Over one year has elapsed since the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has implemented the judicial reforms set out in the February, 2015 4th five year plan for reforming the judiciary. While thousands of words have been written in Chinese and English, some praising, criticizing, mocking, and bemoaning the reforms, it was only in late February, 2016 that the SPC issued a comprehensive official assessment, focusing on its achievements. That official assessment takes the form of a bilingual white paper (White Paper) issued in early March (but full text released on-line only in English), plus a section of President Zhou Qiang’s work report devoted to the judicial reforms, a first for the SPC. I surmise that it was approved by the Judicial Reform Leading Group.
This blogpost looks at the vision for the Chinese judiciary that the White Paper conveys, by looking at several sections.
Chinese court system and the reform process
The description of the reform process in the first section of the White Paper tells us who/what is driving the reform process, the nature of the process, the core issues, and how the judicial reform process is being monitored.
- During 2014-2015,13 out of 19 plenary sessions held by the Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform involved judicial reform, where 27 judicial reform documents were adopted.
- A partial list of those 27 documents is found here.
- The Social System Reform Specialized Group (the Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform) is in charge of judicial reform;
- The SPC has a leading group in charge of judicial reform, replicated at the provincial level, and any judicial reform plans piloted by them need to be approved by the SPC or above (the 4th Judicial Reform Five Year Plan states this).
According to this section, the four core judicial reform measures are:
- improving the classified management of judicial personnel [treating judges differently from clerks and other support personnel and civil servants0;
- the judicial accountability system [the lifetime responsibility system set out in regulations issued in September, 2015, but only implemented in areas piloting judicial reform, controversial among judge and academics];
- professional protection of judicial personnel ;
- unified management of personnel, funds and properties of local courts below the provincial level.
These four measures will be piloted throughout the country in several rounds before they are implemented nationwide.
From the description of the reforms we can see that the specific reforms discussed in the remainder of the report have been cleared by the Party leadership. It seems reasonable to assume that each reform involved hundreds of hours of policy paper drafting by SPC staff and internal and cross-institutional discussions, and responses to comments during those discussions.
What the White Paper did not mention is that the Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform and the Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform established their own inspectorate for monitoring the progress of reform,including judicial reform, (reviving a traditional institution). It is unclear which reforms will be targeted this year for inspection. The separate inspectorate seems to indicate that these Central Leading Groups want their own source of information on how reforms are being implemented.
Judicial independence (Ensuring Independent and Impartial Exercise of Judicial Power Pursuant to Law)
One of the messages conveyed in this section is that local courts do not belong to local governments but are established by the State at the local level to exercise judicial power on behalf of the State. The goal as stated in this section, is to “form an institutional environment and social atmosphere that respects [the] judiciary, supports [the] judiciary and trusts [the] judiciary.”
It lists about a dozen measures. What is new in this section:
- a summary of the policy thinking on judicial appointments and funding of the local courts. On judicial appointments, judges will be selected by judicial selection committee at the provincial level in terms of professionalism, and will be appointed and removed according to common standards. This is a push in the direction of professionalism, and away from the phenomenon noted in the past few years of having chief judges who lacked a legal education. On the funding issue, the Central Government will fully guarantee the funding of the local courts. The provincial fiscal departments manage the funds of local courts below the provincial level, the local courts will submit their budgets to the provincial fiscal departments, and budget funds will be appropriated by the centralized payment system of the national treasury.
- Fuller discussion of cross-administrative district courts to hear administrative cases–piloted in Beijing and Shanghai and other locations, under the umbrella of a policy document of the SPC that has not been made public. The concept is to have cases against local governments heard outside of the area in which they arose. The SPC recent policy document on the development of the greater Beijing area has further content in that area.
This section also discusses the following reforms, previously discussed: circuit courts; cross-administrative division courts; intellectual property courts (by Mark Cohen, chinipr.com); administrative cases being centralized in one court (Shenzhen is one of the pilot project venues); maritime courts; environmental protection divisions; official interference.
Improving the way the courts function ( Improving the Functional Mechanism of Adjudicative Powers)
The fourth section of the White Paper provides useful insights into how the judiciary is intended to operate post reform. It starts out with a statement that judicial power is a judging power in essence and emphasizes impartiality, neutrality and personal experience.”
The focus on this section is on reforms to the way Chinese courts operate. As I have written previously, they have operated in many of the same ways that other Party and government organs operate. This section describes pilot reforms, new policies, or regulations concerning the following (among others):
- personnel reforms described above (but do not mention the pay rise that goes along with it in at least some courts);
- senior judges within a court (court presidents, vice presidents, division chiefs) will no longer approve judgments, except for a small number going to the judicial committee);
- senior judges will hear cases instead of concentrating solely on administrative matters;
- courts will establish a specialized judges council made up of judges in specialized areas (criminal, civil, etc) to provide views to judges hearing cases on the interpretation of substantive issues, on an equal basis rather than seniority;
- the SPC has abolished irrational performance indicators and forbidden senior judges from involving themselves in cases that they have not heard;
- the SPC has issued policy guidance on the reform of judicial committees (not yet made public). The principles set out follow generally what was described by President Zhou Qiang earlier, but include judicial committee discussion of “major and complicated cases concerning national diplomacy, security and social stability and those required by law.” The guidance calls for more transparency (unclear whether to be within the court or greater), better record-keeping, and less involvement by judicial committees with specific cases. As discussed in an earlier blogpost, judicial committees have often been a route for transmitting the views of local officials and have been been implicated in some of the wrongful conviction cases);
- judicial responsibility/accountability system, mentioned above;
- regulations on the jurisdiction of different levels of courts in civil cases (described in this blogpost).
These reforms look to do a number of things that are significant within strictures of the Chinese system: distinguish judges from other Party cadres and give them better status and pay; break down or reconstitute some of the basic internal structures of the courts that have facilitated corruption, unjust cases, and discouraged talented judges; abolish performance indicators that have been poisonous for judges and litigants alike.
The vision that the SPC has for the Chinese judiciary and judges can be seen from the description of the reforms above. The SPC intends to create a more professional judiciary (with a lower headcount), that is better paid, more competent, has performance indicators that look more like other jurisdictions, with an identity and operating mechanisms separate from other Party/government organs, that will be more autonomous, no longer under the thumb of local authorities, but operates within the big tent of Party policy. To be incorporated in the judicial reforms, the implications of each measure must have been thoroughly discussed by the Party leadership and the Party leadership is using its own institutions to monitor results. Will the judicial reforms achieve their goal of making people feel justice in every case? For that, the jury (or is it the people’s assessors(also being reformed)?) is still out.