Supreme People’s Court President’s Zhou Qiang’s virtual mailbox

One of the more unusual features of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s website is the “Court President’s mailbox,”  by which individuals can send an email to SPC President Zhou Qiang (to yzxx@court.gov.cn), and where selected responses are published. President Zhou Qiang established it in 2013, almost exactly six years ago. As to why the SPC has a letter to the court president function, the answer is on the SPC website and the article announcing the launching of the mailbox:

it is to “further develop the mass education and practice campaign [mentioned in this blogpost six years ago] and to listen to the opinions and suggestions of all parts of society (the masses).

Listening to the opinions and suggestions of society is also required of Zhou Qiang as a senior Party leader.  It was part of the mass education and practice campaign and continues to be a fundamental principle in the current “Don’t forget the Party’s original aspirations and firmly remember your mission” campaign.

President Zhou Qiang listed establishing the Court President mailbox as an accomplishment in his 2018 report to the National People’s Congress.

Local courts have followed the SPC’s model by establishing their ownCourt President’s mailboxes.” From my own experience, not all [non-spam] emails either to President Zhou Qiang’s or a local court president’s email box are considered to merit a response.

The language of the responses is surprising for the reader used to the very formal language of SPC documents.  (One follower of this blog was so surprised that he ask.ed me about this). Many of them start with

Hello! We received your proposal (or query), and after consideration, we respond as follows:您好!《关于…..》收悉。……经研究,答复如下:

And end with this language:

Thank you for your support of the work of the Supreme People’s Court! 感谢您对人民法院执行工作的关心和支持!

A  quick but unscientific survey of recently published responses follows. As to why people write, judging from my own experience and the content of published responses, it appears that it is one of the few ways to bring a problem (unrelated to a dispute) to the attention of the court authorities.  I have no way of determining whether the responses are representative of the letters submitted, but I surmise that the letters are typical (典型).

Proposals

Some responses relate to specific proposals. Among recent proposals include anonymizing references to HIV infected persons, stipulating the ceiling interest rate in private lending disputes, and uniforms for judges and judges assistants (specific recommendation not described).

Queries

Some responses relate to queries on specific practical issues for litigants, such as whether a plaintiff must provide the defendant’s identity card number when filing a lawsuit, and the deadline for an administrative agency to enforce an administrative penalty or fine.

 Issues with the social credit system

Responses to persons seeking to lift restrictions against them imposed by the judgment debtors part of the social credit system seem to constitute a substantial number of responses. In 2019, those included letters published on 8 October. 28 June, 12 June, 17 April, 31 January, among others. If affected persons need to write to Zhou Qiang to resolve their problem, it means that the mechanism in the social credit system for lifting restrictions on judgment debtors once they have complied does not work as well in practice as advertised, to the disadvantage of affected persons.

Issues with the operation of the SPC’s case database (裁判文书网)

Letters raising problems with the operation of the SPC’s case database (China Judgments Online) include letters published on 20 August, 16 July, 28 February. Users complain about problems with the search function, slow loading of pages, and other technical problems.  In one response the SPC complains about the database being used by companies using webcrawler or web scraping software, and their efforts to combat this by installing software to prevent it.  The SPC does not explain why this should be an issue.

(Complaints about the operation of the SPC’s case database are heard worldwide, judging by comments made at a recent international academic conference on Chinese law at 40 years and other academic conferences.)  As a consequence many researchers use alternative providers that offer better search functions and loading times.  I understand that the SPC has met with some of these alternative providers, but frustrations with the official database continue.

Who writes the responses?

Most responses lack a specific author. Occasionally a response is published in the name of the SPC’s Research Office or Data Center.  The careful reader detects inconsistencies in the way that letters are answered, with some persons addressed as Comrade, others by name, while others by Mr./Ms.

A natural question for legal professionals to ask is about the legal authority of these responses, as some of these responses are republished on Wechat public accounts focusing on law or legal information websites.  The answer seems to be “it depends”.  One recent response to a question concerned the time limit for an administrative agency to apply to a court to enforce an administrative penalty or fine was given by the SPC’s Research Office.  The Research Office is the SPC’s “gatekeeper” for judicial interpretations and is involved in drafting or coordinating the drafting (depending on the topic) of judicial interpretations (an academic article stuck in the production pipeline will provide more details).  Although the response is not legally binding (unlike a judicial interpretation), a Research Office response is likely to be highly persuasive guidance.  It is one of many tools in the the SPC’s guidance toolbox.

 

SPC Updates its Guidance on Judicial (Adjudication) Committees

2016 meeting of SPC judicial committee, to which NPC, CPCC representatives, and certain experts were invited

On 22 September the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) updated its guidance to the lower courts on judicial committees (关于健全完善人民法院审判委员会工作机制的意见). (also translated as “adjudication committees”) (审判委员会). For those new to this blog, these committees are made up of certain senior members of a court, and they have special decision-making authority, as detailed below. They decide cases that are too difficult or important for an individual judge or judicial panel to decide, to ensure the optimal substantive result (as seen from the institutional perspective of the courts).

The document is a policy document (explained here), as indicated by its document number 法发〔2019〕20号). Lower courts (and the specialized courts) can issue further detailed guidance, have in the past and will do so.  In 2010 the SPC issued guidance on judicial committees (2010 guidance), which I analyzed in this article, Reforming-judicial-committees.  The article includes some insights from a number of judges with whom I spoke at the time.  Reforming judicial committees has been on the SPC’s agenda since the prior round of judicial reforms, as my 2014 blogpost discusses. I predicted that reform would occur “in the medium term.”  There are is a great deal of writing about judicial committees in English and especially in Chinese.  My 2014 blogpost links to some of the English language research, and other insights about how judicial committees work can be found in Embedded Courts, the prize-winning book by NG Kwai Hang and He Xin.

The broad consensus on judicial committee reform can be seen in Articles 36-39 of the Organic Law of the People’s Courts, as amended in 2018 (2018 People’s Courts Law), but the 2019 guidance sets out more detailed rules.

This blogpost will highlight some of the issues that come to mind in a quick review.

A quick list of what is new follows:

  • There are some changes in the format of SPC Opinions (意见) so that it is usual for them to begin with a list of basic principles.
  • As to be expected, Party leadership and related principles are listed at the top of both the 2019 and 2010 guidance.  Both stress upholding Party leadership of the work of the people’s courts, with the 2019 guidance referring to “upholding the Party’s absolute leadership over the work of the people’s courts.”  This should not at all be surprising, as the phrase has been used repeatedly since the 2019 Political-Legal Work Conference. The Party Regulations on Political-Legal Work use the phrase “Party’s absolute leadership.” As I mentioned earlier this year, Li Ling (of the University of Vienna) sees this as indicating a complete and unambivalent severance from the judicial independence framework.
  • On membership of judicial committees, The 2018 People’s Courts Law and the new guidance retain the old system of having the court president and vice-presidents, but no longer requires division heads (庭长) to be members, but refers to “experienced”(资深) judges and to the possibility of having full-time members.  The  SPC already does this.  Justices Hu Yunteng, Liu Guixiang, Pei Xianding, and He Xiaorong are full-time members of the judicial committee, which gives them a bureaucratic rank equivalent to being an SPC vice president, with attendant privileges. It is likely that the Central Staffing Commission regulates the number of persons who can be SPC vice presidents.  Judging by the SPC website, some SPC judicial committee members are not SPC Party Group members, although of course there is some overlap.
  • Another innovation in the 2018 People’s Courts Law, repeated in the 2019 guidance, is having specialized judicial committees, to focus on more specialized issues, and to deal with the problem of having non-specialist judges making decisions on issues regarding which they are not familiar.  This provision consolidates ongoing practice in both the SPC and lower courts  My understanding is that the Shenzhen Intermediate Court was one of the earlier courts to establish specialist judicial committees.  The roots of this innovation lie in the 2004-2008 Second Judicial Reform Five Year Plan Outline. (This also illustrates the time it takes for some judicial reforms to be adopted.)
  • On the functions of judicial committees, new language mentions “sensitive, major, and difficult cases such as those involving national security, diplomacy, or social stability.”  That language is new as compared to the 2010 guidance.  It is not new to the SPC, as it appears in the SPC’s 2017 judicial responsibility regulations, about which I wrote.  I surmise that this is just spelling out what had been the general practice.   Most of the other functions are consistent with previous guidance.
  • The operational language is more detailed than before and gives a glimpse into the bureaucratic nature of the Chinese court system ( a collegial panel or single judge who thinks a case should go to the judicial committee  “submit an application and report it up to the court president for approval level by level; and where an application is not submitted, but the court president finds it necessary, they may request that the adjudication committee deliberate and make a decision. The language enabling a court president to designate a case for judicial committee discussion likely represents a consolidation of practice, rather than something new.
  • Other procedures in the operational section are new, reflecting the new institution of the professional judges committee and much more specific requirements concerning the content of the report that the judges are required to prepare for the judicial committee, including arguments by both/all parties, prosecution/defense counsel and a clear listing of the issues on the application of law that require discussion and decision by the adjudication committee, the opinions of the professional (presiding) judges meeting. In a clear signal about how the SPC sees the importance of case research, it also requires judges preparing these reports to search for similar or related cases.
  • The 2019 guidance requires judicial committee members with a conflict to recuse themselves  (the language is unclear about whether a party can apply to do that).  This is new, and reflects many years of criticism of the failure to have a recusal mechanism.
  • The 2019 guidance also imposes a quorum requirement on judicial committee meetings, both the plenary and specialized committee meetings. Certain outsiders (people’s congress delegates, scholars, etc) may attend, as well as the chief procurator at the same level or his delegate (this latter provision is not new).
  • Decisions are made by at least half of the members attending and dissenting opinions must be recorded in the case file. It does not mention that dissenting opinions will be mentioned in the judgment issued to the parties and the public. As before, the decision of the judicial committee is binding on the judge or judges who heard the case (principle of democratic centralism).
  •  The 2018 People’s Court Law and new guidance require the decision and reasoning in cases discussed by the adjudication committee to be disclosed in the judgment documents unless the law provides otherwise, so a significant step forward in judicial committee transparency.  The lack of judicial committee transparency had been criticized for many years.
  • Judicial committees at all levels of the courts are now required to create an audio or visual recording of the entire process of judicial committee meetings and keep them confidential. Judicial committee proceedings are required to be incorporated in a court’s caseflow management system. It is not clear from the guidance who or which entity would have access.
  • Those not involved in judicial committee proceedings (outside leaders, senior judges not involved) are forbidden from involving themselves in judicial committee proceedings.  If this didn’t happen in practice, it wouldn’t have been included in this guidance.
  • Similarly, the language in the 2019 rules on judicial committee members and other maintaining confidentiality and work discipline, and not leaking trial work secrets (I discuss this in my article published earlier this year.  If this didn’t happen in practice, it wouldn’t have been included in this guidance.

Although for many years proposals have been made to abolish the judicial committee, I have rarely heard anyone who has worked in the Chinese judicial system agree with that proposal.  It seems more likely that the SPC thinking is maintaining the judicial committee system is appropriate for China at this time, given the level of professionalism nationwide, the need to share/avoid responsibility for making difficult decisions, and the greater political environment.  This guidance appears to be designed to deal with some of the abuses of the judicial committee system, have greater (but not complete) transparency, incorporate new court institutions, and generally improve how the committees operate.