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.

 

 

Supreme People’s Court Gazette enters the 21st century

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landing page for the SPC Gazette’s electronic platform

Recently the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) took another step in making its Gazette accessible to a mass audience, by establishing an electronic platform accessible from the Supreme People’s Court website:  www.gongbao.court.gov.cn.

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Screen shot of SPC landing page with link to the SPC Gazette

What benefits does the Gazette webpage have for the user? They include easy:

  1. Access to the cases published in the Gazette.  As this blog has highlighted earlier. cases published in the Gazette, both  selected judgments (裁判文书选登), cases decided by various trial divisions of the SPC and reflect their views on certain issues, and cases (案例), model cases submitted by the local courts (through the provincial high courts), which have been reviewed by the various trial divisions of the SPC, are considered quite persuasive, although not as authoritative as guiding cases. Those can be accessed through a full text search of the term being researched.
  2. Checking of which lawyers frequently practice at the SPC, through searching “selected judgments.”
  3. Following the careers of SPC judges. Below is a search for Huang Songyou, the disgraced SPC vice president:screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-9-50-05-pm
  4. Searching prior SPC reports to the NPC for key words, such as ”judicial reform“ or “state security.”
  5. Searching historical judicial statistics, for certain terms–second instances returned results, while “death penalty review” did not.
  6. Searching of judicial interpretations and judicial documents (policy and other SPC documents not considered to be judicial interpreations.)

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?

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Which Chinese cases are most persuasive?

23885878-1_x_2Chinese courts are paying more attention to the use of precedent in considering how to decide cases.  (Two of my fellow bloggers, Mark Cohen and Jeremy Daum, have recently published on this issue, as have I.)  One of the many issues remaining to be settled as China constructs its own case law system is a hierarchy of precedent, so that the Chinese legal community, in particular its overworked judges, have clear rules on this issue.  (This is one of the questions subsumed under #23 of the Fourth Five Year Court Reform Plan).

We know that the hierarchy of precedent is not settled because two recent authoritative Chinese publications take a similar but not identical approach:

  •   The first, as cited in an article by Judges Jiang Huiling and Yang Yi of the Supreme People’s Court Center for Applied Jurisprudence, highlight the list set out in “The Beijing IP Court Guiding Case Work Implementation Methods (Draft)” (summarized in Jeremy Daum’s article); and
  • The second, an article by Judge Wang Jing, a senior Nanjing Intermediate People’s Court judge, published (and re-published) in a number of prestigious Wechat public accounts, including the account of the Shandong Higher People’s Court.  (Wang Jing has frequently published in SPC publications and she published her views on the judicial quota system (on Judge He Fan’s public account).

(As helpfully translated in Jeremy Daum’s article, the Beijing IP court draft regulations list, from most to least persuasive:

  1. SPC guiding cases
  2. SPC annual cases
  3. other SPC cases
  4. High People’s Court model cases
  5. High People’s Court reference cases
  6. Other prior cases from High People’s Courts
  7. Intermediate People’s Court precedent,
  8. Basic-level Court precedent,
  9. Foreign (non-mainland) case precedent.

I’ll focus on Judge Wang Jing’s analysis.

Judge Wang Jing

1.SPC guiding cases

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2.Cases published in the monthly SPC Gazette.  Those are of two types: selected judgments (裁判文书选登) and cases  (案例), generally totalling 20-30.  The first type are cases decided by various trial divisions of the SPC and reflect their views on certain issues, while the second model cases submitted by the local courts (through the provincial high courts), which have been reviewed by the various trial divisions of the SPC.

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3.Other cases published by journals of the SPC such as Selection of People’s Court Cases(人民法院案例选),  (a quarterly publication of the SPC Center for Applied Jurisprudence), China Case Trial Highlights (中国审判案例要览) (an annual publication of the National Judicial College and the Law School of People’s University)、and People’s Justice–Cases (People’s Justice is a biweekly publication,but the Cases section is published monthly). She notes that these cases reflect issues considered difficult and disputed in practice.z4573143

 

4. Trial Guides edited and written by the trial divisions of the SPC (最高法院各审判业务庭编写的审判指导丛书).  The People’s Court Press publishes a series entitled China Trial Guide (审判指导丛书), with separate publications by various trial divisions of the SPC, including the case filing, civil, administrative, #2 civil and #4 civil divisions. These publications often contain cases from the lower courts, or in the case of the #4 civil division, cases that have been reported to that division for review under the Prior Reporting system.

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5. Case publications by various higher people’s courts (各地高级法院等编辑的案例刊物).

She notes that many provincial higher people’s courts (and some intermediate courts) publish cases, with cases published by the ones that have been in operation the longest and are more influential considered the more persuasive.  She mentions the Jiangsu Higher People’s Court Gazette as an example, which has cases decided by that court and model/typical cases from the lower courts.  (These are similar to categories 4-6 above).

Although her list does not specifically mention non-guiding (and non-model or typical cases) in her list of authoritative sources, she addresses them in her advice for lawyers providing precedent cases in litigation, with three common sense items of advice: when  you provide a case, it should be according to the court hierarchy, and date issued, provide the source, and use cases to provide a mind map for the judge to follow.  (A prestigious intermediate people’s court (the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court) recently also mentioned litigants (positively) using cases from the SPC’s case database, China Judgements Online, as a reference to judges.)

Some comments

This is another area in which Chinese law appears to lack firm guidelines about order and terminology (as I wrote about this theme in a series of articles for Practical Law China, ( note that they are behind the company paywall).The SPC and its divisions (and even one of its Circuit Courts) issue collections of model/typical cases (and summaries of such cases) under a variety of titles.  Terminology (aside from the guiding cases) is not entirely consistent.   The SPC issues notices and replies (generally of divisions of the SPC), acknowledged by Vice President Shen Deyong as a source of law, in an introduction to the book Collection of the Supreme People’s Court’s Judicial Rules (2nd edition)–how do these relate as sources of law vis a vis various types of cases or case summaries?  The legal community (domestic and foreign) awaits greater guidance.

 

 

 

How China’s non-guiding cases guide

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 12.13.38 PM  What few recognize is that the millions of non-guiding cases on the Supreme People’s Court’s China Judgments Online website (and its commercial counterparts, such as 无讼(and any internal version that there may be)) are guiding the development of Chinese law, including what arguments lawyers make and how judges decide cases.  I note that this coming week’s U.S.-China Judicial Dialogue: In Support of Economic Growth and Reform includes the role of precedent as one of the topics of discussion, and I hope this brief blogpost (to be expanded later) can indirectly contribute to the discussion.

The conventional wisdom among both foreigners and Chinese writing about China and case law is that with the exception of a small number of guiding cases approved by the SPC, previous cases do not make law.

Those closer to the world of practice in China know that previous cases, or some portion of them, are indirectly shaping the development of Chinese law. From a Chinese perspective these cases are not directly guiding, or binding, but provide cases that lawyers and judges use as reference (参考), to persuade a judge or other decision-maker that a previous case has decided the same or similar issues. This phenomenon relates to cases in a broad range of issues and occurs in several ways:

  • A significant number of Chinese judges and lawyers follow Wechat legal public accounts. One type of article that frequently appears is one focusing on a specific legal issue and uses the case database to generate relevant cases.  A typical example is this article published on 29 July, analyzing six cases relating to changing the name of a child.  This type of article affects arguments lawyers make and the judges consider.
  • A second way is judges themselves will search a particular issue to see how other courts have decided a particular issue or the elements to which they have looked when deciding a particular issue. Lawyers perform similar analysis when preparing to argue a case.
  • Additionally, lawyers sometimes submit a relevant court decision when making a submission in an administrative proceeding, such as to the Trademark Review and Adjudication Board and more often, when making submissions to court.  Lawyers will evaluate, however, whether the judges hearing the case will take the submission positively or will consider it an indirect criticism of their professional competency. Lawyers will submit cases from courts higher than the court that they are litigating–so that a lawyer litigating in a Beijing district court may attach a relevant case decided by the Beijing Higher People’s Court, for example.
  • Among the many sources of information SPC judges use when drafting judicial interpretations is searches of previous judgments relevant to the issues under consideration, because those will indicate which questions are unclear for the lower courts.
  • Legal services companies, such as Itslaw, are training young lawyers in case searching and retrieval (guiding and non-guiding cases), using keywords analogous to Westlaw’s and LexisNexis’ products. They are doing this training because prior cases are being used in advocacy in China.

How are cases from China Judgments Online being used in China in practice? This is where we can see how case law, Chinese style, is developing. The SPC has been focusing its efforts on its guiding cases and it is unclear whether they have noticed this.