Signals in Zhou Qiang’s 2017 report (Part 2)

This blogpost continues the analysis in Part 1, which analyzed the first several sections of Zhou Qiang’s work report to the National People’s Congress, concerning court caseload, social stability and criminal punishment, and the courts serving to maintain the economy.

Most people who have commented (outside of China) on Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang’s March, 2017 report to the National People’s Congress (NPC) didn’t have the patience to read (or listen) much beyond the initial section, which mentions the conviction of Zhou Shifeng as indicating that the courts are doing their part to crack down on state subversion.  It appears to be another in a series of colorless government reports.  But for those with the ability (or at least the patience) to decode this report, it provides insights into the Chinese courts, economy, and society.

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The report, which went through 34 drafts, is intended to send multiple signals to multiple institutions, particularly the political leadership, in the months before the 19th Party Congress.

According to a report on how the report was drafted, the drafting group (which communicated through a Wechat group to avoid time-consuming bureaucratic procedures) faced the issue of how to summarize the work of the People’s Court in 2016 correctly.  The guidance from President Zhou on the report–it must:

  1. fully embody the upholding of Party leadership, that court functions (审判职) must serve the Party and country’s overall situation;
  2. embody the new spirit of reform, showing the (positive) impact of judicial reform on the courts and show the ordinary people what they have gained;
  3. not avoid the mention of problems, but indicate that they can be resolved through reform.

Underneath these political principles, the operation of a court system with Chinese characteristics is visible.

Guaranteeing people’s livelihood rights & interests

The following section is entitled  “conscientiously implement people-centered development thinking, practically guarantee people’s livelihood rights and interests.” It summarizes what the courts have been doing in civil and administrative cases, but it also signals their perceived importance in this national report.

Civil cases

President Zhou Qiang noted that the Chinese courts heard 6,738,000 civil  (民事) cases, an increase of 8.2%.  Although he did not define what he meant by civil cases, under Chinese court practice, it refers to the type of cases under the jurisdiction of the #1 civil division (see this earlier blogpost):

  1. Real estate, property and construction;
  2. Family;
  3. Torts;
  4. Labor;
  5. Agriculture;
  6.  Consumer protection; and
  7. Private lending.

On labor cases, the report mentioned that the courts heard 473,000 labor cases. This is a slight decrease from 2015 (483,311) (although the report did not do a year on year comparison). The report signalled that the SPC is working on policy with the labor authorities on transferring cases from labor mediation, labor arbitration, to the courts. This was signaled previously in the SPC’s policy document on diversified dispute resolution.  Articles on both the SPC website and local court websites have signaled the increasing difficulty of labor disputes, and the increase in “mass disputes.”

As explained in this blogpost, labor service disputes, relate to an “independent contractor,” but more often a quasi-employment relationship, governed by the Contract Law and General Principles of Civil Law, under which the worker has minimal protections. This year’s report did not mention the number of labor service cases. In 2015, the Chinese courts heard 162,920 labor service cases, an increase of 38.69%.

There was no further breakdown on the number of other types of civil cases, such as private lending or real estate cases.  For these statistics, we will need to await any further release of big data by the SPC. As blogposts in recent months indicate, private lending disputes are on the rise in economically advanced provinces and bankruptcy of real estate developers remains a concern.

This section also mentions criminal proceedings against illegal vaccine sellers, although the topic may be more appropriately be placed with the rest of the criminal matters, but likely because it is an issue that drew widespread public attention.

Family law

Echoing language in recent government pronouncements, the section heading mentions protecting marriage and family harmony and stability. The report mentions that the courts heard 1,752,000 family law cases in 2016, with no year on year comparison with 2015.  The report mentions that the SPC has established pilot family courts (as previously flagged on this blog).

Administrative disputes

First instance administrative disputes totaled 225,000 cases, a 13.2% increase over 2015, but a tiny percentage of cases in the Chinese courts. The report highlights developments in Beijing and Shanghai (they are being implemented in Shenzhen, although not mentioned), to give one local court jurisdiction over administrative cases.  According to the statistics (in Beijing, at least), this has led to a sizeable increase in administrative cases.  The report also mentions the positive role that the courts can play in resolving condemnation disputes (this blogpost looked at problems in Liaoning).

Hong Kong/Macao/Overseas Chinese cases

As mentioned by Judge Zhang Yongjian, the report mentions that the courts heard 19,000 Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Overseas Chinese related cases, and handled 11,000 judicial assistance matters with the three greater China jurisdictions.  The report also mentions the recently signed arrangement between the SPC and Hong Kong judiciary on the mutual taking of evidence, a development that seems to have escaped the notice of the Hong Kong legal community.

Military related disputes

Unusually, the report mentioned that the local courts heard 1678 military-related cases and have developed systems for coordination between the civilian and military courts.  These developments have been analyzed further in a blogpost on the Global Military Justice Reform blog.

Strictly governing the courts and institutional oversight

The following two sections of the report give a report on how the courts are upholding Party leadership, increasing Party construction within the courts, internal Party political life, and political study, all of which are in line with recent developments. Although these are stressed, this does not mean that professional competence is less valued.  The increasing caseload,  higher expectations of litigants, particularly in commercial cases, and increasing technical complexity of cases means that the SPC is in fact taking measures to improving professional capacity of the courts.  This section also mentions courts and individual judges that have been praised by central authorities and 36 judges who have died of overwork.

On anti-corruption in the courts, the report mentions that 769 senior court officials have been held responsible for ineffective leadership, 220 have been punished for violations of the Party’s Eight Point Regulations. The SPC itself had 13 persons punished for violations of law and Party discipline (offenses unstated), 656 court officials were punished for abusing their authority, among whom 86 had their cases transferred to the procuratorate.

On institutional oversight, the report signals that the SPC actively accepts supervision by the NPC, provides them with reports, deals with their proposals, and invites them to trials and other court functions. On supervision by the procuratorate, the report revealed that the SPC and Supreme People’s Procuratorate are working on regulations on procuratorate supervision of civil and enforcement cases, a procedure sometimes abused by litigants.

2016 and 2017 judicial reforms

2016

On 2016 judicial reform accomplishments, the following were highlighted:

  1. circuit courts;
  2. case filing system;
  3. diverse dispute resolution;
  4. judicial responsibility;
  5. trial-centered criminal procedure system;
  6. separation of simple from complicated cases;
  7. people’s assessors‘ reform;
  8. greater judicial openness;
  9. more convenient courts;
  10. improving enforcement (enforcement cases were up 31.6% year on year), including using the social credit system to punish judgment debtors.

2017

The report mentions that among the targets for the courts is creating a good legal environment for the successful upcoming 19th Party Congress.  That is to be done through the following broad principles:

  1. using court functions to maintain stability and to promote development (for the most part mentioning the topics reviewed earlier in the report);
  2. better satisfying ordinary people’s demands for justice;
  3. implementing judicial reforms, especially those designated by the Party Center;
  4. creating “Smart” courts; and
  5. administering the courts strictly and improving judicial quality.

This last section mentions implementing recommendations required by the recent Central Inspection Group’s (CIG) inspection and Central policies applicable to all political-legal officials, before focusing on the importance of more professional courts, and improving the quality of courts in poor and national minority areas.

A few comments

It is clear from the above summary that the content of President Zhou Qiang’s report to the NPC is oriented to the upcoming 19th Party Congress and the latest Party policies. It appears that no new major judicial reform initiative will be announced this year.

It is likely too, that the selective release of 2016 judicial statistics in the NPC report also relates to messaging in line with the upcoming 19th Party Congress, although we know that the SPC intends to make better use of big data.  We can see that overall, the caseload of the courts is increasing rapidly, including institutionally difficult cases (such as bankruptcy and land condemnation), which put judges and courts under pressure from local officials and affected litigants. In the busiest courts, such as in Shanghai’s Pudong District, judges will be working extremely long hours to keep up with their caseload, and the impact of new legal developments. It appears (from both the report and the results of the CIG inspection) that judges will need to allocate more time to political study.  How this will play out remains to be seen. We may see a continuing brain drain from the courts, as we have seen in recent years.

 

How the Supreme People’s Court uses case law & other sources when it guides the lower courts

As my fellow blogger, Jeremy Daum and I have written, China’s guiding case system has captured the attention of the world outside of China, likely due to a combination of the special status accorded guiding cases by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and the impressive efforts of Stanford Law School’s China Guiding Cases Project.  One of the ways that the SPC supervises and guides the lower courts is by publishing handbooks to aid the lower courts in quickly determining the applicable legal rules in a system in which a comprehensive legal code is the ideal but not the reality. One of those handbooks is the set of books pictured above, the Collection of the Supreme People’s Court’s Judicial Rules  (Collection of Judicial Rules) (最高人民法院司法观点集成), published by the People’s Court Press, now in its 2nd edition. A closer look at the Collection of Judicial Rules provides insights into sources of law used by the SPC, and China’s evolving case law system, including the place of guiding cases

As described by Judge Liu Dequan, the general editor, the sources include;

  1. Judicial interpretations;
  2. the spirit of judicial policy (from the speeches of the SPC president and vice presidents responsible for the substantive area);
  3. responses (答复) issued by the various divisions of the SPC;
  4. opinions (意见), answers, (解答),trial case handling guidance (审判办案指南) research opinions of the research office (研究意见) and other guidance issued by the various divisions of the SPC and speeches given by the heads of those divisions at national court conferences (these blogposts summarized the takeaways from some court conferences);
  5. guiding cases, SPC cases, SPC bulletin cases.
  6. Supplemented by the principal views of SPC judges and writings of SPC judges.

Below are samples from one of the volumes on administrative law:

A party that disputes compulsory measures imposed by the family planing authorities to freeze property, limit personal freedom etc. can file administrative litigation (#22)

The response cites a 1996 judicial interpretation, supplemented by a selection from a book by Judge Jiang Bixin and Liang Fengyun,  that confirms that the courts may accept such cases.

The act of issuing a transcript and diploma by a higher education institution is within the scope of administrative litigation (#42)

The editors cite the 2014 administrative litigation trial case handling guidance and several SPC bulletin cases. The case guidance provides that when higher education institutions issue transcripts, diplomas, and expel students, they are acting under authority delegated by law, and so those are administrative acts which a party may challenge under administrative litigation law.

The editors then set out the bright line rule (要旨) set out in several SPC Bulletin cases: Tian Yong v. Beijing Science & Technology University (1999) (re-issued as guiding case #38) and Yang Baoxi v. Tianjin Clothing Technical School (2005);

Then they cite several administrative trial guiding cases, including Wu Huayu v. Central China Agricultural University.

If there is a conflict between laws, the hearing of the case must be suspended while a response to request for instructions is received from the SPC (#351)

The editors set out a 1996 response of the SPC (made after consultation with the State Council Legislative Affairs Office) to the Fujian Higher People’s Court concerning the exploitation of geothermal water resources.

The editors then set out a SPC Bulletin case, Fujian Hydropower Design Institute disputes an administrative penalty decision by the Provincial Land & Mining Department, summarizing the bright line rule (as above). The editors then supplement the cases with an excerpt from the publication by Judges Jiang Bixin and Liang Fengyun mentioned above.

Comments

The sources used by the SPC judges in compiling the handbook may (or may not) be surprising to a foreign observer–such as the speeches by court leaders and various types of responses by SPC divisions that have no publication requirement. These sources appear to reflect SPC practice and do not seem to be consolidated into some type of legal rules.  While the SPC’s transparency is far greater than before (especially for a person with historical perspective), there are still significant gaps that face lawyers, litigants, not to mention researchers.

The SPC sees its case law system (still evolving) as a supplement to judicial interpretations.  The drafting process for judicial interpretations is a slow one (take the example of the demand guarantee judicial interpretation).  It can easily take several years for an interpretation to be finalized, particularly in the area of civil and commercial law, because SPC judges working on these interpretations must take into account comments from a large variety of interested parties. The rules set out in judicial interpretations must be able to stand the test of time and adjustments to government policies.  Case law is seen as filling in the gaps.  But as can be seen from the excerpt from the handbook above, and recent comments by SPC Vice President Tao Kaiyuan, the 77 guiding cases, while having an anointed place in that case law system, are one part.  Justice Tao Kaiyuan’s comments also reveal that case law, including guiding cases, is seen as being useful for the drafting of judicial interpretations:

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.

Tao Kaiyuan pointed out that the Supreme People’s Court Intellectual Property Case Guidance Research (Beijing) base is creating a guidance system for intellectual property cases with SPC Guiding Cases, cases published in the SPC Bulletin and cases published by the SPC’s Case Research Institute [under the auspices of the National Judicial College], and issued model (typical) cases, are an interactive mutually complimentary whole (是相辅相成、互为补充、互联互动的整体). 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.

Year end 2016 judicial statistics that will be issued in President Zhou Qiang’s report to the National People’s Congress will document that the number of cases, particularly civil and commercial cases, in the Chinese courts continues to rise at a rate that far exceeds China’s GDP.  Case law, including guiding cases, is one source of legal rules that Chinese judges consider when dealing with those cases, whether deciding whether a case should be accepted, seeking to mediate a case, deciding a case, or enforcing a court judgment or ruling.

 

 

What China’s judicial reform white paper says about its vision for its judiciary

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Portrait of Qing dynasty inspector

Over one year has elapsed since the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has implemented the judicial reforms set out in the February, 2015 4th five year plan for reforming the judiciary.  While thousands of words have been written in Chinese and English, some praising,  criticizing, mocking, and bemoaning the reforms, it was only in late February, 2016 that the SPC issued a comprehensive official assessment, focusing on its achievements. That official assessment takes the form of a bilingual white paper (White Paper) issued in early March (but full text released on-line only in English), plus a section of President Zhou Qiang’s work report devoted to the judicial reforms, a first for the SPC.  I surmise that it was approved by the Judicial Reform Leading Group.

This blogpost looks at the vision for the Chinese judiciary that the White Paper conveys, by looking at several sections.

 

Chinese court system and the reform process

The description of the reform process in the first section of the White Paper tells us who/what is driving the reform process, the nature of the process, the core issues, and how the judicial reform process is being monitored.

Facts highlighted:

  • During 2014-2015,13 out of 19 plenary sessions held by the Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform involved judicial reform, where 27 judicial reform documents were adopted.
    • A partial list of those 27 documents is found here.
  • The Social System Reform Specialized Group (the Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform) is in charge of judicial reform;
  • The SPC has a leading group in charge of judicial reform, replicated at the provincial level, and any judicial reform plans piloted by them need to be approved by the SPC or above (the 4th Judicial Reform Five Year Plan states this).

According to this section, the four core judicial reform measures are:

  • improving the classified management of judicial personnel [treating judges differently from clerks and other support personnel and civil servants0;
  • the judicial accountability system [the lifetime responsibility system set out in regulations issued in September, 2015, but only implemented in areas piloting judicial reform, controversial among judge and academics];
  • professional protection of judicial personnel ;
  • unified management of personnel, funds and properties of local courts below the provincial level.

These four measures will be piloted throughout the country in several rounds before they are implemented nationwide.

Comments

From the description of the reforms we can see that the specific reforms discussed in the remainder of the report have been cleared by the Party leadership.  It seems reasonable to assume that each reform involved hundreds of hours of policy paper drafting by SPC staff and internal and cross-institutional discussions, and responses to comments during those discussions.

What the White Paper did not mention is that the Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform and the Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform established their own inspectorate for monitoring the progress of reform,including judicial reform, (reviving a traditional institution).  It is unclear which reforms will be targeted this year for inspection. The separate inspectorate seems to indicate that these Central Leading Groups want their  own source of information on how reforms are being implemented.

 

Judicial independence (Ensuring Independent and Impartial Exercise of Judicial Power Pursuant to Law)

One of the messages conveyed in this section is that local courts do not belong to local governments but are established by the State at the local level to exercise judicial power on behalf of the State. The goal as stated in this section, is to “form an institutional environment and social atmosphere that respects [the] judiciary, supports [the] judiciary and trusts [the] judiciary.”

It  lists about a dozen measures. What is new in this section:

  • a summary of the policy thinking on judicial appointments and funding of the local courts.  On judicial appointments, judges will be selected by judicial selection committee at the provincial level in terms of professionalism, and will be appointed and removed according to common standards. This is a push in the direction of professionalism, and away from the phenomenon noted in the past few years of having chief judges who lacked a legal education.  On the funding issue, the Central Government will fully guarantee the funding of the local courts. The provincial fiscal departments manage the funds of local courts below the provincial level, the local courts will submit their budgets to the provincial fiscal departments, and  budget funds will be appropriated by the centralized payment system of the national treasury.
  • Fuller discussion of cross-administrative district courts to hear administrative cases–piloted in Beijing and Shanghai and other locations, under the umbrella of a policy document of the SPC that has not been made public. The concept is to have cases against local governments heard outside of the area in which they arose.  The SPC recent policy document on the development of the greater Beijing area has further content in that area.

This section also discusses the following reforms, previously discussed: circuit courts; cross-administrative division courts; intellectual property courts (by Mark Cohen, chinipr.com); administrative cases being centralized in one court (Shenzhen is one of the pilot project venues); maritime courts; environmental protection divisions; official interference.

Improving the way the courts function ( Improving the Functional Mechanism of Adjudicative Powers)

The fourth section of the White Paper provides useful insights into how the judiciary is intended to operate post reform.  It starts out with a statement that judicial power is a judging power in essence and emphasizes impartiality, neutrality and personal experience.”

The focus on this section is on reforms to the way Chinese courts operate. As I have written previously, they have operated in many of the same ways that other Party and government organs operate.     This section describes pilot reforms, new policies, or regulations concerning the following (among others):

  • personnel reforms described above (but do not mention the pay rise that goes along with it in at least some courts);
  • senior judges within a court (court presidents, vice presidents, division chiefs) will no longer approve judgments, except for a small number going to the judicial committee);
  • senior judges will hear cases instead of concentrating solely on administrative matters;
  • courts will establish a specialized judges council made up of judges in specialized areas (criminal, civil, etc) to provide views to judges hearing cases on the interpretation of substantive issues, on an equal basis rather than seniority;
  • the SPC has abolished irrational performance indicators and forbidden senior judges from involving themselves in cases that they have not heard;
  • the SPC has issued policy guidance on the reform of judicial committees (not yet made public).  The principles set out follow generally what was described by President Zhou Qiang earlier, but include judicial committee discussion of “major and complicated cases concerning national diplomacy, security and social stability and those required by law.”  The guidance calls for more transparency (unclear whether to be within the court or greater), better record-keeping, and less involvement by judicial committees with specific cases. As discussed in an earlier blogpost, judicial committees have often been a route for transmitting the views of local officials and have been been implicated in some of the wrongful conviction cases);

    judicial committee

    judicial committee ©SPC

  • judicial responsibility/accountability system, mentioned above;
  • regulations on the jurisdiction of different levels of courts in civil cases (described in this blogpost).

These reforms look to do a number of things that are significant within strictures of the Chinese system: distinguish judges from other Party cadres and give them better status and pay; break down or reconstitute some of the basic internal structures of the courts that have facilitated corruption, unjust cases, and discouraged talented judges; abolish performance indicators that have been poisonous for judges and litigants alike.

 The vision

The vision that the SPC  has for the Chinese judiciary and judges can be seen from the description of the reforms above.  The SPC intends to create a more professional judiciary (with a lower headcount), that is better paid, more competent, has performance indicators that look more like other jurisdictions, with an identity and operating mechanisms separate from other Party/government organs, that will be more autonomous, no longer under the thumb of local authorities, but operates within the big tent of Party policy.  To be incorporated in the judicial reforms, the implications of each measure must have been thoroughly discussed by the Party leadership and the Party leadership is using its own institutions to monitor results.  Will the judicial reforms achieve their goal of making people feel justice in every case?  For that, the jury (or is it the people’s assessors(also being reformed)?) is still out.

Data from the Supreme People’s Court on administrative cases

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 6.46.11 PMWith the amendment of the Administrative Litigation Law and implementation of the case registration system in 2015, the number of administrative cases accepted by the Chinese court increased by 55%, to 299,765. The statistics provided only give a very partial picture of the distribution of cases. A search of cases for this post revealed that generally the decision of the government agency was upheld. This blogpost omits information on trademark cases because those are covered by the chinaipr.com blog.

Cases challenging city planning, condemnation, real estate registration: 35,726 cases, up 59%.  While the total number of cases upholding the government decision isn’t given, in most of the cases searched, the individual was unsuccessful, such as this one from Ningxia.

Cases challenging decisions by the public security authorities totalled 24,974 cases, up 72%.  China’s public security authorities exercise a broad scope of authority, including minor offenses that would be misdemeanor offenses in many other jurisdictions.    A quick search of the SPC database reveals many cases in which petitioners have challenged administrative punishments:

 Cases brought in various provinces, challenging the authority of the local public security authorities to impose administrative penalties on people for petitioning near Zhongnanhai, where state leaders live: in Jiangsu, a man sought a retrial in his challenge to the authority of the Yizheng (Jiangsu) public security;  in Shandong, a similar (unsuccessful challenge), as well as Hubei.

Challenges to family planning authority decisions or claims against that authority totalled 2188, down 56%. One of those was a case in Chongqing, involving a man claiming against the family planning authorities for surgery gone wrong.