
  3. There are too many wrongly decided cases–reasons–besides interference, professional competence of judges, traditional way of thinking of courts…
  4. Few administrative cases are resolved on time (he can tell this although the SPC has not released statistics),
  5. Some problems remain with the case registration system.
  6. He suggests proceeding on the rule of law route–promoting judicial reform and cross-administrative region courts; open up public opinion, so administrative litigation proceeds in the sunshine; having the SPC curb its tendency to issue judicial interpretations [this is entirely impractical, in my view]; and send the judges out of the case registration division and back to the trial divisions.
  7. He summarizes, but does not comment on remarks made by Meng Jianzhu (Meng), head of the Communist Party’s Central Political Legal Committee at a meeting on 29 March of the Leading Small Group on Judicial Reform with senior members of the political legal leadership (head of the Ministry of Public Security, presidents of the Supreme People’s Court and Procuratorate, Minister of Justice, etc.) that the targets of judicial reform (he means the political legal institutions, not just the judiciary) need to be achieved before the 19th Party Congress and admitting there have been difficulties in implementing some judicial reforms. Meng directed the authorities to research the problem and come up with practical solutions.
  8.  Wang concludes by saying that the specific goals in this round of judicial reforms have never been made public–how far it is to go, so the public does s not understand them, so it lacks societal supervision, understanding and support–the effectiveness of a reform that lacks public participation naturally will be reduced, and we must be concerned about this. (然而,这一轮司法改革的具体的目标在开始至今并没有公开,以致要走到哪一步社会不了解,从而缺少社会公众的监督与理解、支持。一个缺少公众参与的改革,效果必然大打折扣,这是我们不能不担心的.)

Judging from a limited sample (such as the report done by the #2 Circuit Court), at least some of the research and analysis that is being done within the political legal institutions is insightful and practical. But as President Trump has said about health care,  “It’s an unbelievably complex subject, nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” The same can be said about reforming the Chinese judiciary.

 

Signals in Zhou Qiang’s 2017 report (Part 2)

This blogpost continues the analysis in Part 1, which analyzed the first several sections of Zhou Qiang’s work report to the National People’s Congress, concerning court caseload, social stability and criminal punishment, and the courts serving to maintain the economy.

Most people who have commented (outside of China) on Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang’s March, 2017 report to the National People’s Congress (NPC) didn’t have the patience to read (or listen) much beyond the initial section, which mentions the conviction of Zhou Shifeng as indicating that the courts are doing their part to crack down on state subversion.  It appears to be another in a series of colorless government reports.  But for those with the ability (or at least the patience) to decode this report, it provides insights into the Chinese courts, economy, and society.

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The report, which went through 34 drafts, is intended to send multiple signals to multiple institutions, particularly the political leadership, in the months before the 19th Party Congress.

According to a report on how the report was drafted, the drafting group (which communicated through a Wechat group to avoid time-consuming bureaucratic procedures) faced the issue of how to summarize the work of the People’s Court in 2016 correctly.  The guidance from President Zhou on the report–it must:

  1. fully embody the upholding of Party leadership, that court functions (审判职) must serve the Party and country’s overall situation;
  2. embody the new spirit of reform, showing the (positive) impact of judicial reform on the courts and show the ordinary people what they have gained;
  3. not avoid the mention of problems, but indicate that they can be resolved through reform.

Underneath these political principles, the operation of a court system with Chinese characteristics is visible.

Guaranteeing people’s livelihood rights & interests

The following section is entitled  “conscientiously implement people-centered development thinking, practically guarantee people’s livelihood rights and interests.” It summarizes what the courts have been doing in civil and administrative cases, but it also signals their perceived importance in this national report.

Civil cases

President Zhou Qiang noted that the Chinese courts heard 6,738,000 civil  (民事) cases, an increase of 8.2%.  Although he did not define what he meant by civil cases, under Chinese court practice, it refers to the type of cases under the jurisdiction of the #1 civil division (see this earlier blogpost):

  1. Real estate, property and construction;
  2. Family;
  3. Torts;
  4. Labor;
  5. Agriculture;
  6.  Consumer protection; and
  7. Private lending.

On labor cases, the report mentioned that the courts heard 473,000 labor cases. This is a slight decrease from 2015 (483,311) (although the report did not do a year on year comparison). The report signalled that the SPC is working on policy with the labor authorities on transferring cases from labor mediation, labor arbitration, to the courts. This was signaled previously in the SPC’s policy document on diversified dispute resolution.  Articles on both the SPC website and local court websites have signaled the increasing difficulty of labor disputes, and the increase in “mass disputes.”

As explained in this blogpost, labor service disputes, relate to an “independent contractor,” but more often a quasi-employment relationship, governed by the Contract Law and General Principles of Civil Law, under which the worker has minimal protections. This year’s report did not mention the number of labor service cases. In 2015, the Chinese courts heard 162,920 labor service cases, an increase of 38.69%.

There was no further breakdown on the number of other types of civil cases, such as private lending or real estate cases.  For these statistics, we will need to await any further release of big data by the SPC. As blogposts in recent months indicate, private lending disputes are on the rise in economically advanced provinces and bankruptcy of real estate developers remains a concern.

This section also mentions criminal proceedings against illegal vaccine sellers, although the topic may be more appropriately be placed with the rest of the criminal matters, but likely because it is an issue that drew widespread public attention.

Family law

Echoing language in recent government pronouncements, the section heading mentions protecting marriage and family harmony and stability. The report mentions that the courts heard 1,752,000 family law cases in 2016, with no year on year comparison with 2015.  The report mentions that the SPC has established pilot family courts (as previously flagged on this blog).

Administrative disputes

First instance administrative disputes totaled 225,000 cases, a 13.2% increase over 2015, but a tiny percentage of cases in the Chinese courts. The report highlights developments in Beijing and Shanghai (they are being implemented in Shenzhen, although not mentioned), to give one local court jurisdiction over administrative cases.  According to the statistics (in Beijing, at least), this has led to a sizeable increase in administrative cases.  The report also mentions the positive role that the courts can play in resolving condemnation disputes (this blogpost looked at problems in Liaoning).

Hong Kong/Macao/Overseas Chinese cases

As mentioned by Judge Zhang Yongjian, the report mentions that the courts heard 19,000 Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Overseas Chinese related cases, and handled 11,000 judicial assistance matters with the three greater China jurisdictions.  The report also mentions the recently signed arrangement between the SPC and Hong Kong judiciary on the mutual taking of evidence, a development that seems to have escaped the notice of the Hong Kong legal community.

Military related disputes

Unusually, the report mentioned that the local courts heard 1678 military-related cases and have developed systems for coordination between the civilian and military courts.  These developments have been analyzed further in a blogpost on the Global Military Justice Reform blog.

Strictly governing the courts and institutional oversight

The following two sections of the report give a report on how the courts are upholding Party leadership, increasing Party construction within the courts, internal Party political life, and political study, all of which are in line with recent developments. Although these are stressed, this does not mean that professional competence is less valued.  The increasing caseload,  higher expectations of litigants, particularly in commercial cases, and increasing technical complexity of cases means that the SPC is in fact taking measures to improving professional capacity of the courts.  This section also mentions courts and individual judges that have been praised by central authorities and 36 judges who have died of overwork.

On anti-corruption in the courts, the report mentions that 769 senior court officials have been held responsible for ineffective leadership, 220 have been punished for violations of the Party’s Eight Point Regulations. The SPC itself had 13 persons punished for violations of law and Party discipline (offenses unstated), 656 court officials were punished for abusing their authority, among whom 86 had their cases transferred to the procuratorate.

On institutional oversight, the report signals that the SPC actively accepts supervision by the NPC, provides them with reports, deals with their proposals, and invites them to trials and other court functions. On supervision by the procuratorate, the report revealed that the SPC and Supreme People’s Procuratorate are working on regulations on procuratorate supervision of civil and enforcement cases, a procedure sometimes abused by litigants.

2016 and 2017 judicial reforms

2016

On 2016 judicial reform accomplishments, the following were highlighted:

  1. circuit courts;
  2. case filing system;
  3. diverse dispute resolution;
  4. judicial responsibility;
  5. trial-centered criminal procedure system;
  6. separation of simple from complicated cases;
  7. people’s assessors‘ reform;
  8. greater judicial openness;
  9. more convenient courts;
  10. improving enforcement (enforcement cases were up 31.6% year on year), including using the social credit system to punish judgment debtors.

2017

The report mentions that among the targets for the courts is creating a good legal environment for the successful upcoming 19th Party Congress.  That is to be done through the following broad principles:

  1. using court functions to maintain stability and to promote development (for the most part mentioning the topics reviewed earlier in the report);
  2. better satisfying ordinary people’s demands for justice;
  3. implementing judicial reforms, especially those designated by the Party Center;
  4. creating “Smart” courts; and
  5. administering the courts strictly and improving judicial quality.

This last section mentions implementing recommendations required by the recent Central Inspection Group’s (CIG) inspection and Central policies applicable to all political-legal officials, before focusing on the importance of more professional courts, and improving the quality of courts in poor and national minority areas.

A few comments

It is clear from the above summary that the content of President Zhou Qiang’s report to the NPC is oriented to the upcoming 19th Party Congress and the latest Party policies. It appears that no new major judicial reform initiative will be announced this year.

It is likely too, that the selective release of 2016 judicial statistics in the NPC report also relates to messaging in line with the upcoming 19th Party Congress, although we know that the SPC intends to make better use of big data.  We can see that overall, the caseload of the courts is increasing rapidly, including institutionally difficult cases (such as bankruptcy and land condemnation), which put judges and courts under pressure from local officials and affected litigants. In the busiest courts, such as in Shanghai’s Pudong District, judges will be working extremely long hours to keep up with their caseload, and the impact of new legal developments. It appears (from both the report and the results of the CIG inspection) that judges will need to allocate more time to political study.  How this will play out remains to be seen. We may see a continuing brain drain from the courts, as we have seen in recent years.

 

Signals in Zhou Qiang’s 2017 NPC Report (Part 1)

Most people who have commented (outside of China) on Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang’s March, 2017 report (on 2016 work) to the National People’s Congress (NPC) didn’t have the patience to read (or listen) much beyond the initial section, which mentions the conviction of Zhou Shifeng as indicating that the courts are doing their part to crack down on state subversion.  It appears to be another in a series of colorless government reports.  But for those with the ability (or at least the patience) to decode this report, it provides insights into the Chinese courts, economy, and society.

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The report, which went through 34 drafts, is intended to send multiple signals to multiple institutions, particularly the political leadership, in the months before the 19th Party Congress.

According to a report on how the report was drafted, the drafting group (which communicated through a Wechat group to avoid time-consuming bureaucratic procedures) faced the issue of how to summarize the work of the People’s Court in 2016 correctly.  The guidance from President Zhou on the report–it must:

  1. fully embody the upholding of Party leadership, that court functions (审判职) must serve the Party and country’s overall situation;
  2. embody the new spirit of reform, showing the (positive)impact of judicial reform on the courts and show the ordinary people what they have gained;
  3. not avoid the mention of problems, but indicate that they can be resolved through reform.

Underneath these political principles, the operation of a court system with Chinese characteristics is visible.

A partial decoding of the report reveals the points listed below (to be continued in Part 2).

1. Caseload on the rise

The caseload in the Chinese courts continues to rise significantly, at the same time that headcount in the courts is being reduced.  Diversified dispute resolution (the jargon outside of China is alternative dispute resolution) is being stressed.

  • SPC itself is dealing with a massive increase in its cases, 42.6% higher than 2016, and that number was significantly higher than 2015.
    Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 4.07.25 PM.png

    2016, SPC cases accepted 22,742, up 42.3%, concluded 20151, 42.6%, Circuit Cts #1 & 2 accepted 4721 cases in last 2 yrs, resolved 4573 cases

     

The statistics on the SPC’s caseload are not broken down further, but are understood to be mostly civil, commercial, and administrative.  It appears from a search of one of the case databases that not all of the SPC judgments or rulings have been published (a search of one of the judgment databases showed 6600+, and only some of the death penalty approvals). It seems also that the database does not include SPC cases such as the judicial review of certain foreign and foreign-related arbitration awards.

Although the report does not focus on the reasons for the massive increase in SPC cases, careful observation reveals the following reasons:

  • establishment of the circuit courts, hearing more cases and ruling on applications for retrials;
  • increase in the number of civil and commercial cases with large amounts in dispute;
  • SPC itself has implemented the case registration system; and
  • changes in law giving litigants rights where none previously existed.

The report also mentioned that 29 judicial interpretations were issued (some analyzed on this blog) and that 21 guiding cases were issued.  Model cases and judicial policy documents were not separately set out, although some were listed in the appendix to the SPC report distributed to delegates.

Lower courts

23,030,000 cases accepted by lower courts, up 18%, cases resolved, 19,773,000; amounts in dispute up 23%

The pie chart below sets out the statistical distribution of cases heard by the Chinese courts:

 

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 9.59.06 PMThe pie chart of cases heard, enforced and closed in 2016 shows:

  • about 60% of those cases were civil, commercial, or intellectual property cases;
  • 6.41% criminal cases,
  • 3.40% parole, sentence reduction cases;
  • almost 26% enforcement cases,
  • .03% state compensation cases,
  • petition or application for retrial, .91%;
  • and 1.66% administrative cases.

Although the stress in Zhou Qiang’s report is placed on law and order, in fact many more cases in the Chinese courts are civil and commercial rather than criminal.

2. Social stability, public order, law & order are major concerns

Criminal cases have a prominent place in the report, although the data reveals a slight increase in the number of cases  (1.5%), involving the conviction of 1,220,000 people, down 1%. (Note that many minor offenses are punished by the police, with no court procedures).

Although the report mentioned the Zhou Shifeng case (state security) and criminal punishment of terrorist and cult crimes, it did not release statistics on the number of cases of any of these crimes heard.  Corruption cases totaled 45,000 cases, involving 63,000 persons.  Violent crimes (murder, robbery, theft) cases 226,000. Drug cases: 118,000, a significant decrease from 2015. 2016 cases of human trafficking and  sexual assault on women and children totaled 5335, while telecommunications fraud cases in 2016 totaled 1726.  Only 213 cases involving schoolyard bullying were heard and the SPC revealed that the drafting of a judicial interpretation on the subject is underway. The report highlighted some of the well-known criminal cases, including the insider trading case against Xu Xiang and the Kuai Bo obscenity cases to illustrate and criminal law-related judicial interpretations to signal that the courts are serving policy needs in punishing crime.

The same section described what has been done in 2016 to correct mistaken cases, highlighting the Nie Shubin case (reheard by Judge Hu Yuteng and colleagues) as an example.  The report revealed that the local courts retried only 1376 criminal petition cases, likely a tiny fraction of the criminal petitions submitted.

3. Maintain economic development

As President Zhou Qiang indicated, the way that the Chinese courts operate is Party/government policy-driven (they must serve the greater situation). Serving the greater situation meant, in 2016, that the Chinese courts heard 4,026,000 first instance commercial cases, a 20.3% increase year on year.  He also mentioned the 3373 bankruptcy cases analyzed in an earlier blogpost. Of those 4 million commercial cases, 1,248,000 involved securities, futures, insurance, and commercial paper and 255,000 real estate cases and 318,000 rural land disputes. Other implications are discussed below.

This section of the report devoted a paragraph to a topic discussed last year on this blog: the courts serving major government strategies, including One Belt One Road, the Yangtze River Belt, and Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei coordinated development.

Green development , intellectual property (IPR), property rights (of private entrepreneurs), serving maritime and major country strategy, socialist core values, judicial solutions to new problems and cross-border assistance also merited mention in this section.

  1. The courts heard 133,000 environmental and natural resources cases, with Fujian, Jiangxi and Guizhou courts designated as experimental environmental courts.  While public interest environmental and procuratorate brought (environmental) cases were mentioned, statistics were not set out.
  2. First instance IPR cases totaled 147,000, with several cities (Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuhan, and Chengdu) establishing IPR divisions to take cases across administrative boundaries. This section mentioned the Jordan trademark case and the IPR courts.
  3. On protection of property rights, the report mentioned some of the documents intended to protect private entrepreneurs discussed on this blog, as well as 10 model cases.
  4. On maritime and cross-border cases, the report mentions the judicial interpretations on maritime jurisdiction (discussed in this blogpost), intended to support the government’s maritime policy, including in the South China Sea.  The Chinese courts heard only 6899 commercial cases involving foreign parties (this means that of the 2016 19,200 civil and commercial cases mentioned by Judge Zhang Yongjian, most must have been civil) and 16,000 maritime cases. The report again mentions making China a maritime judicial center, further explained in my 2016 article.
  5. On the relevance of socialist core values to the courts, that is meant to incorporate socialist core values into law (although they should be understood to have always to be there) and to give the Langya Heroes special protection under China’s evolving defamation law.
  6. Judicial solutions to new issues included internet related issues, including e-commerce cases, internet finance cases, and theft of mobile data; the first surrogacy case, and judicial recommendations to Party and government organizations.
  7. In the section on international cooperation, President Zhou Qiang revealed that fewer than 3000 cases involving mutual judicial assistance were handled. The bureaucratic and lengthy procedures for judicial assistance in commercial cases has long been an issue for lawyers and other legal professional outside of China.  This is likely to change (in the long run, as Chinese courts increasingly seek to obtain evidence from abroad).  US-China dialogue on bankruptcy issues and cooperation with One Belt One Road countries (cases involving these countries are increasing significantly), were also mentioned here.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Supreme People’s Court & foreign-related disputes

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Judge Zhang Yongjian, chief judge of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s #4 Civil Division (responsible for foreign, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan related commercial issues) previously featured on this blog, gave an interview to Legal Daily on the sidelines of the NPC meeting. This quick blogpost sets out some of the useful information from the interview:

He provided some data on the number of cross border cases:

  • Total number of foreign-related cases of all types (first, second instance, retrial, enforcement) heard and resolved: 25900, up 9.38%, among which 1061 were criminal,19200 civil and 3629 administrative, and about 2000 enforcement cases. The civil and commercial cases increased almost 11% compared to last year and accounted for about 75% of all foreign-related cases.
  • Total number of Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan related civil and commercial cases closed: 27053 civil and commercial cases, Judge Zhang said that they accounted for 85% of all cases involving “greater China.”

The cases coming before the Chinese courts differ from the old trading and joint venture disputes, with many more cases involving demand guarantees, international factoring, private equity funds, stock options in companies listed overseas listed companies, cross-border telecommunications (fraud?), bonded trade disputes.

(As this observer has previously predicted), the number of cases related to One Belt One Road (OBOR) is increasing relatively quickly, while the number involving the United States, Britain, Germany, are decline. Cross-border project contracting and international logistics related cases are on the increase, as well as foreign-related intellectual property cases and maritime cases. Although Judge Zhang did not say so, it appears that many of these disputes are related to Chinese companies going out as well as OBOR, and may reflect inadequate documentation of the projects. The increase in maritime cases is linked to the ongoing decline in the shipping industry.  Chinese maritime courts have heard cases related to the Hanjin bankruptcy as well as large numbers of cases involving ship crew.

Challenges for the Chinese courts in hearing cross border cases:  encountering many “blank spaces” in Chinese legislation; conflict of laws with neighboring countries.  Other ongoing bottlenecks for Chinese courts in hearing cross-border cases–service of process to overseas parties; obtaining evidence crossborder; determining facts that have occurred abroad; determining and applying foreign law.

Judge Zhang highlighted the solutions for the Chinese courts in dealing with the difficulties:

  • SPC issuing judicial interpretations and other judicial guidance;
  • establishing a case guidance and reference system for the lower courts, including model cases, guiding cases, and selected cases (i.e. as selected by the SPC), to guide and limit judges’ discretion.
  • The SPC selecting some commercial cases (relating to free trade zones, internet finance, cross border investment financing) with an international impact as a model.
  • To enable correct and just hearing of cases, the higher and lower courts should be in touch in a timely matter and establish a system for supervision before, during and after a case. [What this means for judicial autonomy in hearing cases and the appeal system is not said.]
  • On the goals for 2017, those include establishing an OBOR dispute resolution center (推进设立“一带一路”争端解决中心的建立,促进“一带一路”建设). This is likely linked to the May, 2017 OBOR Conference to be held in Beijing.  Judge Zhang did not further specify, but it seems unlikely to mean establishing China’s own investment dispute resolution center. Perhaps this means increasing the role of Chinese courts in hearing cross-border cases involving OBOR jurisdictions.

Judge Zhang mentioned that he and his colleagues in 2017 have a variety of difficult issues that will be the subject of judicial interpretations or policy documents. This observer hopes that they will find it appropriate to consult the international legal community when drafting the following judicial interpretations that are on their agenda:

  • Enforcement of foreign civil and commercial judgments (possibly related the the Judgments Convention being negotiated under the auspices of the Hague Conference on Private International Law, and in the near term, to the enforcement of judgments through mutual judicial assistance treaties;
  • cross-border guarantees;
  • labor issues for ship crew;
  • damages in marine environmental cases;
  • jurisdiction in foreign-related cases, particularly civil and commercial cases;
  • judicial review of arbitration (this has been signalled for at least two years).

Judge Zhang signalled that they want to establish an English language website on foreign-related civil and commercial matters.  It is hoped that this new website will post information in a more timely manner than the current SPC English language website. An (unsolicited) recommendation is to hire an expatriate editor (similar to Xinhua and other Chinese media outlets) to assist in delivering content that meets institutional requirements and interests the foreign user.

All these developments relate back to one sentence in the Fourth Plenum Decision:

Vigorously participate in the formulation of international norms, promote the handling of foreign-related economic and social affairs according to the law, strengthen our country’s discourse power and influence in international legal affairs, use legal methods to safeguard our country’s sovereignty, security, and development interests.