Improving China’s criminal petitioning (collateral appeals) system

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Petitioners at SPC (used with permission of Natalie Behring)

In recent months, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has been issuing one policy document after another to put some substance into the vague language of a “trial-centered” criminal justice system.  One of those documents, which the SPC issued recently along with the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and Ministry of Justice, is directed at involving lawyers in the criminal case petitioning system: Opinions on Gradually Implementing Systems For Lawyers’ Representation in Collateral Appeals (Collateral Appeals Opinion).  (The document was copied to a surprising number of Party, state, and military institutions, according to this version).

The Collateral Appeals Opinion builds on a single line in item #36 of the SPC’s 4th Court Reform Plan outline:  “Promote the establishment of a system for lawyer representation in complaint appeals [collateral appeals] cases.”  As some readers may be aware, China has a collateral appeals or criminal case petitioning (刑事申诉) system, giving a convicted person and his or her family a right to petition a court to have the case re-opened and reconsidered under the Criminal Procedure Law’s trial supervision procedures.  Criminal defense lawyers are hopeful that this will lead to more involvement by the criminal defense bar, but there are many procedural and financial arrangements still to be worked out.

It seems likely that Judge Hu Yunteng, as a member of the SPC’s judicial committee (as well as others) were involved in the drafting of this policy document. As I discussed in a February, 2017, blogpost, Judge Hu Yunteng and other colleagues on the #2 Circuit Court wrote a research report analyzing criminal collateral appeals petitioners visiting the #2 Circuit Court (第二巡回法庭刑事申诉来访情况分析报告), (which does not seem to have been made public) and in the article summarized in that blogpost, advocated hearing the views of the party’s lawyer if one has been appointed and noted that making contact with the party and his lawyer was an important way to deal with these cases.

But establishing an effective collateral appeal system system involves further issues, as highlighted by one of my students in his class paper (edited).

  1. Criminal petitioning [collateral appeal] lawyers face a dilemma: they don’t have the right to investigate evidence, read case files, or even meet their clients if their clients are now prisoners and not defendants. [Comment–section 9 of the Collateral Appeals Opinion has broad language on improving this–this is a positive step, but will require more specific implementing procedures].
  2. Article 306 of the Chinese Criminal Law, which provides that criminal defense lawyers who encourage defendants or witnesses to change their testimony should be punished criminally. This  provision makes criminal defense lawyers extremely unwilling to investigate new evidence by themselves because of the high risk.
  3. According to Chinese Criminal Procedure Law, the petitioning process should be conducted in the court which makes the original judgment. [Comment–the Supreme Peoples Procuratorate and Court media outlets recently have published proposals to have these cases should be considered by procuratorates and courts in other jurisdictions.] However, this court will have strong incentive to have these cases not successfully petitioned because their bonus and assessment are based on correctness rate of effective judgments. [My comment–this is one of the many ways the judicial performance assessment system creates obstacles to justice. So to make this reform effective, this indicator must be abolished.] Combined with the fact that there is no clear rule that needy petitioners should be assigned lawyers, they may either ignore the need for lawyers, or just assign lawyers who have little interest to really petition for their clients in these cases. So in most cases in which petitioners are in poverty, they could only seek the help of private lawyers for free service.
  4. In China there is a saying that if you want to win in petitioning you have to make a big influence to make the government notice your case, and if you want the government to notice on you, you have to use some extreme rather than some “legal” ways to petition. If petitioners hire a lawyer, the lawyer has his/her own professional responsibility standard that he or she has to follow, which may sometimes conflict with the “best interest” of the client.
  5. There a gap between the economic difficulty for ordinary daily life and economic difficulty in seeking legal service. For example, a person may not meet the criteria of economic difficulty because he or she’s earning is above the living standard. However, this person can still not able to afford legal service from a law firm because ordinarily the cost for seeking criminal defense service is above a person’s salary in a whole year. Such gap and seemingly objective standard actually causes a problem and means many people in need cannot receive the aid.

Chinese criminal justice reform–as President Trump says “it’s complicated!”

Supreme People’s Court to require prior case search

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 12.13.38 PMIn August, 2016, I wrote about how non-guiding Chinese cases are guiding the development of Chinese law.  I described what I saw as a prevalent practice in the Chinese judiciary that judges search a particular issue to see how other courts have decided a particular issue or the elements to which they have looked when deciding a particular issue. In that blogpost, I questioned whether the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) had noticed this practice.  Under a recent SPC policy document that will become effective on 1 May, this prevalent practice will become a required practice. The SPC’s Opinions on Putting a Judicial Responsibility System in Place and Improving Mechanisms for Trial Oversight and Management (Provisional) contains the following phrase:

6. All levels of people’s courts shall give full play to the professional judges’ conferences and adjudication committee’s roles in summarizing trial experience unifying judgment standards; and on the foundation of improving working mechanisms such as consulting similar cases and judgment guidance; a mechanism is to be established requiring the search of similar cases and relevant cases, to ensure a uniform judgment standard for similar cases, and the uniform application of law.

六、各级人民法院应当充分发挥专业法官会议、审判委员会总结审判经验、统一裁判标准的作用,在完善类案参考、裁判指引等工作机制基础上,建立类案及关联案件强制检索机制,确保类案裁判标准统一、法律适用统一。

This requires judges to do what many of them have been already doing –searching the case databases for prior cases that raise the same or similar issues and other issues related to the principal one(s). This principle will be applicable to judges hearing all sorts of cases–civil, criminal, administrative, enforcement, and intellectual property. It will not be evident to the reader of a Chinese judgment or ruling that searches have been done because non-guiding cases may not be cited.

Requiring a search of prior and related cases is an important step in the evolution of the Chinese case law system.  That system (as I wrote recently), supplements and informs judicial interpretations. Judicial interpretations often take years to be finalized.  National legislation (by the National People’s Congress and its Standing Committee) is hopelessly inadequate for the needs of the court system.  Case law is needed to fill in the gaps.  Judges, who are assuming greater individual responsibility for their decisions, need case law for more specific guidance.

In her remarks in November, 2016 focused on intellectual property, Justice Tao Kaiyuan revealed the thinking of the SPC leadership:

The construction of the case guidance system [Chinese case law] is not to create a new legal source, but to…uncover the broader consensus of the industry, to further refine legal rules and to provide better law for society. It is also expected to lay the foundation for the drafting of judicial interpretations…The function of the intellectual property case guidance system is to enhance the predictability of the judiciary by establishing an intellectual property case guidance system to promote the unity of judicial standards.

 

 

 

China’s 19th Party Congress & Judicial Reform

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29 March meeting of Party leading group on judicial reform

Meng Jianzhu, Politburo member and head of the Communist Party Central Political Legal Committee, held a meeting in late March (photo above), to convey Xi Jinping’s message–those in leadership positions must do all possible to ensure that judicial system reform responsibility targets are basically achieved before the 19th Party congress (努力实现党的十九大召开前基本完成司法体制改革努力实现党的十九大召开前基本完成司法体制改革任务的目标). For those not familiar with Chinese political-legal jargon, “judicial system” (司法体制) means here the political-legal institutions–the courts, procuratorate, public/state security, and justice administration.   “Responsibility and targets” are also Chinese political jargon. Xi Jinping’s message dates from early January, when he highlighted this goal in instructions transmitted to the Communist Party Central Committee’s national political legal work conference.  He emphasized that the cornerstone of the judicial system reform is the judicial accountability system.  Part of the message  is that 2017 is a critical time, during which there is a “decisive battle” for deepening judicial reform, the battle intended to achieve those targets.  “Decisive battle” is also a core part of Chinese political jargon.

Since late March, Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang and other senior SPC leaders have been publicizing the target of completing judicial system reform, particularly the judicial accountability system, before the 19th Party Congress.  The SPC leadership has been doing that through meetings, both of the SPC itself (and the circuit courts) and the provincial-level courts and through SPC media outlets. President Zhou Qiang did so during a recent visit to Anhui, while on April 7, executive vice president Shen Deyong, vice-president Li Shaoping, and Political Department head Xu Jiaxin transmitted that message on a nationwide court video conference. This message is likely to be repeated in the months leading up to the 19th Party Congress.

In recent days, the SPC’s judicial reform office has been explaining these reforms to the public that reads SPC professional publications, such as the People’s Court Daily and China Trial, with some of the core content in the form of FAQs.  The reforms outline the way a post-reform court should operate. Some of the points were previously set out in the SPC’s February, 2017 judicial reform white paper.

A brief summary of the responses follows below:

  1. Why is the responsibility system the critical part of the judicial system reform (司法体制改革的“牛鼻子”)? Answer: because Xi Jinping said it, and judicial power and accountability/responsibility go together; accountability limits power.
  2. What is the responsibility of a presiding judge? Answer: take the lead in a case, by outlining the hearing of the case, allocating responsibilities, taking the lead at trial and in post-trial discussions, and in cases of significant differences of opinion, submit the case to either a specialist judges’ committee or judicial committee.
  3. How should the system of court president’s and division chief’s hearing cases be improved?Court leading cadres have multiple identities, including Party administrative responsibilities, and they must concurrently plan, announce and implement Party construction and adjudication [substantive] work, and for those who are quota judges, they should hear some cases too. Those cases should depend on a person’s background and strengths and should be major, difficult, complicated, or new cases which are representative.
  4. What is the relationship between judicial teams and court divisions? Answer: A Judicial team is comprised of judges, judge assistants, clerks and other auxiliary personnel, formulated respective lists of responsibilities of judges, judge assistants, and clerks, established the new judicial work mechanism with judges at the core and the team members cooperating with each other closely,
  5. When judges are randomly assigned to cases, how should the judge in charge of the case be determined? Answer: random selection should be primary, supplemented by assigned cases.
  6. How should the reform of having judges sign judicial documents [judgments/rulings, etc.] be understood? Answer: Judges who hear cases should sign their judgments and senior court leaders should no longer review or sign the judgments on the cases when they had not been personally involved.
  7. How should the reform of having a conference of professional judges be understood? Answer: judges in different substantive areas can organize committees to provide their views to other judges on problematic issues, reducing the number of cases referred to the judicial committee.
  8. In courts where there are many judges, how large should the conference of professional judges be? Answer:basically, it depends on the profile of the cases and the number of judges.
  9. What type of management and oversight responsibilities will a court president have besides hearing cases? He (she) will monitor judgments and rulings, sometimes recommending the matter go the judicial committee (see further details in the white paper).
  10. What type of management and oversight responsibilities will a division chief have in addition to his responsibilities hearing cases? As delegated by the court president, a division chief can review matters such as extending a defendant’s period of arrest or detention, or other compulsory measures or extend the period for submitting evidence.
  11. When judicial power is delegated down in judicial reform, how can it be monitored? The old system of having senior judges sign off on judicial documents, including ones that they had not heard, and they are also forbidden from approving cases in an indirect way, such as giving oral instructions. Senior judges should be working on a macro, not micro level.
  12. How can the judicial committee reform move forward reliably? Answer: from now on, the focus of the work of judicial committees should change from discussing individual cases to summarizing experience, and discussing major cases, with exceptions (foreign affairs, social stability, etc. (see the analysis in the white paper).

Comments

These questions and answers reflect the challenges the SPC faces in moving the Chinese court system (including its own operations) away from the traditional model that fuses judicial authority with traditional Chinese [Communist Party] administration.  The post-reform concept of the judiciary is a more professional judiciary that gives judges greater professional autonomy (and therefore can retain the sophisticated talent that is leaving for law firms) but retains control in specified areas. How successful will these reforms be in moving courts and judges away from old patterns of behavior remains to be seen. It seems to be happening in at least some of the pilot courts (from my discussions), but that does not mean these will be successful in other less sophisticated areas.  Presumably, the SPC’s judicial reform office is monitoring the pilots in a more systematic way.

The reasons for stressing the importance of accomplishing these reforms by the 19th Party Congress are assumed, not explained. I understand it as intended to show that the judicial system reforms that have been undertaken in recent years are correct, have accomplished what they were intended to accomplish, and are effective in improving China’s judicial system.  I expect that the system described above is reflected in the redrafts of the People’s Court Organizational Law and the Judges’ Law.  To what extent will these reforms (apparently accompanied by increased political study) be able to retain the talent currently in or being recruited into the courts?

 

Veneration rights litigation in China

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tombstore states “veneration rights”

In honor of the Qingming Festival, one of the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC) media outlets, Faxin, published a set of cases on veneration rights (祭奠权).  The cases were previously published in Selection of People’s Court Cases (人民法院案例选, edited by the China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence (Applied Jurisprudence Institute) (one of the research institutes affiliated with the SPC).  This publication is one of the authoritative case collections of the SPC. Litigation related to the honoring of deceased relatives has been on the increase in recent years, a sign of fundamental changes in Chinese society.   Among the cases in this category are:

 

  • rights to be informed about the death of a relative or friend and the location of burial;
  • rights related to burial or storage of ashes; and
  • rights relating to tombstones, with a number of cases involving a sibling omitting the names of others on a parent’s tombstones.

This is one of the many areas where there is a blank space in Chinese law, but where litigation is on the rise.  The principal case highlighted was a 2007 case tried in Beijing’s Fengtai District People’s Court, published in a 2009 collection:

Cui Yan v. Cui Shufang.  Cui Yan was the granddaughter of a deceased couple, Cui Jinshu and Li Runhua.  She sued her aunt, Cui Shufang, for failing to inform her about the death of her grandmother (the grandfather passed away many years before).  The court ruled that the aunt did not have a legal obligation to inform the granddaughter, although informing her would be in accordance with good morality, but Cui Yan did not visit or care for her grandparents during their lifetime and that was more significant than saying farewell to the departed.  The facts of the case are familiar to people around the world–the grandmother left her apartment to her daughter in her will, excluding her other children.  The aunt, in defense of what she had done, alleged that Cui Yan’s parents had abused the couple.

Huang Bin,  researcher of the Applied Jurisprudence Institute, who edited the case, noted that the case raised three questions: whether Chinese law protects the right to venerate ancestors; if it constitutes a right, then what constitutes a violation of that right; and conversely, what circumstances do not violate that right.

Huang noted that Chinese law does not protect that right, currently, but in his view, it should, looking to legal theory to support his argument and analogizing it to the right of privacy.  A breach should be covered by the elements of tort law:  infringement of rights protected by law;  fault; damage to the infringed party; an causation. Although these cases occur frequently, the editor remarked that few people research this. It raises issues such as: who should enjoy this right, what type of notice should be required, how to calculate damages, and exemptions.  The editor suggests looking at resources outside the court, such moral reasoning, administrative assistance, mediation and so on, in order to save court resources.

Although statistics on the number of cases are not available, a quick search of one of the judgment databases revealed about 100, arising primarily in Beijing, Shanghai, and Zhejiang.  According to a recent press report, a Beijing court recognized veneration rights of a bereaved father. The father had sued his son in law for damages in the amount of 100,000 RMB for removing his daughter’s ashes without informing him and seeking the right to determine where the ashes should be stored. The court ordered the son in law to pay 20,000 RMB damages to his father in law for inflicting mental distress, compensate him for the cost of a portrait of his daughter, but said the widower had the right to determine where the ashes should be stored.

Brief Comment

The drafting of China’s Civil Code is underway and unbeknownst to the world outside of China, whether the Civil Code should recognize veneration rights is part of the discussion.  The fact that these cases are on the increase is significant for what is means for changes in Chinese society, how ordinary Chinese people are using the courts, and the place of traditional customs and morality. These cases are one of many in which Chinese judges find themselves having to deal with claims to individual rights in the absence of clear law.

 

 

 

#2 Circuit Court’s case guidance on administrative cases

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In August, 2016, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) #2 Circuit Court issued a sset of 30 case summaries (literally important points, 案例要旨)on administrative cases, selected from the many administrative cases heard in the first year and a half of operation.  The #2 Circuit Court hailed it as a new type of case guidance (审判新指南) in March, 2017. This type of case guidance is mentioned in my forthcoming article in the Tsinghua China Law Review.  Although this document does not have any formal status (at least yet) in the universe of SPC case guidance, it has been approved at a conference of administrative judges in Liaoning, Heilongjiang, and Jilin, and the rules it sets out should be considered highly persuasive to courts in those three provinces.

It is likely that these cases will provide background material for a more comprehensive judicial interpretation of the Administrative Procedure (Litigation) Law than the one issued shortly after the amended law was promulgated.  Some of these cases have also been incorporated into the SPC’s 10 model #2 Circuit Court cross-administrative region commercial and administrative cases. The document does not include a summary of the underlying facts, but some of the full case reports are found elsewhere.  Each case (most relate to land disputes) provides a glimpse into the behavior of local government vis a vis ordinary Chinese citizens and companies, the (limited) scope for review of administrative action under Chinese law, and the unusual legal issues in the review of administrative action. Brief commentary follows each case summary restatement.  on 1 April, Wang Cailiang, the deputy chair of the All China Lawyers Association, published Wechat commentary on administrative litigation and judicial reform.  Highlights of some of his comments follows the case summaries.

#5. Fan Chunsheng v. Heping District, Shenyang Government: issue–compulsory administrative act and administrative compensation case:

If the administrative organ illegally demolishes the plaintiff ‘s house, the compensation standard must not be lower than the compensation standard that the plaintiff may obtain according to the administrative compensation scheme. The plaintiff’s request for compensation must be upheld by the people’s court in accordance with the amount that can be obtained through the compensation scheme.

[The full text of the case is found here. It involved a man whose home was demolished. The court determined that the parties had not come to an agreement about compensation and the District Government had not gone through proper procedures to expropriate Mr. Fan’s property. The facts are similar to some of the model demolition cases released by the SPC several years ago.]

#16 Siping Haifeng Garden Real Estate Development Co. v, Siping (Jilin) People’s Government: issue–are government meeting summaries actionable?

A government meeting summary that is considered to be an internal government document setting out possible approaches in dealing with certain problems, but without a real impact on the rights and obligations of the parties, will be considered an administrative act that is not actionable. However, if the government uses the form of a meeting summary to make an administrative decision with legal effect, it is considered an actionable administrative action. The “externalization” of the meeting summary is necessary for the meeting summary to be actionable. Even if the contents of a meeting summary has been notified or delivered to the relevant parties, but if it remains a description of possible approaches, rather than an effective administrative decision, it will be considered a non-actionable administrative act with no real effect on the parties’ rights.

[The rule here indicates that is how the document is being used, rather than the form of document that determines whether a court can review it.]

#19, Zhang Qinghai v. Benxi Municipal Government–issue: is a decision by a provincial level government to expropriate land actionable

According the provisions of Article 30 (2) of the Administrative Reconsideration Law and Reply of the SPC to a question concerning  Article 30(2) of the Administrative Reconsideration Law, a decision by the State Council or provincial level governments concerning the expropriation of land and a related administrative reconsideration decision is considered acts of final decision and is not within the scope of cases than can be accepted under the Administrative Litigation Law.

[A brief search of some other jurisdictions reveals that this type of decision can be challenged under the law of some other jurisdictions: United States federal and state law and German law, for example].

#23, Han Yawen v. Zhaoyuan County, Heilongjiang People’s Government–issue: is an agreement not to petition (息诉罢访协议) actionable

An agreement not to petition between an administrative agency and a petitioner is an agreement with rights and duties under administrative law between an administrative agency with a petitioner to maintain social order and stability, in the public interest and in furtherance of administrative functions, according to the localism principle, the relevant government provides money or other benefits and should be considered a type of administrative agreement. When a people’s court accepts this type of case, it should review the legality of the content of the agreement according to law.

[Further background on the case found here. the SPC rejected Han’s application for retrial because the statute of limitations had lapsed).  (A form of agreement found here.  This 2011 book chapter mentions that these agreements could be challenged in theory, but the inclusion of this principle shows that petitioners often seek to challenge them, at least in the northeastern provinces.]

A summary of remarks by Wang Cailiang, on whether the amended Administrative Litigation Law, in effect for almost two years, will be able to make progress:

  1. On government interference:  “I can responsibly say that most grass-roots courts consciously or unconsciously play the role of a subordinate department of the local government…. in recent years when local governments promote the redevelopment of shantytowns, major projects, development zones, with which the local court also either actively or passively cooperates, there exists a conflict between the citizens right to administrative review (reconsideration) and litigation. Moreover, the Government on the one hand needs the court to give support in implementing the project; the other hand, the government wants to spend less money.  It creates an enormous obstacle to hearing administrative cases fairly and equitably.
  2. More hard work needed to resolving social conflicts (contradictions): in 2016, there were high numbers of administrative litigation and petitioning, with old and new issues, caused by housing condemnation, land expropriation, administrative enforcement…Affected parties sought to protect their rights through the courts,  and 225,000 administrative cases were accepted by the courts, with a clear increase of cases against county governments accepted by intermediate courts, and even the SPC had accepted over 2000 by the end of September. This has to do with the amended Administrative Litigation Law and clarity that county governments are the parties to expropriate land [under the relevant legislation], which means that the rate at which government is losing cases is rising, although the SPC hasn’t released 2016 data.  In July-August, 2016, documents issued by the State Council General Office and the SPC on administrative agencies responding to law suits has improved matters.  Also, under the new law, the reconsideration organ is the joint defendant with the original authority, so this changes the venue for these law suits, giving affected parties more hope…In 2016 there were major issues with demolition disputes after courts determine that administrative action by the court is illegal, some local governments reject the decisions and refused to take the initiative to correct the error, failure to make timely compensation to the plaintiff is very common…Even in cases where people should be prosecuted for criminal violations, not one has…
  3. There are too many wrongly decided cases–reasons–besides interference, professional competence of judges, traditional way of thinking of courts…
  4. Few administrative cases are resolved on time (he can tell this although the SPC has not released statistics),
  5. Some problems remain with the case registration system.
  6. He suggests proceeding on the rule of law route–promoting judicial reform and cross-administrative region courts; open up public opinion, so administrative litigation proceeds in the sunshine; having the SPC curb its tendency to issue judicial interpretations [this is entirely impractical, in my view]; and send the judges out of the case registration division and back to the trial divisions.
  7. He summarizes, but does not comment on remarks made by Meng Jianzhu (Meng), head of the Communist Party’s Central Political Legal Committee at a meeting on 29 March of the Leading Small Group on Judicial Reform with senior members of the political legal leadership (head of the Ministry of Public Security, presidents of the Supreme People’s Court and Procuratorate, Minister of Justice, etc.) that the targets of judicial reform (he means the political legal institutions, not just the judiciary) need to be achieved before the 19th Party Congress and admitting there have been difficulties in implementing some judicial reforms. Meng directed the authorities to research the problem and come up with practical solutions.
  8.  Wang concludes by saying that the specific goals in this round of judicial reforms have never been made public–how far it is to go, so the public does s not understand them, so it lacks societal supervision, understanding and support–the effectiveness of a reform that lacks public participation naturally will be reduced, and we must be concerned about this. (然而,这一轮司法改革的具体的目标在开始至今并没有公开,以致要走到哪一步社会不了解,从而缺少社会公众的监督与理解、支持。一个缺少公众参与的改革,效果必然大打折扣,这是我们不能不担心的.)

Judging from a limited sample (such as the report done by the #2 Circuit Court), at least some of the research and analysis that is being done within the political legal institutions is insightful and practical. But as President Trump has said about health care,  “It’s an unbelievably complex subject, nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” The same can be said about reforming the Chinese judiciary.