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.

 

Signals in Zhou Qiang’s 2017 NPC Report (Part 1)

Most people who have commented (outside of China) on Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang’s March, 2017 report (on 2016 work) 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.

A partial decoding of the report reveals the points listed below (to be continued in Part 2).

1. Caseload on the rise

The caseload in the Chinese courts continues to rise significantly, at the same time that headcount in the courts is being reduced.  Diversified dispute resolution (the jargon outside of China is alternative dispute resolution) is being stressed.

  • SPC itself is dealing with a massive increase in its cases, 42.6% higher than 2016, and that number was significantly higher than 2015.
    Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 4.07.25 PM.png

    2016, SPC cases accepted 22,742, up 42.3%, concluded 20151, 42.6%, Circuit Cts #1 & 2 accepted 4721 cases in last 2 yrs, resolved 4573 cases

     

The statistics on the SPC’s caseload are not broken down further, but are understood to be mostly civil, commercial, and administrative.  It appears from a search of one of the case databases that not all of the SPC judgments or rulings have been published (a search of one of the judgment databases showed 6600+, and only some of the death penalty approvals). It seems also that the database does not include SPC cases such as the judicial review of certain foreign and foreign-related arbitration awards.

Although the report does not focus on the reasons for the massive increase in SPC cases, careful observation reveals the following reasons:

  • establishment of the circuit courts, hearing more cases and ruling on applications for retrials;
  • increase in the number of civil and commercial cases with large amounts in dispute;
  • SPC itself has implemented the case registration system; and
  • changes in law giving litigants rights where none previously existed.

The report also mentioned that 29 judicial interpretations were issued (some analyzed on this blog) and that 21 guiding cases were issued.  Model cases and judicial policy documents were not separately set out, although some were listed in the appendix to the SPC report distributed to delegates.

Lower courts

23,030,000 cases accepted by lower courts, up 18%, cases resolved, 19,773,000; amounts in dispute up 23%

The pie chart below sets out the statistical distribution of cases heard by the Chinese courts:

 

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 9.59.06 PMThe pie chart of cases heard, enforced and closed in 2016 shows:

  • about 60% of those cases were civil, commercial, or intellectual property cases;
  • 6.41% criminal cases,
  • 3.40% parole, sentence reduction cases;
  • almost 26% enforcement cases,
  • .03% state compensation cases,
  • petition or application for retrial, .91%;
  • and 1.66% administrative cases.

Although the stress in Zhou Qiang’s report is placed on law and order, in fact many more cases in the Chinese courts are civil and commercial rather than criminal.

2. Social stability, public order, law & order are major concerns

Criminal cases have a prominent place in the report, although the data reveals a slight increase in the number of cases  (1.5%), involving the conviction of 1,220,000 people, down 1%. (Note that many minor offenses are punished by the police, with no court procedures).

Although the report mentioned the Zhou Shifeng case (state security) and criminal punishment of terrorist and cult crimes, it did not release statistics on the number of cases of any of these crimes heard.  Corruption cases totaled 45,000 cases, involving 63,000 persons.  Violent crimes (murder, robbery, theft) cases 226,000. Drug cases: 118,000, a significant decrease from 2015. 2016 cases of human trafficking and  sexual assault on women and children totaled 5335, while telecommunications fraud cases in 2016 totaled 1726.  Only 213 cases involving schoolyard bullying were heard and the SPC revealed that the drafting of a judicial interpretation on the subject is underway. The report highlighted some of the well-known criminal cases, including the insider trading case against Xu Xiang and the Kuai Bo obscenity cases to illustrate and criminal law-related judicial interpretations to signal that the courts are serving policy needs in punishing crime.

The same section described what has been done in 2016 to correct mistaken cases, highlighting the Nie Shubin case (reheard by Judge Hu Yuteng and colleagues) as an example.  The report revealed that the local courts retried only 1376 criminal petition cases, likely a tiny fraction of the criminal petitions submitted.

3. Maintain economic development

As President Zhou Qiang indicated, the way that the Chinese courts operate is Party/government policy-driven (they must serve the greater situation). Serving the greater situation meant, in 2016, that the Chinese courts heard 4,026,000 first instance commercial cases, a 20.3% increase year on year.  He also mentioned the 3373 bankruptcy cases analyzed in an earlier blogpost. Of those 4 million commercial cases, 1,248,000 involved securities, futures, insurance, and commercial paper and 255,000 real estate cases and 318,000 rural land disputes. Other implications are discussed below.

This section of the report devoted a paragraph to a topic discussed last year on this blog: the courts serving major government strategies, including One Belt One Road, the Yangtze River Belt, and Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei coordinated development.

Green development , intellectual property (IPR), property rights (of private entrepreneurs), serving maritime and major country strategy, socialist core values, judicial solutions to new problems and cross-border assistance also merited mention in this section.

  1. The courts heard 133,000 environmental and natural resources cases, with Fujian, Jiangxi and Guizhou courts designated as experimental environmental courts.  While public interest environmental and procuratorate brought (environmental) cases were mentioned, statistics were not set out.
  2. First instance IPR cases totaled 147,000, with several cities (Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuhan, and Chengdu) establishing IPR divisions to take cases across administrative boundaries. This section mentioned the Jordan trademark case and the IPR courts.
  3. On protection of property rights, the report mentioned some of the documents intended to protect private entrepreneurs discussed on this blog, as well as 10 model cases.
  4. On maritime and cross-border cases, the report mentions the judicial interpretations on maritime jurisdiction (discussed in this blogpost), intended to support the government’s maritime policy, including in the South China Sea.  The Chinese courts heard only 6899 commercial cases involving foreign parties (this means that of the 2016 19,200 civil and commercial cases mentioned by Judge Zhang Yongjian, most must have been civil) and 16,000 maritime cases. The report again mentions making China a maritime judicial center, further explained in my 2016 article.
  5. On the relevance of socialist core values to the courts, that is meant to incorporate socialist core values into law (although they should be understood to have always to be there) and to give the Langya Heroes special protection under China’s evolving defamation law.
  6. Judicial solutions to new issues included internet related issues, including e-commerce cases, internet finance cases, and theft of mobile data; the first surrogacy case, and judicial recommendations to Party and government organizations.
  7. In the section on international cooperation, President Zhou Qiang revealed that fewer than 3000 cases involving mutual judicial assistance were handled. The bureaucratic and lengthy procedures for judicial assistance in commercial cases has long been an issue for lawyers and other legal professional outside of China.  This is likely to change (in the long run, as Chinese courts increasingly seek to obtain evidence from abroad).  US-China dialogue on bankruptcy issues and cooperation with One Belt One Road countries (cases involving these countries are increasing significantly), were also mentioned here.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Supreme People’s Court releases 2016 bankruptcy data

7427ea09324917a26ee719The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued 2016 data on bankruptcy cases on 24 February: 5665 cases were accepted by the Chinese courts while 3602 were closed.  This is up substantially from 2015, when 3568 cases were accepted.  This is an increase of 53.8% over 2015.   Of these, 1041 were bankruptcy reorganization cases, up 85.2% over 2015. As this blog has previously reported,  long delays in filing bankruptcy cases have meant that practically all bankruptcy cases have been liquidation rather than reorganization cases. This is contrast to the downward trend in bankruptcy cases 2005-2014, shown in the graph published on this earlier blogpost. These numbers represent only a tiny proportion of what the Chinese government terms “zombie enterprises,” but it does show that the SPC has been doing its part to serve the nation’s major economic strategies.

What has the SPC done to support this important government strategy highlighted in the 5th Plenum?  In reverse chronological order, a quick list of some of the highlights:

  1. In February, 2017, the SPC issued guidance  to the lower courts on transferring cases that are in debt enforcement proceedings into bankruptcy, so that bankruptcy reorganization has a chance of working. Justice Du had flagged the importance of this a year ago. The Zhejiang Higher People’s Court piloted measures because the courts of that province are piloting bankruptcy reforms. As reported in a December, 2016 blogpost, close to half (40-50%) of the unsatisfied enforcement cases are ones that are wholly unsatisfied, with a goodly portion involving corporate judgment debtors. Judge Du pointed out that unsatisfied judgments because of local protectionism have led to conflicts between creditors and “fierce” conflicts between courts. He called for courts not to engage in “buck passing” on enforcement cases that are transferred to another court for bankruptcy procedures.
  2. In December, 2016, the SPC and lower court judges (as well as Chinese bankruptcy practitioners and scholars) were involved in dialogue with American bankruptcy judges and practitioners on bankruptcy issues, under the framework of US Department of Commerce initiative
  3. On 1 August 216, launched a bankruptcy electronic information platform  (it harmonizes with President Zhou Qiang’s promotion of information technology in the Chinese courts). According to the SPC’s press release, close to 9000 cases are in the database. The platform has assembled relevant documents on some high profile cases, such as Dongbei Special Steel. This platform has received a good market response with 9,760,000 page views as of early February, 2017 (likely to be primarily bankruptcy professionals).
  4. In June, 2016, as this blog has reported earlier, the SPC has required lower courts to establish specialized bankruptcy divisions (4 on the provincial level, 47 intermediate courts, and 22 basic level courts).  One of the aims of the SPC is to create a corps of more competent judges to handle bankruptcy cases. Given the link between the bankruptcy of large state owned enterprises and social stability highlighted by judges writing on this topic previously, serving as a bankruptcy judge in China requires a set of skills unneeded in other jurisdictions.
  5. As more and more companies go into bankruptcy, (as highlighted in this blogpost), more labor litigation can be expected. Senior SPC judges have highlighted that people are increasingly aware of their rights. Those with the means are going to court to try to protect them. The SPC is likely to work on technical issues highlighted in the report such as: how to characterize labor claims in bankruptcy, and whether they should be treated as labor disputes or claims against the bankruptcy estate; whether labor disputes needed to be submitted first to labor arbitration; how the courts can better obtain files from labor arbitration authorities and can ensure labor disputes are addressed and not avoided; and how to ensure that bankrupt enterprises pay social insurance payments for their employees.
  6. Expect to see the SPC focus on bankruptcies (or reorganization) in important areas of the Chinese economy, such as real estate.  This analysis published by a member of the Shanghai Bar Association highlighted some of the complex interests relating to the bankruptcy reorganization of real estate companies : is it practicable;  the workers; the lender, who are often private (shadow) lenders; the individual purchasers. These cases generally involve a string of companies.

Supreme People’s Court & big data

On 22 December, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) posted four big data reports drafted jointly by its Information Center and the Judicial Cases Research Center (affiliated with the National Judicial College).

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The bar chart above, from the divorce report, shows the number of divorce cases heard in the courts in 2014-September, 2016, stating that the 2016 cases have increased almost 11% over the same time the year before. A subsequent chart shows that domestic violence as the cause for divorce in 27.8% of cases.screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-7-11-32-am

The reports appear to be products of the recently established SPC big data company.  The analysis in the reports is restricted to bullet points, rather the more detailed analytical reports that are found on the websites/Wechat public accounts of courts and lawyers.  (Suggestion to (any) readers from the SPC–  translations of these reports would be a useful addition to the English version of the SPC’s website).

Anyone looking for more than current statistics and basic analysis is advised to search for more detailed analysis done by law firms, local courts, some of the legal media companies, and some of the other divisions of the SPC.  On the topic of divorce, for example, an SPC judge published this analysis earlier this year, generally considered to be the most authoritative summary of the issues in Chinese divorce law.

The 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan (Court Reform Plan) flagged the SPC’s big data company and the stress that the SPC is placing on big data:

22. Deepen reforms of judicial statistics.Reform mechanisms for judicial statistics with the idea of “big data, big picture, and big service” as a guide; make a system of standards for judicial statistics that has scientific classifications and complete information, gradually building a model for analysis of empirical evidence that complies with the reality of judicial practice and judicial rules, and establish a national archive of court judgment opinions and a national center for big data on judicial information. (translation from @Chinalawtranslate)

The Court Reform Plan signals that the stress is on judicial statistics and using big data for internal use rather than for public access, as “complete information” is not provided to the public, with death penalty statistics the best-known example. Although judicial transparency is greater before (especially for those of us with a historical perspective), from time to time SPC media sources reiterate that judicial personnel are required to keep state secrets (as the Judges Law and other legislation require).

At the moment, transparency of judicial statistics and analysis varies greatly across provinces. Jiangsu Province’s high court, for example, has judicial statistics on its homepage:screen-shot-2016-12-26-at-9-27-32-pm

Many law firms publish big data analysis of specific types of cases in their area of practice, such as this analysis of credit card fraud cases in Guangzhou (22% of the defendants were represented by counsel) and drug cases in Guangzhou (less than 15% represented by counsel). An analysis of drug cases in Guangdong (Jieyang, a center for the  methamphetamine business) by the local court, has important insights into the routinization of criminal justice, the inadequacy of court judgments, and the way that the trial itself and the role of defense counsel (if hired) is marginalized.

Big data analyses can be found in a range of substantive areas, ranging from finance disputes to construction disputes, some by law firms and others by local courts.  My fellow blogger, Mark Cohen, recently highlighted the data analysis provided by IPHouse, a firm started by a former SIPO Commissioner.  They are useful to the lawyer/in-house counsel planning or considering litigation strategy, as well as for policy-makers and academics. Each provides a glimpse of how (and sometimes why)  the Chinese legal system works as it does.

 

Updated data on Chinese bankruptcy law

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Senior Shanghai Maritime Court judges participating in video conference 

Senior Judge Du Wanhua, tasked with making Chinese bankruptcy and corporate restructuring law work better (see these earlier blogposts), spoke recently on a video conference held by the Chinese courts, where he released a few points of big data on Chinese bankruptcy law and highlighted (in this version) current and forthcoming court policy on bankruptcy.  The data he released can be expected to be part of the conversation when the 21st US-China [or China-US, depending on your perspective] Legal Exchange takes place in Beijing and Shanghai on 13 and 15 December 2016 on bankruptcy law.

The video conference concerned one of the vexed issues of Chinese bankruptcy law, how to transfer cases from enforcement to bankruptcy proceedings, but Du Wanhua’s talking points as released were more general. Some of his points are highlighted below.

Updated data on bankruptcy cases

The Chinese courts have accepted 3463 bankruptcy cases through October of this year, up almost 30% year on year, of which 2249 have been closed, up almost 60%.  At the same time, the business registration authorities (the State Administration of Industry and Commerce (SAIC) and local counterparts), have cancelled the registration of 396,000 companies.

Transitioning from enforcement to bankruptcy procedures

Judge Du revealed that close to half (40-50%) of the unsatisfied enforcement cases  are ones that are wholly unsatisfied, with a goodly portion involving corporate judgment debtors. (As mentioned in earlier blogposts, there is no procedure to transfer cases from enforcement procedures to bankruptcy). Judge Du mentioned that the SPC had already drafted guidance which have been discussed by the SPC’s Judicial Committee and would be issued soon. He noted that unsatisfied judgments because of local protectionism have led to conflicts between creditors and  “fierce” conflicts between courts. He called for courts not to engage in “buck passing” on enforcement cases that are transferred to another court for bankruptcy procedures.

Establish coordination system for bankruptcy cases

Echoing themes in earlier statements by Judge Du and others in the Chinese courts, he calls for localities to establish a unified coordination mechanism for enterprise bankruptcy work, with government and courts, under Party Committee leadership, to plan state asset protection, safeguarding of financial safety, resettlement and reemployment of workers, and for the bankruptcy of non-state owned enterprises to proceed smoothly.

Will this coordination system improve matters?  The jury is still out.

 

Big data on China’s case database

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 12.13.38 PMThe Supreme People’s Court (SPC) database, China Judgments Online, receives good marks from most commentators inside and outside of China and it is one of the successes of the judicial reforms that President Zhou Qiang often discusses with visiting foreign guests as well as domestic officials.  Only now has a team of researchers from Peking University drilled down on the case database (but only through 2014, because the data was not complete for 2015) (short version found here and full version here). They found that there is room for improvement.

The researchers found that only about 50% of number of cases resolved in the Chinese courts (about 30.5 million during 2014-2015) have been uploaded to the case database (14.5 million).

Level and type of case

Almost 80% of the cases uploaded are from the basic level courts, with intermediate level courts accounting from almost 19%, and fewer than 1% from the SPC.

Approximately 63% of the cases are civil, with 20% criminal, enforcement 15%, and administrative cases less than 4%. 

Are courts uploading cases to the database consistently?

 

 

screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-11-47-39-pm

Geographic distribution of uploaded judgments

 

The map above is based on an analysis of 2014 data.  Shaanxi, Zhejiang, Shandong, Anhui, and Hebei provinces were the best performers, particularly Shaanxi; Henan, Fujian, Hunan, Hubei, Guangxi, and Ningxia were in the second tier, uploading at least half.  The less transparent courts include Tibet, Xinjiang, and Guizhou.

[I personally expected that Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Guangdong would be more transparent.]

Are cases uploaded consistently throughout the year?

At least in 2014, there was a half year and year end rush to upload cases.  It appears that the uploading of cases is one of the items for judges performance appraisal.

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-3-51-01-pm

Issues cited

  • More than half of judicial documents have not been uploaded to the database, including judgments in some of the more controversial cases.
  • Technical issues complicate the uploading process.  Because the courts are administered locally, the IT systems are local as well.
  • The regulations set out vague standards for taking down a judgment/ruling. When objections are made, the cases are taken down with little review. [As I have commented in relation to streaming of court cases, the absence of privacy legislation is an issue, because judges lack specific guidance on what information is regarded as private.]
  • Large gaps exist between the coastal and inland provinces in uploading judgments, with long delays an issue as well, although the regulations require judgments to be uploaded 7 business days after they take effect (this provision is unchanged from the 2013 version).
  • Monitoring of the database is an issue.  The SPC has been stressing the quantity of judgments uploaded, while insufficient attention is paid to quality.  [This may have something to do with tendency of some Chinese academics to focus on theory or comparisons among jurisdictions, rather than engage in a more focused study on what their own court system is actually doing.]

Comment

The Chinese government has allocated  USD $40 billion to the Silk Road Fund associated with the One Belt One Road strategic initiative, to improve infrastructure overseas.  China’s judiciary, an important part of the nation’s legal infrastructure, requires better funding as well.  Even a tiny percentage of that $40 billion would go far to contribute to improve courts’ IT infrastructure, not to mention improved salaries, and the retention of the research departments of local courts.

Investment in the courts is needed to bolster the Chinese (not to mention foreign) public’s confidence in the Chinese courts’ ability to provide a better quality of justice.

As my law school classmate, Justice John Roberts, said several years ago, when confronted by budget cuts to the US federal judiciary:

At the top of my list is a year-end report that must once again dwell on the need to
provide adequate funding for the Judiciary.I would like to choose a fresher topic, but duty calls. The budget remains the single most important issue facing the courts….

The Judiciary continues to depend on the vision and statesmanship of our colleagues in the Executive and Legislative Departments. It takes no imagination to see that
failing to meet the Judiciary’s essential requirements undermines the
public’s confidence in all three branches of government. Both A Christmas
Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life have happy endings. We are encouraged
that the story of funding for the Federal Judiciary—though perhaps not as
gripping a tale—will too.