Comments on China’s international commercial courts

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photo from the First International Commercial Court’s opening ceremony (the grey suits are the new court summer uniforms)

At the end of June, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) held ceremonies to mark the establishment of its international commercial tribunals (国际商事法庭)(this post will use the phrase “international commercial court,” or “CICC” as the official media are using both terms). The provisions establishing the international commercial courts went into effect on July 1. As I wrote earlier this year,  political and technical requirements shaped the CICC, as will be explained below.

These (partial) comments do not set out an overview of the court, as that has already been done by several law firms (and there are likely to be more), including Zhong Lun (published on the Kluwer Arbitration blog) and Herbert Smith Freehills.

Comments

In my view, those drafting the structure of the CICC were constrained by Chinese law, the nature of the Chinese court system and related regulatory systems. Although some Chinese commentators have referred to the CICC privately as a “mini-circuit court,” the CICC incorporates innovations, some of which have not been recognized by commentators thus far and provisions from the latest round of judicial reforms. The brief judicial interpretation establishing the CICC leaves related questions unanswered, some of which I will raise below.  I expect some of those questions to be gradually answered as regulations underpinning the CICC are issued.

The small team of judges and limited jurisdiction of the court are likely to mean that overall trends in Belt & Road dispute resolution are unlikely to be significantly affected by its establishment.  As a court focused on international commercial issues staffed by some of China’s most knowledgeable judges in that area, the court is likely to have a positive effect on the competence of the Chinese judiciary regarding international trade and investment issues, particularly as the SPC leadership knows that the international legal community is monitoring the court’s operation.  It is unclear from recent reports whether the SPC will allocate additional resources to support its operation, which to this outside observer would be a shortsighted approach to take, as even something as apparently simple as translating judgments into English (as appears to be the intention of the court) is time-consuming.

Structure of the court

From Judge Gao’s press interview earlier this year (the subject of that earlier blogpost, a full English translation of which is found on the CICC website,) it is clear that she and her other colleagues involved in drafting the judicial interpretation were well aware of international commercial courts that had been or were being established elsewhere in the world.  This research was provided by the China Institute for Applied Jurisprudence, the SPC’s in-house think tank (briefly described in this earlier blogpost).

However, the political imperatives of establishing the CICC as a priority matter meant that the SPC was constrained by the realities of current Chinese law.  Because judicial interpretations of the SPC cannot contravene the civil procedure, judges and other national law (National People’s Congress legislation) [and there appeared to be insufficient time and possibly appetite for promulgating legislation piloting exceptions to these provisions]. This meant that the language of the court could not be English, the procedural law had to be Chinese civil procedure law, and the judges had to be judges so qualified under current Chinese law.

Jurisdiction of the court

As has explained elsewhere, under Article 2 of its Provisions, the CICC has jurisdiction over five types of cases, three of which are rather flexible (cases under a higher people’s court jurisdiction that it applies to have the SPC hear; first instance international commercial cases that have a nationwide significant impact; any other international commercial cases that the SPC considers appropriate to be tried by the CICC).  This enables the CICC to control its caseload, as the eight judges on the CICC are likely to have their existing caseload in the SPC division or circuit court in which they are working, plus major obligations in drafting judicial interpretation or analogous judicial guidance.  I am personally unaware of cases in which a higher people’s court has required the SPC to hear a case within its jurisdiction (please contact me if you have such information) but it can be anticipated that a higher people’s court may prefer to rid itself of a difficult case (either legally or more likely institutionally) to avoid a mistaken decision.

Judges of the court

As has been noted elsewhere, the eight judges appointed to the CICC are all SPC judges, although Article 4 of the CICC provisions appears to permit qualified judges from the lower courts to be selected.  Those provisions do not mention whether a selection committee (one of the current judicial reforms) was used to select the current CICC judges, or whether a selection committee will be used for future appointments.  There are in fact experienced judges in some of the lower courts who are able to use English as a working language.  However, the exigencies of needing to appoint judges in a brief period of time (and possible SPC headcount restrictions, after the SPC has cut headcount under the quota judge system) meant that all CICC judges are from the SPC.  This means a number of judges are relatively junior.

Expert committee

The expert committee to be established (rules yet to be issued) is an innovation under Chinese court practice.  Unlike many other major jurisdictions, the Chinese courts lack user committees or advisory committees.  This could be a useful way of bringing international input before the Chinese courts in a formal way. although the usefulness of the institution may depend on how often the committee meets and how familiar its members are with the Chinese court system.  Presumably acting as a mediator or providing an expert opinion on a matter of foreign law will be optional (further details to be revealed when those rules are issued).  Some persons may prefer to provide general advice to the SPC rather than involve themselves in the specifics of a particular dispute.

Evidence before the court

The CICC will not require translations into Chinese of evidence, if the parties so agree, or require evidence to be notarlized and legalized. As I wrote previously,  China has not yet acceded to the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalization for Foreign Public Documentsso in Chinese court litigation, notarization and legalization of documents is often required., starting when a party files suit or when a foreign party responds. It is not clear whether the CICC will require notarization and legalization of foreign party authorization of counsel.  It is an innovation possible within the constraints of current law, that the CICC will consider evidence even if evidence from outside of China has not been notarized and legalized. Notarization and legalization costs time and money and a great deal of effort. It is understood that China is considering acceding to the Hague Legalization Convention.

Mediation and arbitration linking mechanism

The mechanism to link mediation, arbitration and litigation is an important part of the judicial reform measures (mentioned in this blogpost on diversified dispute resolution).  Which mediation and arbitration institutions will link to the CICC are unclear (and the rules for selecting those institutions), but the policy document underpinning the CICC refers to domestic rather than foreign or greater China institutions.  The Shenzhen Court of International Arbitration and Hong Kong Mediation Centre have entered into a cooperative arrangement to enable cross-border enforcement of mediation agreements, so presumably, this is a model that can be followed for Hong Kong.

Enforcement

The CICC provisions do not add new content on the enforcement of their judgments. As this earlier blogpost mentioned, enforcement of its own (and that of Chinese lower courts abroad) and foreign court judgments in China is on the SPC’s agenda.  As I have written (and spoken about) previously, China (with SPC participation in its delegation) has been taking an actively part in negotiations on the Hague Convention on the Recognition & Enforcement of Foreign Judgments, (the link includes the draft convention) and has signed but not yet ratified the Hague Convention on the Choice of Courts Agreements.

Borrowing beneficial ideas from abroad

It appears that the drafters of the CICC provisions considered some of the practices of Frankfurt High Court International Commercial Chamber in their draft: No translation of documents which are drafted in the English language (if there is consent); witnesses can be heard in English;and extensive use of video conferencing or other electronic means.

Some outstanding questions

  1. Will the mediation and arbitration linking mechanism be able to link with jurisdictions outside of mainland China?  Under Chinese law, preliminary measures (interim measures) such as injunctions, property or evidence preservation are not available for offshore arbitration. Will the CICC mechanism be able to change this, or will changes to current law be required, as seems more likely?
  2. Will difficult issues before the CICC be referred to the SPC’s judicial committee or other institutions within the SPC?  As I wrote about a year ago, the SPC has adopted new judicial responsibility rules, setting out guidance under which cases heard by a collegiate panel are referred to a professional judges committee or the SPC’s judicial committee.  Query whether difficult cases that have been discussed by the entire body of CICC judges will be referred further. The CICC includes several of the SPC’s most knowledgeable judges on cross-border matters (as well as the head  (chief judge) and deputy heads of the #4 Civil Division, the division focusing on cross-border/international matters).  These details are likely to be worked out over time.
  3. Will the two CICC courts have their own support staff?  Will it have its own case acceptance office?  Is the intention to give more work to existing staff, or will there be an increase in headcount to support the new institution?  The CICC judges need resources to support their work, whether it be in translation or research assistance.  If the consequence of the establishment of the CICC is to give additional work to existing personnel, it is not out of the question that someone involved may collapse from overwork.  SPC President Zhou Qiang noted in his most recent report to the NPC that there have been deaths from overwork in the lower courts. Some of the Chinese courts’ most experienced and knowledgeable judges in the area of cross-border commercial law have been appointed to the court.

Concluding Comments

The establishment of the court and its English language website gives foreign outside observers a chance to monitor how a Chinese court deals with and decides commercial cases, creating even greater pressure on the SPC and a small team of its most competent international commercial judges.

In my view, the establishment of the CICC will not affect how highly sophisticated lawyers draft dispute resolution clauses for large-scale Belt & Road projects. Many of those lawyers will still draft clauses providing for offshore arbitration because of the New York Convention (and the corresponding arrangement between Hong Kong and the mainland) and some concern about Chinese arbitration institutions.  I have personally found it is difficult to get an accurate grasp of what current practice is with Belt & Road related dispute resolution clauses, given the range of deals under the Belt & Road Initiative. It is difficult to predict how the CICC may change those practices. The CICC and its associated dispute resolution mechanism provide an alternative to existing dispute resolution mechanisms. Will it show itself to be a more attractive way to resolve international commercial disputes, efficient and cost-effective, while maintaining high quality? We will need to monitor how it develops.

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Many thanks to those who commented on earlier drafts of this blogpost.

 

Supreme People’s Court Monitor at the Supreme People’s Court

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 6.54.40 PMOn the afternoon of 21 June, I had the honor (and the challenge) of giving a lecture as part of a lecture series (大讲堂) sponsored by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence (the Institute) (mentioned in earlier blogposts, here and here).   Judge Jiang Huiling, to my right in the photo, chaired the proceedings. Professor Hou Meng of Peking University (to my left), one of China’s leading scholars of the SPC, and Huang Bin, executive editor of the Journal of Law Application  (to Judge Jiang’s right) served as commentators.

The occasional lecture series has included prominent scholars, judges, and others from  China and abroad, including  Judge Cai Xiaoxue, retired SPC administrative division judge (and visiting professor at the Peking University School of Transnational Law), Chang Yun-chien, Research Professor at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica (a New York University SJD), and Professor Zhang Taisu of Yale Law School.

As can be seen from the title slide above. I spoke [in Chinese] about how and why I research the SPC and some tentative views on judicial reform. Preparing the Powerpoint slides and presentation involved work for me that was a counterpart to that of the drafters of President Zhou Qiang’s report to the National People’s Congress (NPC),  considering what issues would be appropriate in the post-19th Party Congress New Era, and would hit the right notes with an audience of people involved with Chinese judicial reform on a daily basis.

I spoke briefly on how I became interested in China, Chinese law, and the Supreme People’s Court, as well as Harvard Law School and its East Asian Studies program (and Columbia Law School as well). I traced my interest in socialist core values back to when I was seven years old, because of the books (see a sample below) and photos my father brought back from a tour he led of American academics working in Afghanistan to the Soviet Union in the early 1960’s, and a fateful opportunity I had as a high school student to learn Chinese. I told the audience also of the meeting I had with Professor Jerome Cohen before starting law school. (In this interview with Natalie Lichtenstein, founding legal counsel of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank),  I discovered that Professor Cohen gave many of us the same advice–“if you study Chinese law you can do something interesting”–and how his group of former students continues to be involved with China and Chinese legal issues in many different ways. I also made comparisons between the career paths of elite legal professionals in China with those in the United States.download-1

Explaining my interest in the Supreme People’s Court, I told how a serendipitous book purchase, bicycle rides past the SPC, a group of people willing to share their insights, and a lot of hard work led to my initial interest in China’s judicial system and to my 1993 article on the SPC. I also told the story of the founding of this blog.

On judicial reform, for the most part, I summarized some of my prior blogposts. I concentrated on the first several reforms as listed in the SPC’s reform outline, particularly the circuit courts, cross-administrative region courts and other efforts to reduce judicial protectionism, the maritime courts, criminal justice related reforms, the evolving case law system, judicial interpretations and other forms of SPC guidance, and many other issues.  However, some of the issues did not make it into the Powerpoint presentation. I concluded with some thoughts about the long-term impacts within China and abroad of this round of judicial reforms.

I was fortunate to have three perceptive commentators and also needed to field some very thoughtful questions from the audience.

The event was reported in the Institute’s Wechat public account and People’s Court Daily.  Many thanks to Judge Jiang and his colleagues  at the Institute for making the event possible, and Professor Hou and Mr. Huang for taking the time and trouble to come from the far reaches of Beijing to appear on the panel (and for their comments).

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Farewell Judge Fang Jingang

 

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Funeral of Judge Fang Jinggang, #4 Circuit Court, Zhengzhou

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from website of Yale’s Paul Tsai China Center

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While Party leaders (including Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang) were attending the 19th Communist Party Congress, tragedy again struck the Chinese judiciary. Supreme People’s Court (SPC) Judge Fang Jingang, who was working in the #4 Circuit Court in Zhengzhou, succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 51. Joining the dark-suited crowd pictured above (his circuit court colleagues and selected current and former senior personnel from Supreme People’s Court (SPC) headquarters and elsewhere, including his former superior Jing Hanchao, now deputy secretary of the Central Political Legal Committee )  in spirit was a large crowd of former colleagues and friends, located in China and abroad who were unable to attend the funeral in person.

Judge Fang can be considered a symbol of the new generation of elite Chinese judges. He spent many years  in the local courts as well as the SPC and also spent time abroad.  Like many of his colleagues, he had a PhD, and had worked in Hunan courts before being recruited to the SPC, initially to the Institute of Applied Jurisprudence and SPC’s judicial reform office. While at the Institute and thereafter, he and colleagues translated foreign materials (including several year-end reports of the federal judiciary) for internal reference and publication and he continued to research and make use of foreign law. He also spent several months at Yale Law School as a visiting scholar and as a result made friends among the Chinese law academic community in the United States (and continued to keep up with English language news, presumably from foreign sources).

After he returned to China he transferred to the “front line”–to the SPC’s case acceptance division and #2 civil division and was also sent to work in Tibet’s Higher People’s Court for three years under the SPC’s “assist Tibet” program.  While at the #2 civil division, he was part of the team of people drafting the #4 Company Law interpretation and has been at the #4 Circuit Court in Zhengzhou since the beginning of this year.  He continued to work with his #2 civil division colleagues on the Company Law interpretation and somehow find time to write articles on the interpretation, including one comparing US corporation law with the new Company Law interpretation, the latter published posthumously.

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Judge Fang in meeting at 4th Circuit with Columbia Law School Prof. Benjamin Liebman & others, May, 2017

SPC-related media obituaries range from the very official (on the SPC website) to the more personal (this one with quotes from several of his former colleagues). Early indications are that Judge Fang may also become a “model judge” (like Judge Zou Bihua) as SPC President Zhou Qiang and Executive Vice President Shen Deyong have already said that others should learn from Judge Fang. Judge Fang was posthumously awarded the title of “national excellent judge.”

Query whether Judge Fang’s death might indicate that the SPC’s circuit court model is too “lean and mean.” Statistics issued by the SPC in August indicate that almost half of all cases accepted by the SPC in the first half of this year have been accepted by the circuit courts, meaning that circuit court judges are under extreme pressure to deal with cases that are complicated/involving large amounts in dispute on time, and discrete inquiries indicate that many are working weekends and into the night.  Like Fang, many of them who were involved in judicial interpretation drafting when working at SPC headquarters continue to provide input to the work of their colleagues at SPC headquarters and are pulled into other research and writing projects.  And like Fang, working in a circuit court means that they away from their families.

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Judge Fang, center, singing karaoke

When singing karaoke recently, he changed the lyrics of a song to say “live as a fourth circuit person, die as a fourth circuit spirit.” 还说:“生是四巡人,死是四巡鬼”

Supreme People’s Court ramps up its judicial responsibility system

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 7.04.09 AMIn April of this year (2017), the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued its judicial responsibility guidelines.  At the end of July, the SPC issued a 73 article implementing opinion (最高人民法院司法责任制实施意见(试行)(Implementing Opinion), which went into effect on 1 August 2017.  There have been many summary reports in the legal press, but the full text was not found until 11 August. 2017 It has since been published by several Wechat accounts, but as of this writing, no official text has been issued.  The policy basis for the responsibility system links back to the 3rd and 4th Plenum Decisions. Senior Party leadership (the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms) approved the SPC’s responsibility system.

The document establishes operating rules for the SPC  after this latest round of court reforms, and therefore sets guidelines for the lower courts. It can be expected that the lower courts will issue corresponding documents. Through the Implementing Opinion, it is possible to see how much autonomy an individual judge/three judge panel has and what matters require approval by senior SPC leaders.

Opinions (as this blog has previously explained) are not judicial interpretations but a type of judicial normative document.   A recent Wechat post by an SPC commercial subsidiary, Faxin (法信), described them as judicial guiding documents (司法指导性文件). That is the terminology being used for them in a series of books published by the People’s Court Press. Inconsistent legal terminology is not a new phenomenon.

The basic principles of the Implementing Opinion are said to implement central authorities’ requirements, let those who hear cases bear responsibility, clarify how cases are to be dealt with and put in place the Party group’s responsibility for enforcement (the phrase “Party group” actually is mentioned three times) and case handling. It appears that some provisions memorialize current practice, while others set out new rules.

The  Implementing Opinion specifies roles of different personnel and institutions within the SPC such as the court president (and vice presidents), heads of divisions, professional judges committee, judicial committee, presiding judges, judges in charge of cases, clerks, and judicial assistants. It provides guidelines on how cases are to dealt with, from case acceptance, random case assignment, to issuing decisions.

The Implementing Opinion includes the following (selected) provisions:

  • Details on staffing for judges (one assistant and one clerk in the circuit courts, and some assistants and clerks at headquarters) (Article 3);
  • those with a leadership role (President/vice president/vice/heads of divisions) should generally be the presiding judge (Article 5), while the judges in collegial panels should change every 2-5 years;
  • leaders need to hear cases, that are difficult/important/guiding, etc., but specialists are designated to assist them (Article 7);
  • rules on who will issue judgments, mentioning that the president of the SPC signs the  order for the implementation of the death penalty (this was understood to be the case already)(Article 11);
  • court leaders may not give oral/written instructions concerning a case (except as otherwise provided (i.e. cases that are considered by the judicial committee)(Article 12);
  • responsibilities of professional judges committees (a committee put into place under the judicial reforms); judicial committee (can be split into specialist civil, criminal, enforcement subcommittees) (role said to have narrowed, but include major/difficult cases affecting national interests & social stability, but also other non-case related duties such as approving judicial interpretations/judicial normative documents, etc., the judicial committees requires  views be stated in the judgment (Articles 16-19);
  • the basic rule is random case assignment, with exceptions for major/difficult cases (Article 26-27), with electronic service of process & documents if agreed (Article 32);
  • basic rule is online broadcast of SPC court hearings, unless approved by leaders otherwise (Article 33), with requirements concerning the posting of rulings/judgments and other transparency requirements mentioned in the document;
  • circuit courts are prohibited (in general) from considering requests for instructions (the rule makes sense–it would defeat one of the purposes of having circuit courts (Article 25, this is an example);
  •  Articles 41-43 relate to precedent case review (as suggested in my recent article) and require approval by leaders if the ruling in a case will be inconsistent with prior SPC rulings on the topic (this has been criticized as being inconsistent with judicial autonomy). Approval is required in several other situations, see Article 40 (2-4));
  • Articles 46-50 set forth rules for a collegiate panel to consider a case and submit it to the division leadership/professional judges committee/judicial committee;
  • Article 51 requires the judge responsible for the case (承办法官) to draft the decision reached according to the majority view, indicating that the role of responsible judge has administrative overtones. If not so, the judgment would be drafted by one of the judges who agreed with the majority view.
  • Article 58 retains existing special procedures (including special standards for transparency) for certain criminal cases, such as death penalty cases, cases involving foreigners, overseas Chinese, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwanese Chinese.
  • Article 61 provides the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) representative stationed at the SPC can be a member of the judicial committee (this seems to be analogous to the procedure under law under which a representative from the procuratorate can take part in judicial committee meetings). Additionally, anti-corruption officials stationed in each division can participate in professional judges committee meetings and collegiate panel discussions.   Article 61 does not require their views to be adopted.  It could be that their views are considered more seriously if discussions relate to matters regarding which they are competent.
  • Article 64 requires certain types of cases to be submitted for approval to higher levels of the SPC, including cases involving mass incidents, that will have an effect on social stability; difficult and complicated cases that will have a major effect on society; cases that will conflict with prior SPC cases; those that indicate the judge violated the law; death penalty review, major criminal cases, cases involving requests for instructions involving foreigners, overseas Chinese, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwanese Chinese.

The vision for the reformed SPC remains a court with administrative characteristics (官本位), with concepts derived from other jurisdictions (judge’s assistant would be an example), that enables Party guidance in sensitive cases and its operations to reflect changes in Party/government policy (serving the actual situation), but seeks to be a more professional and accessible institution, hearing cases in a professional manner. It can be surmised that certain provisions from the Implementing Opinion will be incorporated into the revisions of the Organizational Law of the People’s Courts currently being drafted.

 

 

#2 Circuit Court’s case guidance on administrative cases

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In August, 2016, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) #2 Circuit Court issued a sset 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.