All posts by Supreme People's Court Monitor

Susan Finder has been observing the PRC Supreme People's Court for over 20 years, and was the first person to engage in a close analysis of its operations. She taught Chinese law and other subjects in the Law Department of the City University of Hong Kong, before putting her knowledge to work in the China practice group of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, one of the first international law firms to recognize the importance of the China market. She had the good fortune to study with three of the early pioneers of Chinese legal studies: Jerome Cohen, R. Randle Edwards, and Stanley Lubman and to have many leading practitioners and legal academics among her classmates at Harvard Law School (J.D.) and Columbia Law School (LL.M). Susan Finder speaks and reads (Mandarin) Chinese and Russian and some German.

The Supreme People’s Court: Interpretations of Law as a form of Official Document (公文)

This post explains why:

  • the Supreme People’s Court (Court) releases normative documents  inconsistent with the law and its own definition of “judicial interpretations;”
  • the Court issues normative documents that guide the judiciary in deciding cases but that are not publicly released;
  • the Court issues normative documents with government organs that are not authorized to issue judicial interpretations.

The explanation is based on recently issued Court regulations.

The practical implications of these phenomena depend on your role.  For those in policy roles, rule of law work, diplomatic or governmental role with the Chinese judiciary, or those otherwise those involved in dispute resolution strategy in China, it is critically important, because it explains why China has a system of non-public normative documents guiding judges in deciding cases. It is not a mode of operation beneficial for domestic or foreign litigants and their counsel.

Official documents—the key concept

The key to understanding how the Court treats interpretations of law is the recently issued Measures for Handling Official Documents of the People’s Courts (Court Official Documents Measures, linked here) (人民法院公文处理办法)。 They replace 1996 regulations on the same subject.

What are the Court Official Documents Measures?

 The Court reissued the Official Documents Measures at the end of 2012  because the Communist Party and State Council General Offices re-issued the Regulations on the Work of Handling Official Documents of the Party and Government (Party and Government Official Documents Measures) (党政机关公文处理工作条例).[2]  The Court Official Documents Measures state that they were drafted with reference to the Party and Government Official Documents Measures and a comparison of both reveals that the Court Official Documents Measures reveal are an iteration of those Official Documents Measures for the court system.

What do the Court Official Documents Measures do?

The Court Official Documents Measures define “court official documents” as “official documents of the people’s courts which are formed in the course of trials and enforcement and judicial administrative operations which have special effect and have a special form.”   (This definition is close to that in the Party and Government Official Documents Measures.) The definition further states:

“court official documents are important tools in transmitting the Party line, direction, and policy, implementing state law, issuing judicial interpretations…”

What are interpretations of law?

As for interpretations of law, the Court Official Documents Measures state:

“litigation documents, judicial interpretations and others are special legal official documents of the people’s courts which should be handled according to relevant provisions of law, regulations and judicial interpretations.”

This means that the Court regards judicial interpretations as “special legal official documents” (特定法律公文) of the courts.

Although the Chinese constitution vests the power to interpret  law with the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, a 1981 decision by that same organization delegated to the Court the authority to interpret law relating to questions involving the specific application of laws and decrees in court trials, while the Supreme People’s Procuratorate was delegated authority to interpret law relating to questions involving the specific application of laws and decrees in procuratorial work.  The Organic Law of the People’s Courts re-iterates the delegation of authority to interpret law to the Court.  Interpretations by both organizations are known as “judicial interpretations.”  In 2007, the Supreme People’s Court issued regulations on judicial interpretations (linked here)  limiting judicial interpretations to the following four types:

  • “interpretation” (解释); (a set of legal rules in a specific area of law, unrelated to a specific case);
  • “provision”(规定)  (often similar to court rules);
  • “reply” (批复)(a reply to a “request for instructions” from a lower court relating to a specific case); and
  • “decision”(决定) (a document abolishing or amending existing judicial interpretations).

Those 2007  regulations also mention judicial interpretations may be jointly issued by the Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and requires that judicial interpretations be made public. These regulations also provide that judges may cite judicial interpretations as the basis for a court decision or ruling.

However, a review of the Gazette of the Supreme People’s Court, the official website of the Court, and lists of superseded judicial interpretations and judicial documents reveals the following phenomena:

  • a category of documents labelled “judicial documents” exists (a term not defined);
  • documents that the Court issues with administrative organs, such as the Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of Justice are published under that classification and contain normative provisions;
  • documents such as “conference summaries”(纪要) and “opinions” (意见) that are classified as types of official documents are also published under that classification or elsewhere on the Court website, and seem to have normative provisions, because many of which contain language that the lower courts should “implement their provisions” or “use them as guidance.”

Some of these normative documents address new issues or phenomena where the Court is of the view that the law is not settled enough for judicial interpretations.  Other normative documents have a more overtly political purpose and are more closely related to current Party policy.

However, there is no requirement in the Court Official Documents Measures that all Court normative documents be made public, although the Measures designate two forms of official documents as ones that will be released both domestically and internationally, either broadly or for limited circulation.  The Measures refer to the secrecy classification and secrecy level of court official documents and how those should be handled.  Moreover, an Internet search reveals that some Court official documents such as “conference summaries” which were never officially published have made their way into the public domain through unofficial sources such as law firm websites and blogs. (linked here)

What does this mean?

It means that judicial interpretations are considered by the Court to be a type of official document but that the courts often rely on official documents that are not “judicial interpretations” in deciding cases, in addition to the law and existing judicial interpretations, although (according to former judges), it will not be apparent from the face of the judgment or ruling.   However, there is no requirement that these normative documents be made public.

Some of these normative documents may be ones that the Court issues with administrative organs (for example the Ministry of Public Security) (although such documents do not fit the definition of “judicial interpretation”).  The rationale for this practice is that officials of the administrative organ involved will comply only if their administrative organ jointly issues it with the Court and requires compliance of its subordinates.

It means that there is no assurance for any party, domestic or foreign, corporate or individual, that the legal rules on which the court has relied in his case have been made known to him.   It is not an issue in every case, of course, but is more likely in new or sensitive areas.

This is an area for the new Court president to turn his attention, and for foreign and international institutions to encourage the Court to make positive changes to implement regulations requiring the publication of all normative documents.

The Supreme People’s Court and the Interpretation of Law

This post that focuses on the Supreme People’s Court’s (Court) authority to interpret law. My intent is to avoid the quicksand of academic discussion on the topic, which has run for over 20 years in Chinese, English, and other languages and focus instead, on what the Court is doing. This topic also gives me an opportunity to provide a historical perspective, because I examined this topic in detail 20 years ago.
This seemingly theoretical topic is relevant to the work of a broad range of people (among others);
• Lawyers reviewing memoranda from their China-based lawyers;
• Journalists;
• Consular officials stationed in China;
• Regulatory officials who are charged with monitoring exports from China; an
• Foreign and international judicial officials charged with international judicial assistance; and
• Arbitrators in cases involving Chinese law.
These posts will explain (with some historical perspective):
• Why Court interpretations are important;
• Important functions of Court interpretations;
• What they look like;
• The Court’s legal basis for issuing them;
• On-going issues (and suggestions for reform).

Why are they important?
Court interpretations are an important source of legal rules in China, particularly for the courts, and have been for most of the history of the PRC. The number of client alerts by major international law firms is testimony to their importance to the international commercial world, but the Court interprets on many other areas of law of critical importance to ordinary Chinese citizens and the domestic economy. In the last 6 months, Court interpretations in the following areas have achieved international prominence include:
• Labor (employment) law;
• Conflicts of law (private international law);
• Civil trademark disputes and
• Criminal bribery.
Many other interpretations have missed the glare of international scrutiny , although they are significant for the substantive or procedural area involved (as well as the persons affected).
Some important functions of Court interpretations
Among the important functions of Court interpretations are to:
• supply missing definitions;
• supply missing concepts;
• set out missing procedures;
• embody political policy as relevant to the court system;
• refine the discretion of the lower courts; and
• generally fill in the gaping holes or glitches in Chinese legislation.
The Chinese judiciary and legal system would be unable to function without them.
It is an area of Court operation where the Court has changed what it does, for the better, particularly in comparison to 20 years ago. Subsequent posts will also explain what “better” is but also point out some “areas of concern.”

The Supreme People’s Court: Reforming the Chinese courts the Party Way

On April 8, 2013, the Supreme People’s Court announced that its Communist Party (Party) Committee was implementing an  “educational movement to improve judicial work style” (judicial work style movement)  in the second quarter of 2013. Zhou Qiang, the newly appointed president of the Supreme People’s Court, is also the head of its Party Committee.

This clunkily named announcement, written in densely packed Party jargon, is has critical implications for the Chinese court system and all those affected by it, domestic and foreign.  Unpacking the announcement requires a Chinese political jargon decoder and a strong cup of coffee.

This posting will explain why the announcement is so important by highlighting:

  • The meaning of an “educational movement” and “judicial work style.”
  • The impetus for the movement.
  • The goals of the movement.
  • How will it be done?
  • What are its implications?

What is an “educational movement” and  “judicial work style”?

Both phrases are frequently used in Chinese political jargon.

  • An “educational movement”  refers to a political initiative with both educational and punitive aspects, focused on correcting certain ways of thinking while “work style” means the standards of conduct of officials.
  • Work style issues cover a broad range of activity, from deciding cases to womanizing, to luxurious banquets.

Impetus for the movement:

At the 18th Party Congress, the Communist Party leadership identified “judicial credibility” (司法公信力) as a critical area for improvement because of its political implications, particularly the profound loss of confidence in the ability of the Chinese judiciary to provide competent and fair justice.  This was symbolized by the vote  by 20% of National People’s Congress deputies against the Work Report of the Supreme People’s Court.

Goals of the movement:

As announced by the Court’s Party Committee, this education movement has the following goals:

  • Implement the ideal that justice is for the people, so that litigants will not feel they are despised;
  • Decide cases according to law, so that litigants will feel that justice has been done;
  • Improve judicial responsibility, so that judicial laziness, delays, indifference, arbitrariness, failure to hear both sides, and gross errors are avoided.
  • Improve judicial self-discipline and establish a clean judiciary, stop cases decided by money, connections, and sympathies.

Implementing the movement

The Court has called on the lower courts to implement the movement by the following:

  • Study relevant Party and Court documents;
  • Have court leadership take responsibility for implementing the required measures;
  • Implement appropriate internal systems to avoid conflicts of interests, institute training and monitoring programs;
  • Analyze issues in each local court, taking account of the views of various parts of society, identify the weak spots in the judicial system and evolve effective means to deal with them;
  • Use good and bad examples, including instances of judicial irresponsibility and other judicial action that harms judicial prestige;
  • Stop major abuses in the courts, such as taking gifts and money, using court vehicles for private business, using judicial posts to engage in business, and lavish eating and entertainment at public expense.  Violators should be exposed, ordered to change, and if they do not, be dealt with.

What does this educational movement mean?

The implementation of this “educational movement” means that Party leadership recognizes that corruption and abuses in the court system are causing dissatisfaction and resentment among a substantial number of Chinese citizens, including among the political and business elite, and the leadership has called on the new Court leadership to do something about it. The Court leadership recognizes (more than any outside observer) that the Chinese judiciary often delivers a poor quality of justice, but that the issues are different in different parts of the country and even within the same city or province.

What may result from this “educational movement”?

  • Expect a spate of judicial scandals to hit the Chinese media and blogosphere.
  • Behind the scenes there may be a pushback from lower court judges, who feel they cannot make ends meet if they are honest.
  • Expect greater engagement between the Supreme People’s Court and the outside legal world, including greater dialogue between the courts and other parts of the legal profession in China, such as lawyers and academics in evolving reforms.  President Zhou Qiang has led the way by holding a meeting with leading academics and lawyers in late April.
  • Because this educational movement does not deal with the structural issues that have created the conditions under which judicial abuses flourish, expect incremental institutional changes to be gradually rolled out in the next few years.