The latest National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) gave formal approval to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) to establish four more circuit courts, located in Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Chongqing and Xian. The Leading Small Group on Comprehensive Reform had given the nod to the SPC and its preparations at the beginning of November, so approval by the NPCSC was a foregone conclusion. The four new circuit courts held ceremonies on 28 and 29 December to inaugurate their operations. This means that circuit courts now cover the entire country. As discussed in my earlier blogpost, these are actually subdivisions of the SPC rather than being separate courts.
This blogpost looks at:
- What the official reports signal about the Chinese judiciary; and
- What these circuit courts mean for the Chinese judiciary now and in the future.
Signalling in official reports
The official reports related to the circuit court celebrated the circuit court judges and the courts themselves as both “red and expert.”
In this report, on their meeting with Meng Jianzhu, secretary of the Central Political Legal Committee, a subheadline has him meeting with circuit court “cadres” (孟建柱在会见最高人民法院巡回法庭干部…), while the first line of the report uses the phrasing “judge and other staff” (全体法官和工作人员). Meng Jianzhu stressed that close [flesh and blood] ties between the Party and the people in the judicial field is the important mission of the Supreme People’s Court Circuit Courts the circuit courts are under the leadership of his committee], while at the same time saying that “we should adhere to the [policy] direction of the judicial system reform,..create a professionalized trial team…”
Other reports note that of the 54 judges, 41 have either master’s or doctorate degrees. An infographic with photos of the senior judges and a map of the jurisdictions of the circuit courts can be found here.
Are the circuit courts just reception offices for petitioners?
This blogpost will draw on the insights of Zhou Yibin, one of my students at the School of Transnational Law of Peking University, located in Shenzhen, where I am privileged to teach some of China’s best and brightest.
Analyzing the documents related to the establishment of the circuit courts, she comments the circuit courts’ function of “trying important cross-administrative civil, commercial and administrative cases to ensure justice is repeatedly emphasized, while diverting petitioners’ visits away from Beijing [as reported in this blogpost], reducing the workload for SPC .
Although the SPC knows that the pressure of petitioners’ visits is the direct reason to establish circuit courts, the SPC still wishes that the circuit courts will function more as courts to deal with the judicial localization [local protectionism] problem rather than another petitioners’ reception office. She notes that the huge pressure of dealing with petitioners visits and complaints with small elite teams, means that they are working very efficiently.
Statistics are available for 2015 for the #1 and #2 Circuit Courts, and in 2016 for the #2 Circuit.In 2015, the #1 Circuit Court accepted 898 cases and closed 843, while the #2 Circuit Court accepted 876 and closed 810. For the #2 Circuit Court, about half were civil and commercial cases (of which about 20% were transprovincial), while the remaining half was split between criminal and administrative cases. The #2 Circuit Court dealt with 33,000 petitioners, while the #1 Circuit Court dealt with fewer than 11,000. Through end September, 2016, the #2 Circuit Court had accepted 907 cases, and the number of petitioners had dropped considerably in 2016 to an average of 70-80 persons per day, down from almost 180 per day, with fewer petitioners complaining about injustices in litigation. It is understood that the number of cases accepted by the #1 Circuit Court has also increased in 2016 in comparison to 2015, although statistics are not yet available.
Zhou Yibin notes the following issues, among others:
- First, limited by territorial jurisdiction and subject amount in controversy, there aren’t enough cross-jurisdictional cases for the circuit courts to try. She found that the head of the #1 Circuit Court had said the same.
- Mid-career SPC judges may be reluctant to be assigned to the circuit courts, when they have family in Beijing.
- Having circuit courts may lead to more inconsistencies among SPC judgments.
She wrote: the circuit courts are not likely to be an effective barrier to judicial local localization/protectionism. That local protectionism happens when the local courts abuse their adjudication power to protect local litigants’ interests. Judicial localization is the caused by the administration of judicial system and unconstrained exercise of administrative and political power.When it comes to judicial activities, local Party/government officials tend to unduly influence the judges by leaving notes or giving direct instructions when they want to protect local interests. That is exactly why in 2015, the general office of the Central Committee of the CCP and the general office of the State Council jointly issued a notice requiring judges and clerks keep a record if any officials interfere cases in any form [see this earlier blogpost].
From this aspect, when the real concern is abuse of power and lack of institutional design to rein power, judicial reform in any form, would only be a “back-end pain killer”, rather than real surgery that can directly solve the source.
She concludes: as to whether circuit courts should continue to exist, people who are pessimistic about circuit courts characterize it as window-dressing. They believe circuit courts would not be the real key to deal with judicial localization and there exist better alternatives to deal with petitioners’ visits than circuit courts; therefore, the circuit courts should be eliminated before it creates further inconsistency and chaos to judicial system.
Zhou Yibin thinks circuit courts should continue to exist for the following reasons.
First, in 2015, SPC altered the amount in controversy and lower the barrier for case acceptance. Therefore, we can expect circuit court to play a more important role in providing neutral venue so as to fight with judicial localization.
Second, there are other efforts to curb judicial localization collectively. At the same time with setting up circuit courts, SPC is also exploring to set up cross-administrative courts. Currently, this experiment is steadily progressing in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing. This wave of judicial reform has just started, and we need to allow a little bit more time for the circuit courts and cross-administrative courts to grow, to engage in trial and error and to mature.
Third, aside from dealing with judicial localization, the circuit courts serve as pilot for SPC to improve the quality of its legal policy role by research into local legal issues and greater interaction with local legal communities. This is an important institutional function that is totally left out in the opponents’ objection. There are certainly institutional costs to maintain circuit courts, but we cannot ignore the institutional function of innovation that circuit courts serve.
I would also add to this that from the statistics provided above, the effect of the #2 Circuit Court’s work related to administrative cases can be seen in the reduction in the number of petitioners, particularly those complaining about injustices in the lower courts.
[For those who want to visit the circuit courts, detailed information about their location can be found here. As part of its efforts towards greater transparency and outreach to the foreign legal community, perhaps in the new year the SPC will publish clearer guidance on how foreigners can visit Chinese courts (although this is not likely to be a priority matter).]