The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) database, China Judgments Online, receives good marks from most commentators inside and outside of China and it is one of the successes of the judicial reforms that President Zhou Qiang often discusses with visiting foreign guests as well as domestic officials. Only now has a team of researchers from Peking University drilled down on the case database (but only through 2014, because the data was not complete for 2015) (short version found here and full version here). They found that there is room for improvement.
The researchers found that only about 50% of number of cases resolved in the Chinese courts (about 30.5 million during 2014-2015) have been uploaded to the case database (14.5 million).
Level and type of case
Almost 80% of the cases uploaded are from the basic level courts, with intermediate level courts accounting from almost 19%, and fewer than 1% from the SPC.
Are courts uploading cases to the database consistently?
The map above is based on an analysis of 2014 data. Shaanxi, Zhejiang, Shandong, Anhui, and Hebei provinces were the best performers, particularly Shaanxi; Henan, Fujian, Hunan, Hubei, Guangxi, and Ningxia were in the second tier, uploading at least half. The less transparent courts include Tibet, Xinjiang, and Guizhou.
[I personally expected that Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Guangdong would be more transparent.]
Are cases uploaded consistently throughout the year?
At least in 2014, there was a half year and year end rush to upload cases. It appears that the uploading of cases is one of the items for judges performance appraisal.
- More than half of judicial documents have not been uploaded to the database, including judgments in some of the more controversial cases.
- Technical issues complicate the uploading process. Because the courts are administered locally, the IT systems are local as well.
- The regulations set out vague standards for taking down a judgment/ruling. When objections are made, the cases are taken down with little review. [As I have commented in relation to streaming of court cases, the absence of privacy legislation is an issue, because judges lack specific guidance on what information is regarded as private.]
- Large gaps exist between the coastal and inland provinces in uploading judgments, with long delays an issue as well, although the regulations require judgments to be uploaded 7 business days after they take effect (this provision is unchanged from the 2013 version).
- Monitoring of the database is an issue. The SPC has been stressing the quantity of judgments uploaded, while insufficient attention is paid to quality. [This may have something to do with tendency of some Chinese academics to focus on theory or comparisons among jurisdictions, rather than engage in a more focused study on what their own court system is actually doing.]
The Chinese government has allocated USD $40 billion to the Silk Road Fund associated with the One Belt One Road strategic initiative, to improve infrastructure overseas. China’s judiciary, an important part of the nation’s legal infrastructure, requires better funding as well. Even a tiny percentage of that $40 billion would go far to contribute to improve courts’ IT infrastructure, not to mention improved salaries, and the retention of the research departments of local courts.
Investment in the courts is needed to bolster the Chinese (not to mention foreign) public’s confidence in the Chinese courts’ ability to provide a better quality of justice.
As my law school classmate, Justice John Roberts, said several years ago, when confronted by budget cuts to the US federal judiciary:
At the top of my list is a year-end report that must once again dwell on the need to
provide adequate funding for the Judiciary.I would like to choose a fresher topic, but duty calls. The budget remains the single most important issue facing the courts….
The Judiciary continues to depend on the vision and statesmanship of our colleagues in the Executive and Legislative Departments. It takes no imagination to see that
failing to meet the Judiciary’s essential requirements undermines the
public’s confidence in all three branches of government. Both A Christmas
Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life have happy endings. We are encouraged
that the story of funding for the Federal Judiciary—though perhaps not as
gripping a tale—will too.