The Supreme People’s Court and the Interpretation of Law

This post that focuses on the Supreme People’s Court’s (Court) authority to interpret law. My intent is to avoid the quicksand of academic discussion on the topic, which has run for over 20 years in Chinese, English, and other languages and focus instead, on what the Court is doing. This topic also gives me an opportunity to provide a historical perspective, because I examined this topic in detail 20 years ago.
This seemingly theoretical topic is relevant to the work of a broad range of people (among others);
• Lawyers reviewing memoranda from their China-based lawyers;
• Journalists;
• Consular officials stationed in China;
• Regulatory officials who are charged with monitoring exports from China; an
• Foreign and international judicial officials charged with international judicial assistance; and
• Arbitrators in cases involving Chinese law.
These posts will explain (with some historical perspective):
• Why Court interpretations are important;
• Important functions of Court interpretations;
• What they look like;
• The Court’s legal basis for issuing them;
• On-going issues (and suggestions for reform).

Why are they important?
Court interpretations are an important source of legal rules in China, particularly for the courts, and have been for most of the history of the PRC. The number of client alerts by major international law firms is testimony to their importance to the international commercial world, but the Court interprets on many other areas of law of critical importance to ordinary Chinese citizens and the domestic economy. In the last 6 months, Court interpretations in the following areas have achieved international prominence include:
• Labor (employment) law;
• Conflicts of law (private international law);
• Civil trademark disputes and
• Criminal bribery.
Many other interpretations have missed the glare of international scrutiny , although they are significant for the substantive or procedural area involved (as well as the persons affected).
Some important functions of Court interpretations
Among the important functions of Court interpretations are to:
• supply missing definitions;
• supply missing concepts;
• set out missing procedures;
• embody political policy as relevant to the court system;
• refine the discretion of the lower courts; and
• generally fill in the gaping holes or glitches in Chinese legislation.
The Chinese judiciary and legal system would be unable to function without them.
It is an area of Court operation where the Court has changed what it does, for the better, particularly in comparison to 20 years ago. Subsequent posts will also explain what “better” is but also point out some “areas of concern.”

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The Supreme People’s Court: Reforming the Chinese courts the Party Way

On April 8, 2013, the Supreme People’s Court announced that its Communist Party (Party) Committee was implementing an  “educational movement to improve judicial work style” (judicial work style movement)  in the second quarter of 2013. Zhou Qiang, the newly appointed president of the Supreme People’s Court, is also the head of its Party Committee.

This clunkily named announcement, written in densely packed Party jargon, is has critical implications for the Chinese court system and all those affected by it, domestic and foreign.  Unpacking the announcement requires a Chinese political jargon decoder and a strong cup of coffee.

This posting will explain why the announcement is so important by highlighting:

  • The meaning of an “educational movement” and “judicial work style.”
  • The impetus for the movement.
  • The goals of the movement.
  • How will it be done?
  • What are its implications?

What is an “educational movement” and  “judicial work style”?

Both phrases are frequently used in Chinese political jargon.

  • An “educational movement”  refers to a political initiative with both educational and punitive aspects, focused on correcting certain ways of thinking while “work style” means the standards of conduct of officials.
  • Work style issues cover a broad range of activity, from deciding cases to womanizing, to luxurious banquets.

Impetus for the movement:

At the 18th Party Congress, the Communist Party leadership identified “judicial integrity” (司法公信) as a critical area for improvement because of its political implications, particularly the profound loss of confidence in the ability of the Chinese judiciary to provide competent and fair justice.  This was symbolized by the vote  by 20% of National People’s Congress deputies against the Work Report of the Supreme People’s Court.

Goals of the movement:

As announced by the Court’s Party Committee, this education movement has the following goals:

  • Implement the ideal that justice is for the people, so that litigants will not feel they are despised;
  • Decide cases according to law, so that litigants will feel that justice has been done;
  • Improve Judicial responsibility, so that judicial laziness, delays, indifference, arbitrariness, failure to hear both sides, and gross errors are avoided.
  • Improve judicial self-discipline and establish a clean judiciary, stop cases decided by money, connections, and sympathies.

Implementing the movement

The Court has called on the lower courts to implement the movement by the following:

  • Study relevant Party and Court documents;
  • Have court leadership take responsibility for implementing the required measures;
  • Implement appropriate internal systems to avoid conflicts of interests, institute training and monitoring programs;
  • Analyze issues in each local court, taking account of the views of various parts of society, identify the weak spots in the judicial system and evolve effective means to deal with them;
  • Use good and bad examples, including instances of judicial irresponsibility and other judicial action that harms judicial prestige;
  • Stop major abuses in the courts, such as taking gifts and money, using court vehicles for private business, using judicial posts to engage in business, and lavish eating and entertainment at public expense.  Violators should be exposed, ordered to change, and if they do not, be dealt with.

What does this educational movement mean?

The implementation of this “educational movement” means that Party leadership recognizes that corruption and abuses in the court system are causing dissatisfaction and resentment among a substantial number of Chinese citizens, including among the political and business elite, and the leadership has called on the new Court leadership to do something about it. The Court leadership recognizes (more than any outside observer) that the Chinese judiciary often delivers a poor quality of justice, but that the issues are different in different parts of the country and even within the same city or province.

What may result from this “educational movement”?

  • Expect a spate of judicial scandals to hit the Chinese media and blogosphere.
  • Behind the scenes there may be a pushback from lower court judges, who feel they cannot make ends meet if they are honest.
  • Expect greater engagement between the Supreme People’s Court and the outside legal world, including greater dialogue between the courts and other parts of the legal profession in China, such as lawyers and academics in evolving reforms.  President Zhou Qiang has led the way by holding a meeting with leading academics and lawyers in late April.
  • Because this educational movement does not deal with the structural issues that have created the conditions under which judicial abuses flourish, expect incremental institutional changes to be gradually rolled out in the next few years.