#2 Circuit Court’s case guidance on administrative cases

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On August, 2016, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) #2 Circuit Court issued a set of 30 case summaries (literally important points, 案例要旨)on administrative cases, selected from the many administrative cases heard in the first year and a half of operation.  The #2 Circuit Court hailed it as a new type of case guidance (审判新指南) in March, 2017. This type of case guidance is mentioned in my forthcoming article in the Tsinghua China Law Review.  Although this document does not have any formal status (at least yet) in the universe of SPC case guidance, it has been approved at a conference of administrative judges in Liaoning, Heilongjiang, and Jilin, and the rules it sets out should be considered highly persuasive to courts in those three provinces.

It is likely that these cases will provide background material for a more comprehensive judicial interpretation of the Administrative Procedure (Litigation) Law than the one issued shortly after the amended law was promulgated.  Some of these cases have also been incorporated into the SPC’s 10 model #2 Circuit Court cross-administrative region commercial and administrative cases. The document does not include a summary of the underlying facts, but some of the full case reports are found elsewhere.  Each case (most relate to land disputes) provides a glimpse into the behavior of local government vis a vis ordinary Chinese citizens and companies, the (limited) scope for review of administrative action under Chinese law, and the unusual legal issues in the review of administrative action. Brief commentary follows each case summary restatement.  on 1 April, Wang Cailiang, the deputy chair of the All China Lawyers Association, published Wechat commentary on administrative litigation and judicial reform.  Highlights of some of his comments follows the case summaries.

#5. Fan Chunsheng v. Heping District, Shenyang Government: issue–compulsory administrative act and administrative compensation case:

If the administrative organ illegally demolishes the plaintiff ‘s house, the compensation standard must not be lower than the compensation standard that the plaintiff may obtain according to the administrative compensation scheme. The plaintiff’s request for compensation must be upheld by the people’s court in accordance with the amount that can be obtained through the compensation scheme.

[The full text of the case is found here. It involved a man whose home was demolished. The court determined that the parties had not come to an agreement about compensation and the District Government had not gone through proper procedures to expropriate Mr. Fan’s property. The facts are similar to some of the model demolition cases released by the SPC several years ago.]

#16 Siping Haifeng Garden Real Estate Development Co. v, Siping (Jilin) People’s Government: issue–are government meeting summaries actionable?

A government meeting summary that is considered to be an internal government document setting out possible approaches in dealing with certain problems, but without a real impact on the rights and obligations of the parties, will be considered an administrative act that is not actionable. However, if the government uses the form of a meeting summary to make an administrative decision with legal effect, it is considered an actionable administrative action. The “externalization” of the meeting summary is necessary for the meeting summary to be actionable. Even if the contents of a meeting summary has been notified or delivered to the relevant parties, but if it remains a description of possible approaches, rather than an effective administrative decision, it will be considered a non-actionable administrative act with no real effect on the parties’ rights.

[The rule here indicates that is how the document is being used, rather than the form of document that determines whether a court can review it.]

#19, Zhang Qinghai v. Benxi Municipal Government–issue: is a decision by a provincial level government to expropriate land actionable

According the provisions of Article 30 (2) of the Administrative Reconsideration Law and Reply of the SPC to a question concerning  Article 30(2) of the Administrative Reconsideration Law, a decision by the State Council or provincial level governments concerning the expropriation of land and a related administrative reconsideration decision is considered acts of final decision and is not within the scope of cases than can be accepted under the Administrative Litigation Law.

[A brief search of some other jurisdictions reveals that this type of decision can be challenged under the law of some other jurisdictions: United States federal and state law and German law, for example].

#23, Han Yawen v. Zhaoyuan County, Heilongjiang People’s Government–issue: is an agreement not to petition (息诉罢访协议) actionable

An agreement not to petition between an administrative agency and a petitioner is an agreement with rights and duties under administrative law between an administrative agency with a petitioner to maintain social order and stability, in the public interest and in furtherance of administrative functions, according to the localism principle, the relevant government provides money or other benefits and should be considered a type of administrative agreement. When a people’s court accepts this type of case, it should review the legality of the content of the agreement according to law.

[Further background on the case found here. the SPC rejected Han’s application for retrial because the statute of limitations had lapsed).  (A form of agreement found here.  This 2011 book chapter mentions that these agreements could be challenged in theory, but the inclusion of this principle shows that petitioners often seek to challenge them, at least in the northeastern provinces.]

A summary of remarks by Wang Cailiang, on whether the amended Administrative Litigation Law, in effect for almost two years, will be able to make progress:

  1. On government interference:  “I can responsibly say that most grass-roots courts consciously or unconsciously play the role of a subordinate department of the local government…. in recent years when local governments promote the redevelopment of shantytowns, major projects, development zones, with which the local court also either actively or passively cooperates, there exists a conflict between the citizens right to administrative review (reconsideration) and litigation. Moreover, the Government on the one hand needs the court to give support in implementing the project; the other hand, the government wants to spend less money.  It creates an enormous obstacle to hearing administrative cases fairly and equitably.
  2. More hard work needed to resolving social conflicts (contradictions): in 2016, there were high numbers of administrative litigation and petitioning, with old and new issues, caused by housing condemnation, land expropriation, administrative enforcement…Affected parties sought to protect their rights through the courts,  and 225,000 administrative cases were accepted by the courts, with a clear increase of cases against county governments accepted by intermediate courts, and even the SPC had accepted over 2000 by the end of September. This has to do with the amended Administrative Litigation Law and clarity that county governments are the parties to expropriate land [under the relevant legislation], which means that the rate at which government is losing cases is rising, although the SPC hasn’t released 2016 data.  In July-August, 2016, documents issued by the State Council General Office and the SPC on administrative agencies responding to law suits has improved matters.  Also, under the new law, the reconsideration organ is the joint defendant with the original authority, so this changes the venue for these law suits, giving affected parties more hope…In 2016 there were major issues with demolition disputes after courts determine that administrative action by the court is illegal, some local governments reject the decisions and refused to take the initiative to correct the error, failure to make timely compensation to the plaintiff is very common…Even in cases where people should be prosecuted for criminal violations, not one has…
  3. There are too many wrongly decided cases–reasons–besides interference, professional competence of judges, traditional way of thinking of courts…
  4. Few administrative cases are resolved on time (he can tell this although the SPC has not released statistics),
  5. Some problems remain with the case registration system.
  6. He suggests proceeding on the rule of law route–promoting judicial reform and cross-administrative region courts; open up public opinion, so administrative litigation proceeds in the sunshine; having the SPC curb its tendency to issue judicial interpretations [this is entirely impractical, in my view]; and send the judges out of the case registration division and back to the trial divisions.
  7. He summarizes, but does not comment on remarks made by Meng Jianzhu (Meng), head of the Communist Party’s Central Political Legal Committee at a meeting on 29 March of the Leading Small Group on Judicial Reform with senior members of the political legal leadership (head of the Ministry of Public Security, presidents of the Supreme People’s Court and Procuratorate, Minister of Justice, etc.) that the targets of judicial reform (he means the political legal institutions, not just the judiciary) need to be achieved before the 19th Party Congress and admitting there have been difficulties in implementing some judicial reforms. Meng directed the authorities to research the problem and come up with practical solutions.
  8.  Wang concludes by saying that the specific goals in this round of judicial reforms have never been made public–how far it is to go, so the public does s not understand them, so it lacks societal supervision, understanding and support–the effectiveness of a reform that lacks public participation naturally will be reduced, and we must be concerned about this. (然而,这一轮司法改革的具体的目标在开始至今并没有公开,以致要走到哪一步社会不了解,从而缺少社会公众的监督与理解、支持。一个缺少公众参与的改革,效果必然大打折扣,这是我们不能不担心的.)

Judging from a limited sample (such as the report done by the #2 Circuit Court), at least some of the research and analysis that is being done within the political legal institutions is insightful and practical. But as President Trump has said about health care,  “It’s an unbelievably complex subject, nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” The same can be said about reforming the Chinese judiciary.

 

Supreme People’s Court adds four more circuit courts

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Meng Jianzhu meeting circuit court judges

The latest National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) gave formal approval to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) to establish four more circuit courts, located in Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Chongqing and Xian.  The Leading Small Group on Comprehensive Reform had given the nod to the SPC and its preparations at the beginning of November, so approval by the NPCSC was a foregone conclusion. The four new circuit courts held ceremonies on 28 and 29 December to inaugurate their operations. This means that circuit courts now cover the entire country. As discussed in my earlier blogpost, these are actually subdivisions of the SPC rather than being separate courts.

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Map of new circuits (thanks to Chinalawtranslate)

This blogpost looks at:

  • What the official reports signal about the Chinese judiciary; and
  • What these circuit courts mean for the Chinese judiciary now and in the future.

Signalling in official reports

The official reports related to the circuit court celebrated the circuit court judges and the courts themselves as both “red and expert.”

In this report, on their meeting with Meng Jianzhu, secretary of the Central Political Legal Committee, a subheadline has him meeting with circuit court “cadres” (孟建柱在会见最高人民法院巡回法庭干部…), while the first line of the report uses the phrasing “judge and other staff”  (全体法官和工作人员).  Meng Jianzhu stressed that close [flesh and blood] ties between the Party and the people in the judicial field is the important mission of the Supreme People’s Court Circuit Courts the circuit courts are under the leadership of his committee], while at the same time saying that “we should adhere to the [policy] direction of the judicial system reform,..create a professionalized trial team…”

Other reports note that of the 54 judges, 41 have either master’s or doctorate degrees. An infographic with photos of the senior judges and a map of the jurisdictions of the circuit courts can be found here.

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3rd circuit court judges receiving petitioners

Are the circuit courts just reception offices for petitioners?

This blogpost will draw on the insights of Zhou Yibin, one of my students at the School of Transnational Law of Peking University, located in Shenzhen, where I am privileged to teach some of China’s best and brightest.

Analyzing the documents related to the establishment of the circuit courts, she comments the circuit courts’ function of “trying important cross-administrative civil, commercial and administrative cases to ensure justice is repeatedly emphasized, while  diverting petitioners’ visits away from Beijing [as reported in this blogpost], reducing the workload for SPC .

Although the SPC knows that the pressure of petitioners’ visits is the direct reason to establish circuit courts, the SPC still wishes that the circuit courts will function more as courts to deal with the judicial localization [local protectionism] problem rather than another petitioners’ reception office. She notes that the huge pressure of dealing with petitioners visits and complaints  with small elite teams, means that they are working very efficiently.

Statistics are available for 2015 for the #1 and #2 Circuit Courts, and in 2016 for the #2 Circuit.In 2015, the #1 Circuit Court accepted 898 cases and closed 843, while the #2 Circuit Court accepted 876 and closed 810.  For the #2 Circuit Court, about half were civil and commercial cases (of which about 20% were transprovincial), while the remaining half was split between criminal and administrative cases.  The #2 Circuit Court dealt with 33,000 petitioners, while the #1 Circuit Court dealt with fewer than 11,000.  Through end September, 2016, the #2 Circuit Court had accepted 907 cases, and the number of petitioners had dropped considerably in 2016 to an average of 70-80 persons per day, down from almost 180 per day, with fewer petitioners complaining about injustices in litigation. It is understood that the number of cases accepted by the #1 Circuit Court has also increased in 2016 in comparison to 2015, although statistics are not yet available.

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Petitioners visiting the #2 circuit court, per month

 

 

 

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opening of 3rd & 4th circuit courts

Zhou Yibin notes the following issues, among others:

  1. First, limited by territorial jurisdiction and subject amount in controversy, there aren’t enough cross-jurisdictional cases for the circuit courts to try. She found that the head of the #1 Circuit Court had said the same.
  2. Mid-career SPC judges may be reluctant to be assigned to the circuit courts, when they have family in Beijing.
  3. Having circuit courts may lead to more inconsistencies among SPC judgments.

She wrote: the circuit courts are not likely to be an effective barrier to judicial local localization/protectionism. That local protectionism happens when the local courts abuse their adjudication power to protect local litigants’ interests. Judicial localization is the caused by the administration of judicial system and unconstrained exercise of administrative and political power.When it comes to judicial activities, local Party/government officials  tend to unduly influence the judges by leaving notes or giving direct instructions when they want to protect local interests. That is exactly why in 2015, the general office of the Central Committee of the CCP and the general office of the State Council jointly issued a notice requiring judges and clerks keep a record if any officials interfere cases in any form [see this earlier blogpost].

From this aspect, when the real concern is abuse of power and lack of institutional design to rein power, judicial reform in any form, would only be a “back-end pain killer”, rather than real surgery that can directly solve the source.

Conclusion

She concludes: as to whether circuit courts should continue to exist, people who are pessimistic about circuit courts characterize it as window-dressing. They believe circuit courts would not be the real key to deal with judicial localization and there exist better alternatives to deal with petitioners’ visits than circuit courts; therefore, the circuit courts should be eliminated before it creates further inconsistency and chaos to judicial system.

Zhou Yibin thinks circuit courts should continue to exist for the following reasons.

First, in 2015, SPC altered the amount in controversy and lower the barrier for case acceptance. Therefore, we can expect circuit court to play a more important role in providing neutral venue so as to fight with judicial localization.

Second, there are other efforts to curb judicial localization collectively. At the same time with setting up circuit courts, SPC is also exploring to set up cross-administrative courts. Currently, this experiment is steadily progressing in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing. This wave of judicial reform has just started, and we need to allow a little bit more time for the circuit courts and cross-administrative courts to grow, to engage in trial and error and to mature.

Third,  aside from dealing with judicial localization, the circuit courts serve as pilot for SPC to improve the quality of its legal policy role by research into local legal issues and greater interaction with local legal communities. This is an important institutional function that is totally left out in the opponents’ objection. There are certainly institutional costs to maintain circuit courts, but we cannot ignore the institutional function of innovation that circuit courts serve.

I would also add to this that from the statistics provided above, the effect of the #2 Circuit Court’s work related to administrative cases can be seen in the reduction in the number of petitioners, particularly those complaining about injustices in the lower courts.

[For those who want to visit the circuit courts, detailed information about their location can be found here. As part of its efforts towards greater transparency and outreach to the foreign legal community, perhaps in the new year the SPC will publish clearer guidance on how foreigners can visit Chinese courts (although this is not likely to be a priority matter).]

 

SPC Judge Zhou Fan–another fallen tiger?

A report in Caixin on 8 September revealed that Judge Zhou Fan, vice president of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s First Circuit Court in Shenzhen (and member of its Party committee) has been cooperating with Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) investigators (i.e. taken into custody (according to Caixin’s English version)) for at least two mo10a1b5488422ac8b06c1c2cd0177d54cnths. [The original Caixin report has been taken down, but has been republished by Hong Kong’s Economic Journal.]  Judge Zhou has worked in the SPC for over 20 years, focusing on commercial matters, both domestic and cross-border, and would have been considered to be technically outstanding to be selected to be a senior judge for the First Circuit Court.

According to the Caixin report, he is one of the judges linked with former Vice President of the SPC, Xi Xiaoming (earlier posts on Xi found here and here).

The Caixin report mentions other allegations against Judge Zhou, such as cooperating with litigation brokers and interfering in major commercial disputes.The dates of the alleged conduct are not specified.

Over a year ago, this blog had the following comments on Xi Xiaoming’s case:

it is likely that the anti-corruption investigation into Judge Xi will touch on parties, including other judges, related to the case(s) in question.  It is also likely that the full extent of the investigation will not be made public.

So returning to the social context of 2011. A number of Chinese lawyers and academics have privately noted that at the time of the case in question, it would not be unusual for supplemental payments to be made to Court judges in connection with commercial disputes involving large amounts of money, and refusing payment could also have been awkward for those involved.

Although Judge Zhou’s photo remains on the First Circuit Court website, the publication of this report and allegations do not augur well for his tenure there.