Cameras in the Chinese courts

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Fraudulent fund-raising criminal trial

One of the less recognized aspects of China’s judicial reforms is the live streaming (and video archiving) of Chinese court hearings. other than the coverage of the Bo Xilai case.  (I put myself in the category of the persons who were formerly unaware of this development). This blogpost looks (briefly) at SPC policies, current developments, and some very thoughtful analysis of the issues by members of the Chinese judiciary. It follows from my previous blogpost  on online broadcasts of Supreme People’s Court (SPC) public hearings.

Several times this month (July, 2016), President Zhou Qiang has highlighted live streaming (and video libraries) of court hearings, most recently on 18 July, when he spoke about China’s “Smart Courts” and the SPC’s 3.0 Initiative, and reflects the information technology orientation of the Chinese courts (see this brief article on the topic).

In streaming court cases, the SPC and local judiciary are part of a worldwide trend. Even the US federal courts are experimenting with them, with the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit taking the lead.  The courts of Queensland (Australia) have recently issued a paper, looking at the issues from an Australian law perspective and very usefully providing a survey of the law worldwide on  major issues.

What are the Chinese courts doing?

The Chinese courts are implementing live broadcasting and video libraries of a selected, but increasing number of cases, with courts in more prosperous areas taking the lead. The Guangzhou courts were among the courts to broadcast court proceedings first. A minority of those cases are found on the SPC’s Court Tv website and most are found on local court websites, often on that of provincial high courts.  The cases tend to be primarily civil cases, with some criminal and a few administrative cases.

On the website of the Beijing courts for example, there are total of approximately 500 cases, of which 364 are civil cases, including an unfair dismissal case brought against Carrefour, 106 criminal cases, including one with an unrepresented defendant, and quite a few cases involving methamphetamine trafficking. The most popular one is a 2014 corruption case. There are 12 administrative cases, including a case against challenging a housing demolition decision by the Fangshan government.

The Zhejiang High Court seems to have video libraries of hearings in two places: this one has links to hearings for sentence commutation, such as this one, while another website has a broad range of cases, including this recent one from the Wenzhou courts, in which the defendant is being prosecuted for trafficking women into prostitution.

SPC’s 2015 report Judicial Transparency of Chinese Courts highlighted the broadcasting of Chinese court trials, noting that by the end of 2014, there were 519 live broadcasting of court trials through the SPC’s China Court’s Live Trial website (http://ts.chinacourt.org/). and that the local courts had streamed over 80,000 court trials. The numbers are much higher than that (close to 5000 on the SPC’s website) and certainly many more on local court websites.

Legal and Policy background

Streaming of Chinese court hearings is based on 2010 SPC regulations (Provisions on the Live Broadcasting and Rebroadcasting of Court Trials by the People’s Courts) and is linked to the 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan:

15. Establish mechanisms for audio and video recording the entire course of hearings.Strengthen the establishment of technical courtrooms, promoting the full audio-video recording of trial proceedings.

Streaming is also linked to the SPC’s five year plans related to information technology:including  a 2013-17 plan on the Informatization of the courts (人民法院信息化建设五年发展规划(2013-2017)) and two ongoing ones, the Five Year Plan on the Informatization of the People’s Courts, 2016-20(人民法院信息化建设五年发展规划(2016-2020)  and the SPC’s Five Year Informatization Plan (最高人民法院信息化建设五年发展规划(2016-2020)).

The 2010 Regulations do not provide specific protection for the rights of individuals, but focus on the type of cases to broadcast and approval procedures for broadcasts.

Article 2 The people’s court may choose the openly tried cases of higher public attention, greater social impact, and of legal publicity and education significance to make live broadcasts of and rebroadcast court trials. The live broadcasting and rebroadcasting of court trials are prohibited for the following cases:

(1) cases that are not openly tried in accordance with the law since any national secret, trade secret, individual privacy, or juvenile delinquency, among others, is involved;

(2) criminal cases on which procuratorial organs clearly require the non-live broadcasting and rebroadcasting of court trials for justifiable reasons;

(3) civil and administrative cases on which the parties clearly require the non-live broadcasting and rebroadcasting of court trials for justifiable reasons; and

(4) other cases of which the live broadcasting and rebroadcasting are inappropriate.[Translation from Chinalawinfo].

Comments from some local judges 

While the SPC leadership is highlighting the virtues of the streaming of trials, some local judges, likely writing from their personal experience, and comparing Chinese rules with counterparts worldwide, are more critical.

These judges from the  Guangzhou courts (judges with several years of experience with trial streaming) raised issues concerning privacy rights, the right to a fair trial, and the public’s right to know.

  • The privacy of litigants is not respected sufficiently; they are concerned that their private matters will be released online;
  • Open justice is necessary to consider the relationship between state power and individual private rights, but also the public’s right to know and the right to privacy of the parties must be balanced.
  • For criminal cases, for the defendant, the trial webcast is equivalent to a disguised form of a public rally– it could mean that the person has the label of  “criminal” for life .
  • In civil disputes, some statements in court may involve aspects of the private life that the parties or other related persons do not want publicized. Meanwhile, network videos and enormous destructive power of “human flesh searches” combined with public opinion on the parties and their families will have a significant impact, which are likely to lead to their privacy being violated.
  • Not all the information and all the facts of the case should be disclosed online. Some information  can be shielded, such as date of birth, place of work, home address, ID card number, bank account information, and the personal information of related parties, such as close relatives, witnesses and other participants.
  • Parties should have a veto over the trial webcast, and in criminal cases, the victim and his or her family should be consulted as well.  They also suggest shielding some information from broadcast.

As a staff member of theChengdu  courts noted, similar issues are raised by the database of court decisions, such as a case in which the plaintiff’s claim for damages from a traffic accident (including the loss of the ability to procreate) made him the laughingstock of his workplace.

Other local judges have commented that the cases selected for broadcast are not representative, too simple, and that they are sometimes selected for political reasons.

The underlying problem both for online streaming of cases and the court database is that there is not enough Chinese privacy law to protect individuals. Whether the SPC will issue more detailed regulations on privacy in internet broadcasts of court proceedings is unclear.

It does seem clear, that an important rationale for streaming cases is to educate the masses–杀鸡敬猴。Politically sensitive cases are not generally streamed.

For the observer of the Chinese courts, it is a fascinating resource in many ways, whether it is noting the number of cases with people’s assessors, women prosecutors, judges, demeanor of the legal professionals, parties, and bailiffs.

 

 

 

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