On 6 January 2015, case law Chinese style (案例指导制度) made the headlines of the People’s Court Daily and the Supreme People’s Court’s (the Court’s) websites, because the Supreme People’s Court president, Zhou Qiang provided an introduction to a book that the Court is publishing on guiding cases. Universities such as Yale, Stanford, and the City University of Hong Kong as well as institutions such as the European Union have held training programs with Court staff on the case method. Numerous academic conferences have been held on the topic in China. The Communist Party leadership expressed its approval for case law in the 4th Plenum Decision in the following phrase:
- Strengthen and standardize judicial interpretation and case guidance, and unify standards of applicable law (加强和规范司法解释和案例指导，统一法律适用标准).
As discussed in this blogpost, the Court’s October, 2013 judicial reform plan flagged the importance of case law in this phrase:
- “Expand fully the important role of guiding cases and cases for reference”.
This blogpost will look at how the Court leadership understands Chinese “case law” and how it sees case law to be useful to the judiciary.
Waving the flag for case law
President Zhou Qiang’s introduction incorporated both guiding cases, as designated by the Supreme People’s Court under its 2010 regulations, and model/typical cases.
He highlighted the following benefits of case law as:
- summarizing trial experience;
- strengthening supervision and guidance [of lower courts by higher courts]
- unifying the application of law;
- improving the quality of adjudication,
- helping establish a judicial system with Chinese characteristics
- assisting in resolving the problem of similar cases decided differently;
- controlling judges’ discretion.
Zhou Qiang did not go into the specifics of the case law system, which Hu Yunteng, the head of the Court’s Research Office, set out in a January, 2014 article, addressing:
- distinction between guiding cases and other cases issued by the Court or lower courts;
- how judges should refer to guiding cases;
- issues facing the guiding case system.
The distinction between guiding cases and other cases
Judge Hu distinguishes guiding cases (Stanford Law School’s Guiding Case Project translates and comments on them) from model cases published in the Supreme People’s Court Gazette, by the Court itself, and individual tribunals of the Court. (Examples of model cases can be found here and here.)
Judge Hu points out that the title, document number, method of selection and approval, and most importantly, the authority of guiding cases is different. Guiding cases, unlike model or typical cases issued by the Court or lower courts, must be referred to by all courts in similar cases, and lower courts may refer to guiding cases in the reasoning section of their judgments.
How judges should refer to guiding cases
Chinese judges must focus on the important points of guiding cases, which have been approved by the judicial committee of the Supreme People’s Court, and secures their unifying role in the Chinese court system.They must only be used in similar cases. Judge Hu distinguishes Chinese guiding cases from Anglo-American precedent, because guiding cases can only be issued by the Supreme People’s Court. He says that judges may refer to guiding cases in their judgments and distinguish the case before them from a relevant guiding case.
Issues facing the guiding case system
Judge Hu identifies the following issues:
- The relationship between judicial interpretations and guiding cases, and in which cases guiding cases rather than judicial interpretation should be relied upon is unresolved.
- Second, the issues in the guiding cases generally are not breakthrough cases and are more “damp squibs.” Judge Hu suggests that the guiding case system address more controversial cases.
- Third, it is unclear to the lower courts when guiding cases must be used, and the consequences if a lower court fails to use a guiding case on point.
- Fourth, he admits that too few guiding cases have been issued and suggests that the Court issue a number of guiding cases equal to judicial interpretations.
Comments from the market
An opinion piece in Caixin, reporting on a late December conference at Renmin University on case law, set out comments from some Chinese legal professionals on the case system:
Renmin University Professor Huang Jingping–“very few judges refer to guiding cases”
Peking University Professor Liang Genlin–“the position of guiding cases in the legal system and how they can be distinguished from other cases is chaotic”–clearer rules are needed.
Li Guifang, partner, Deheng Law Office–guiding cases are needed.
It is likely that guiding cases and model/typical cases issued by the Supreme People’s Court will continue to be used to accomplish several goals:
- Publicize the accomplishments of the lower courts.
- Distributed as political education or have political purposes.
- Convey to the lower courts, lawyers, and the general public the correct position on a substantive issue but also have a political purpose;
- Provide guidance for judges and lawyers on substantive legal issues;
- Provide models of correctly decided cases.
Finally, it appears likely that the issue of the authority of guiding cases vs. other types of cases will be set out in regulations at some point.