Supreme People’s Court’s 4th Five Year Reform Plan sees the light of day

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February, 2015 photograph of the SPC building

The Supreme People’s Court’s 4th Five Year Reform Plan has finally been released to the public (linked here). An English translation will be forthcoming here.  Some of the issues highlighted have been discussed in earlier blogposts (as linked) and it builds on the principles released in July, 2014 and in the 4th Plenum Decision. It is critical to the development of the Chinese legal system and has its international implications as well. Some of the highlights:

  • Basic principles (Party leadership is a given): independence of judicial power (审判权的独立性); neutrality (中立性), procedurality 程序性), finality(终局性) (all distinguished from “Western style” judicial independence).

Among the specific measures are:

  • Specific deadlines for reforms or structures for reforms to be put in place (some by end 2015, others by end 2016, 2017, 2018);
  • Greater transparency in a broad range of areas, ranging from the parole of prisoners, assignment of judges, to the handling of property seized or confiscated by the courts;
  • Measures to cut back on local protectionism, such as cross jurisdictional and circuit courts, focusing in particular on major administrative cases, environmental cases, bankruptcy cases, food safety cases and others, by changing jurisdictional provisions in administrative cases, environmental cases, and others);
  • Details on what the Court means about “hearing centered procedure,” and imposes a goal of end 2016 to establish a hearing centered system, as having evidence presented and reviewed at the hearing, both parties being given a chance to be heard, requiring witnesses and experts appear at hearings; assumption of innocence, exclusion of illegally obtained evidence (and establish systems for determining and excluding such evidence), all of which involves a greater role for lawyers;
  • In the area of criminal justice, provides better protection to defendants and their counsel, such as prohibiting criminal defendants from being forced to wear prison clothing, shackles, etc., idea that the prosecution and defense have equal status in the criminal process, better judicial review of individuals whose freedom is restricted;
  • In civil cases, requiring evidence to be reviewed at trial and major disputed evidence must be highlighted in the judgment or ruling and whether the court is relying upon it;
  • Improving the status of lawyers in both criminal and civil litigation;
  • Reforming jurisdiction in environmental cases;
  • Improving jurisdictional provisions in public interest cases (which at this time means environmental and consumer cases);
  • Changing the docketing process from a substantive review to a registration procedure (which in the past has meant that “inconvenient” cases were not accepted);
  • Reforming internal court procedures and roles, particularly that of the court president, members of the judicial committee, and heads of division, requiring documentation of communications with the judge or judges handling the cases, as well as focusing the judicial committee on legal questions (external pressure on these court leaders has been a significant factor in the miscarriages of justice now being revealed);
  • Distinguishes the functions of courts at first and second instance (as well as re-trial and judicial supervision) stages;
  • Changes the current performance indicator system, and gets rid of league tables for courts;
  • In appeal cases, the court should set out the issues in the case at first instance;
  • Changes the relationship between the higher and lower courts so that they operate independently;
  • Prevents judicial corruption in a variety of ways, such as improving the judicial auctioning process, confiscation of property, and much more transparency;
  • Calls for establishing a system of integrating Party disciplinary systems (in anti-corruption cases) with court punishment systems;
  • Highlights providing greater openness to the press and others to attend court hearings;
  • Calls for establishing a more professional personnel system for judges and a transitional system from the current one.
  •  a judicial selection system;
  • More details on having local judges appointed at the provincial level;
  • Setting up a system for preventing interference in court cases by requiring notes, etc. from leaders to be retained in the file and made available to parties and their counsel;
  • Improving the military courts.

In the spirit of greater openness, the document states that reforms by lower courts are to be reported to the Court before being launched and major reforms need to be reported to the Party central authorities before being launched [apparently to ensure Party leadership to prevent the political authorities from being unpleasantly surprised].

The changes relating to basic court institutions will affect all types of cases, whether they are environmental, intellectual property, or foreign-related ones.

The drafting of this document required countless hours of work and negotiations.  The real work is ahead, in implementing its principles, and in particular changing patterns of behavior as well as institutional and political culture formed over several decades.

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Supreme People’s Court‘s sunshine cure for corruption in commutation and parole procedures

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Prisoner choosing commutation & parole options from corrupt jail official

 

Before Chinese new year, the Supreme People’s Court held a news conference  to highlight its accomplishments in reforming parole procedures. The previous procedures (or lack of them) (as described below) appeared to have been a money-spinner for prison officials. The reform in parole procedures highlights the value that current Chinese legal policy places on Justice Louis D. Brandeis’s wisdom (without citing him):

“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants…”

The change in parole procedures also are a good example of how results of investigations by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and Central Political and Legal Committee policy documents are eventually are translated into improvements in legal procedures.

The reforms to parole procedures include:

  • The Court’s August, 2014, Provisions On Commutations And Parole(最高人民法院关于减刑、假释案件审理程序的规定) (translation can be found here), requiring much more transparency;
  • November, 2014 procedures issued by the Court along with the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Public Security, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and National Health and Family Planning Commission on medical parole and related issues (暂予监外执行规定), establishing stricter guidelines.
  • Establishing an internet platform on the Court website to make public (provide sunlight) parole/commutation matters: acceptance of applications, notice of court hearings,and court rulings;
  • Establishing a filing system under which decisions relating to officials of county level (or section (处) need to filed with provincial high courts and provincial department (bureau level(局)) need to be filed with the Court;
  • Model cases on parole and commutation, to guide lower court judges in their work, and inform the public on these reforms.

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    Axe labeled “power”, “money”

The background

With flexible provisions and limited transparency on medical parole, commuting sentences, and parole procedures, in recent years apparently underpaid Chinese prison officials caught the entrepreneurial spirit and (like the Monopoly game that many of us grew up playing), sold “get out of jail cards” to those who could afford to pay.  Those were generally made up the wealthy and (formerly) powerful, particularly those who had committed the following crimes:

  • duty crimes (including taking bribes and abusing authority);
  • organized crimes;
  • financial crimes.

An August, 2014 press report mentioned that over 700 prisoners  nationwide had improperly secured early release.  Other reports cited that prison officials in Guangdong were particularly entrepreneurial, arranging for the improper release of approximately 140 in Guangdong, primarily former officials, including:

  • Wang Ju, former vice mayor of Shenzhen;
  • Zhao Yuchun, former head of Shenzhen customs;
  • Huang Shaoxiong, former deputy head of the Guangdong United Front Work Department; and
  • Lin Chongzhong, former deputy mayor of Jiangmen.

CCDI investigations and Central Political Legal Committee policy document

It appears that these reforms can be traced back to CCDI investigations in 2013 (and possibly earlier), because in August, 2013, the CCDI website carried a summary of a speech by Xi Jinping at a CCDI conference in which he calls for reforms to parole procedures. At about the same time reports of  investigations into prison officials were released by CCDI, such as one of a Hunan Province Justice Department (the Justice departments run the prison) official who was found to have almost USD 2 million (12 million RMB) in assets disproportional to his income.  Many other prison officials in other provinces have also been investigated.

In January, 2014, the Central Political Legal Committee issued a policy document outlining the policy framework for the reforms, which began with the frank admission that society was incensed by the rich and powerful who had been sentenced to prison who often served relatively short sentences because they had their sentences commuted or were given parole, directing special restrictions prisoners convicted of the above three types of crimes. (The Supreme People’s Procuratorate has issued its own regulations to implement the policy document.)

Going forward

Reducing corruption in the justice system and giving Chinese people more confidence in it is a multi-faceted process, with greater transparency needed across many areas.  These reforms to parole and commutation procedures are likely to be one of the accomplishments that President Zhou Qiang will be able to point to when he gives his report to the National People’s Congress next month, particularly as the August, 2014 regulations are listed as one of one of the Court’s 10 major policy accomplishments of 2014.

Additionally, the internet platform also serves as a window into criminal activity in China, such as the recent application by a Han native of Xinjiang, convicted in Beijing of dealing in drugs, but who was permitted by the Chaoyang District Court to serve his sentence outside of jail for the next six months, because he has AIDs.

 

 

 

When will the Supreme People’s Court become a tourist destination?

800px-Supreme_peoples_court_chinaI had the good fortune to have a meeting with some judges of the Supreme People’s Court last week in the main building of the Supreme People’s Court.  The rules are now such that photographs of the gate (and nameplate of the Supreme People’s Court) are forbidden, a contrast to 20+ years ago, when I was able to ride my bicycle along the road fronting the Court.  As the Supreme People’s Court guides the courts towards more transparency and public access, I look forward to the day when it can become a tourist destination and its hearings more  open to the Chinese and foreign public.

I wish all my readers all the best for the Year of the Sheep  祝大家新春快乐,身体健康,万事如意!

What does the 4th Plenum mean for military legal reforms (continued)

Criminal Division, PLA Military Court

Criminal Division, PLA Military Court

In early February, I published an article in The Diplomat, focusing on little understood post 4th Plenum developments on Chinese military law, which (to my surprise) was summarized and translated by Chinese official media.  Professor Zhang Jiantian of China University of Political Science and Law recently published an article in People’s Court Daily on issues affecting the military courts, in which gives the outside world a glimpse of the gated Chinese military legal community and sets out his recommended reforms. My article in the Global Military Justice Reform blog summarizes Professor Zhang’s views and recommendations.

Supreme People’s Court interprets the Civil Procedure Law

2On 4 February the Supreme People’s Court (Court) issued a comprehensive interpretation of the 2012 Civil Procedure Law, with 552 articles, longer than the 294 articles in the law itself.  It creates a much more sophisticated body of civil procedure law.  The Court has been working on this interpretation for over two years. As is usual, the Court held a press conference to explain its significance. The text of the press conference, in which the Court spokesman and Judges Du  Wanhua and Sun Youhai spoke, is also available on the Court’s website. A few of the highlights of the interpretation:

  • More detailed section on evidence, including recordings, reflecting the longer term work underway to draft an evidence code.
  • A new section on public interest litigation, in relation to environmental, consumer cases and other such cases.  The organization must show prima facie evidence of harm to the public interest. Other organizations and administrative agencies can apply to be joint plaintiffs.
  • Much longer section on foreign related issues, including provisions concerning foreign language evidence (translations should be provided), and if the parties disagree on the translation, they should agree on a third party translation agency.
  • Permission of the court is required to tape, video, or provide live posting on social media.
  • Many provisions relating to divorce of [former] Chinese citizens who have settled outside of China.
  • Section on small claims procedure.

More analysis to follow.