I recently participated in an academic conference in which one speaker discussed Chinese judicial documents (other than judicial interpretations). The speaker’s view was very critical of them, a view shared by a good number of academics in China. A recent law review article published in a US law journal mischaracterized at least some of these documents. I have my own views and understanding of what these documents mean, based on many years reviewing these documents and long discussions with knowledgeable people “who cannot be named” and whose help can only be indirectly acknowledged. I have discussed SPC judicial documents in an earlier blogpost. I also discuss them in my book chapter on judicial transparency, and book chapter on the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC) policy document on free trade zones, the Opinions on Providing Judicial Guarantee for the Building of Pilot Free Trade Zones (最高人民法院關于為自由貿易試驗區建設提供司法保障的意見 FTZ Opinion). This blogpost melds excerpts from those book chapters.
It is a fact that the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issues a broad range of documents that guide the lower courts in addition to its judicial interpretations. The SPC creates and transmits to the lower courts new judicial policy in the form of an “opinion” (意见), which is also a type of Party/government document. This same term is used for documents jointly issued by the SPC and institutions not authorized to issue judicial interpretations. This blogpost focuses solely on SPC policy documents.
The SPC classifies opinions as “judicial normative documents” (司法文件 or 司法规范性文件(the title of this Wechat public account) and sometimes judicial policy documents” (司法政策性文件). As I’ve written before, this fuzzy use of terminology is not unusual. An (authoritative) follower has proposed using the English translation “judicial regulatory document” for 司法规范性文件. An authoritative person (who cannot be named), concurred with the follower’s proposal. Those with views on the translation point should use the contact function or contact me by email.
These documents are issued with the identifier “法发” (fafa), indicating that they have been approved by the judicial committee of the SPC or one or more senior SPC leaders. Transparency is better than before (and the SPC has issued documents encouraging greater transparency) but there is no strict publication requirement, unlike judicial interpretations.
The FTZ Opinion is an example of how the SPC supports the Party and government by issuing documents to support important initiatives. This is a subject that I have written about on this blog before. These SPC policy documents signal an evolution of judicial policy, establish new legal rules and direct the lower courts. Lower courts implement these measures in various ways, including in their court judgments or rulings and to further implement SPC judicial policy documents. Local courts may issue implementing guidance, as SPC policy is intended to be a framework under which local courts issue more specific measures to deal with specific local issues.
The FTZ Opinion signals evolving judicial policy to FTZ courts in a number of areas, including on civil and commercial law issues. For example, it states that courts should
support FTZ finance leasing companies and should respect the agreement of cross-border parties regarding jurisdiction and governing law. It states that a finance lease contract shall not be determined to be null and void because relevant procedures had not been performed.
The drafting of these judicial policy documents, such as the FTZ Opinion, follow a drafting process similar to judicial interpretations. The usual practice in drafting judicial interpretations is for the SPC to engage in extensive research and fieldwork, consult with related institutions within the SPC and external institutions when relevant (another academic article stuck in the production pipeline will describe the process in more detail).
The drafting team for the FTZ Opinion engaged in several years of field work, established an FTZ Research Base in Shanghai, held a Judicial Forum for the Pilot Free Trade Zones, solicited the views of experts and local courts, in the areas where FTZs are located. The SPC’s #4 Civil Division, in charge of foreign and cross-border related civil and commercial cases and related issues, took primary responsibility for drafting the opinion. The reason that the #4 Civil Division took the lead was that much of the substantive parts of the FTZ Opinion relates to foreign trade, foreign investment, and cross-border arbitration issues. Earlier Shanghai local court guidance was incorporated into the FTZ Opinion. Once the draft was relatively advanced, it was circulated to other relevant areas of the SPC for comments. As the team of judges who led the drafting focus on cross-border civil and commercial issues, they sought comments on related issues from the Research Office, likely one of the criminal divisions and the administrative division. Consistent with general judicial practice (and SPC rules), the FTZ Opinion was not issued for public comment. The drafting of the FTZ Opinion is one small example of the quasi-administrative way in which the SPC operates.
Rules or policies included in SPC judicial policy documents may eventually be crystallized in SPC judicial interpretations and eventually codified in national law, but
that process is slow and cannot meet the needs of the lower courts. The lower courts need to deal properly (politically and legally) with outstanding legal issues pending a more permanent stabilization of legal rules. This is true for judicial policy documents in all areas of the law, not only in commercial law.