China’s 19th Party Congress & Judicial Reform

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29 March meeting of Party leading group on judicial reform

Meng Jianzhu, Politburo member and head of the Communist Party Central Political Legal Committee, held a meeting in late March (photo above), to convey Xi Jinping’s message–those in leadership positions must do all possible to ensure that judicial system reform responsibility targets are basically achieved before the 19th Party congress (努力实现党的十九大召开前基本完成司法体制改革努力实现党的十九大召开前基本完成司法体制改革任务的目标). For those not familiar with Chinese political-legal jargon, “judicial system” (司法体制) means here the political-legal institutions–the courts, procuratorate, public/state security, and justice administration.   “Responsibility and targets” are also Chinese political jargon. Xi Jinping’s message dates from early January, when he highlighted this goal in instructions transmitted to the Communist Party Central Committee’s national political legal work conference.  He emphasized that the cornerstone of the judicial system reform is the judicial accountability system.  Part of the message  is that 2017 is a critical time, during which there is a “decisive battle” for deepening judicial reform, the battle intended to achieve those targets.  “Decisive battle” is also a core part of Chinese political jargon.

Since late March, Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang and other senior SPC leaders have been publicizing the target of completing judicial system reform, particularly the judicial accountability system, before the 19th Party Congress.  The SPC leadership has been doing that through meetings, both of the SPC itself (and the circuit courts) and the provincial-level courts and through SPC media outlets. President Zhou Qiang did so during a recent visit to Anhui, while on April 7, executive vice president Shen Deyong, vice-president Li Shaoping, and Political Department head Xu Jiaxin transmitted that message on a nationwide court video conference. This message is likely to be repeated in the months leading up to the 19th Party Congress.

In recent days, the SPC’s judicial reform office has been explaining these reforms to the public that reads SPC professional publications, such as the People’s Court Daily and China Trial, with some of the core content in the form of FAQs.  The reforms outline the way a post-reform court should operate. Some of the points were previously set out in the SPC’s February, 2017 judicial reform white paper.

A brief summary of the responses follows below:

  1. Why is the responsibility system the critical part of the judicial system reform (司法体制改革的“牛鼻子”)? Answer: because Xi Jinping said it, and judicial power and accountability/responsibility go together; accountability limits power.
  2. What is the responsibility of a presiding judge? Answer: take the lead in a case, by outlining the hearing of the case, allocating responsibilities, taking the lead at trial and in post-trial discussions, and in cases of significant differences of opinion, submit the case to either a specialist judges’ committee or judicial committee.
  3. How should the system of court president’s and division chief’s hearing cases be improved?Court leading cadres have multiple identities, including Party administrative responsibilities, and they must concurrently plan, announce and implement Party construction and adjudication [substantive] work, and for those who are quota judges, they should hear some cases too. Those cases should depend on a person’s background and strengths and should be major, difficult, complicated, or new cases which are representative.
  4. What is the relationship between judicial teams and court divisions? Answer: A Judicial team is comprised of judges, judge assistants, clerks and other auxiliary personnel, formulated respective lists of responsibilities of judges, judge assistants, and clerks, established the new judicial work mechanism with judges at the core and the team members cooperating with each other closely,
  5. When judges are randomly assigned to cases, how should the judge in charge of the case be determined? Answer: random selection should be primary, supplemented by assigned cases.
  6. How should the reform of having judges sign judicial documents [judgments/rulings, etc.] be understood? Answer: Judges who hear cases should sign their judgments and senior court leaders should no longer review or sign the judgments on the cases when they had not been personally involved.
  7. How should the reform of having a conference of professional judges be understood? Answer: judges in different substantive areas can organize committees to provide their views to other judges on problematic issues, reducing the number of cases referred to the judicial committee.
  8. In courts where there are many judges, how large should the conference of professional judges be? Answer:basically, it depends on the profile of the cases and the number of judges.
  9. What type of management and oversight responsibilities will a court president have besides hearing cases? He (she) will monitor judgments and rulings, sometimes recommending the matter go the judicial committee (see further details in the white paper).
  10. What type of management and oversight responsibilities will a division chief have in addition to his responsibilities hearing cases? As delegated by the court president, a division chief can review matters such as extending a defendant’s period of arrest or detention, or other compulsory measures or extend the period for submitting evidence.
  11. When judicial power is delegated down in judicial reform, how can it be monitored? The old system of having senior judges sign off on judicial documents, including ones that they had not heard, and they are also forbidden from approving cases in an indirect way, such as giving oral instructions. Senior judges should be working on a macro, not micro level.
  12. How can the judicial committee reform move forward reliably? Answer: from now on, the focus of the work of judicial committees should change from discussing individual cases to summarizing experience, and discussing major cases, with exceptions (foreign affairs, social stability, etc. (see the analysis in the white paper).

Comments

These questions and answers reflect the challenges the SPC faces in moving the Chinese court system (including its own operations) away from the traditional model that fuses judicial authority with traditional Chinese [Communist Party] administration.  The post-reform concept of the judiciary is a more professional judiciary that gives judges greater professional autonomy (and therefore can retain the sophisticated talent that is leaving for law firms) but retains control in specified areas. How successful will these reforms be in moving courts and judges away from old patterns of behavior remains to be seen. It seems to be happening in at least some of the pilot courts (from my discussions), but that does not mean these will be successful in other less sophisticated areas.  Presumably, the SPC’s judicial reform office is monitoring the pilots in a more systematic way.

The reasons for stressing the importance of accomplishing these reforms by the 19th Party Congress are assumed, not explained. I understand it as intended to show that the judicial system reforms that have been undertaken in recent years are correct, have accomplished what they were intended to accomplish, and are effective in improving China’s judicial system.  I expect that the system described above is reflected in the redrafts of the People’s Court Organizational Law and the Judges’ Law.  To what extent will these reforms (apparently accompanied by increased political study) be able to retain the talent currently in or being recruited into the courts?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guaranteeing people’s livelihood rights & interests

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

Civil cases

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family law

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

Administrative disputes

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

Hong Kong/Macao/Overseas Chinese cases

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

Military related disputes

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

Strictly governing the courts and institutional oversight

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

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

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

2016 and 2017 judicial reforms

2016

On 2016 judicial reform accomplishments, the following were highlighted:

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

2017

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

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

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

A few comments

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

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

 

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

Most people who have commented (outside of China) on Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang’s March, 2017 report (on 2016 work) to the National People’s Congress (NPC) didn’t have the patience to read (or listen) much beyond the initial section, which mentions the conviction of Zhou Shifeng as indicating that the courts are doing their part to crack down on state subversion.  It appears to be another in a series of colorless government reports.  But for those with the ability (or at least the patience) to decode this report, it provides insights into the Chinese courts, economy, and society.

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©

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

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

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

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

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

1. Caseload on the rise

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

  • SPC itself is dealing with a massive increase in its cases, 42.6% higher than 2016, and that number was significantly higher than 2015.
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    2016, SPC cases accepted 22,742, up 42.3%, concluded 20151, 42.6%, Circuit Cts #1 & 2 accepted 4721 cases in last 2 yrs, resolved 4573 cases

     

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

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

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

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

Lower courts

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Maintain economic development

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Results of inspector findings at SPC

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In November, 2016, this blog reported on Central Inspection Group (CIG) #2 inspecting the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) ’s Communist Party group.  Recently, CIG #2 came back with feedback on its inspection.  SPC leadership was in attendance and circuit court leadership participated by videoconference. A rough translation of the problems identified follows:

During the tour, the inspection team found…some problems, mainly: “four consciousnesses” need to be further strengthened; political discipline and political rules are not implemented strictly enough; the leadership role of the Party group is insufficiently developed;  there are some gaps in the coordination of the advancement of the system of judicial system reform; the implementation of responsibility system for ideological attitude (意识形态责任制落实不够有力); there are weak links in Party construction; organizational construction is not systematic enough; internal Party political life is not strict enough; relevance of ideological political work is not strong; some Party leading cadres’ Party thinking is diluted (有的党员领导干部党的观念淡漠); the role of the basic level Party organization as a fighting fortress is insufficient; comprehensive strict governance of the Party is not strong, the implementation of the central eight point regulations is not strict enough; formalism and bureaucratic issues still exist; tourism using public funds, abuse of allowances and subsidies still occurs; personnel selection is not standardized; cadre management is not strict enough; there are some areas of clean government risk.

The report revealed that some cases have been referred to CCDI and the Party’s Organization Department for further handling.

President (and Party Secretary) Zhou Qiang accepted the criticism and promised to deal with it. A separate report revealed that a rectification strategy has been adopted and an office established to implement measures to respond to the criticism.

Comment

It is difficult, if not impossible for this observer to have independent sources of information on the implementation of political discipline, political rules, and ideological work in the SPC.

It does appear (to the outside observer) from the constant flow of judicial reform documents, judicial interpretations, judgments (and rulings), and the many other documents released by the SPC, that the large number of SPC judges and other support personnel have been professionally extremely productive.

One criticism that I had heard before was about coordination in the judicial reforms. As to why some reforms were rolled out before others, the reasons are likely complicated and relate to what was ready to go and generally accepted.  As to the implications one reform has on other reforms or the existing system, that is much more difficult to analyze, particularly if (as I suspect), the SPC’s judicial reform office does not have enough people to cope with the complexities of implementing judicial reforms in a highly bureaucratic state.

On the cases of violation of Party discipline revealed, it would appear that they were limited in number and apparently limited (for the most part?) to minor infractions, such as fiddling with subsidies and using government cars for private purposes.  In a large bureaucracy such as the SPC, it seems fair to assume that a few infractions are likely to occur. It seems reasonable to surmise that these cases will be wrapped up swiftly, before the upcoming National People’s Congress session, and we will learn more about the specific cases.

 

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).]

 

What the Central Economic Work Conference means for the Chinese courts

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©China Daily

The day after the Communist Party Central Committee’s Central Economic Work Conference concluded, the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC’s) Party Committee held a meeting to study the “spirit of the Central Economic Work Conference.”  According to SPC President Zhou Qiang, the Central Economic Work Conference has the following takeaways for the courts:

First, adhere to strict and impartial justice, and create an open, transparent and predictable rule of law business environment 

Among the points– “We must insist on protecting the lawful rights and interests of Chinese and foreign parties equally according to law and building a more competitive international investment environment.”

Note, of course, that the foreign chambers of commerce in China have other views of the current state of the business environment at the moment, but agree that rule of law, transparency, and predictability are critical for improving China’s economic performance.  The following is from the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China’s  Business Confidence Survey 2016 

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AmCham China: “Respondents now cite inconsistent regulatory interpretation and unclear laws as their No. 1 business challenge.”

Second,  use the rule of law to actively promote the supply side structural reform

Zhou Qiang called on the lower courts to work better on bankruptcy cases, give full play to the role of the information network of bankruptcy and reorganization of enterprises, actively and safely deal with “zombie enterprises”, to optimize the allocation of resources to resolve the excess capacity.

But actually, bankruptcy cases remain fraught.

According to SPC Senior Judge Du Wanhua, charged with making bankruptcy law work better, in China bankruptcy requires a unified coordination mechanism  with government and courts, under Party Committee leadership.

In recent high profile corporate bankruptcies, such as LDK Solar, the local governments say that they cannot afford to rescue the companies, and so the burden must fall on creditors. The LDK case has drawn complaints from bankruptcy practitioners that the local government-led restructuring was designed to force banks to swallow the losses. Another lawyer commented that local governments’ intervention in bankruptcy cases has often disrupted their fairness.

It is likely that we will see more developments in 2017 concerning bankruptcy.

The third is to further increase the protection of property rights

Among the points Zhou Qiang made:

  • We must strengthen the protection of property rights of various organizations and natural persons;
  • We should have the courage to correct a number of mistaken cases concerning infringement of property rights.

These statements relate to three documents issued in late November and early November on protecting property rights, linked to the Central Committee/State Council’s November 4 document on the same topic, following the document issued in late October (and describe in my recent blogpost). They include:

All three relate to (well-known) abuses of China’s justice system, including:

  • turning business disputes to criminal cases (a risk for both Chinese and foreign businesses);
  • courts freezing assets far exceeding the amount in dispute (this is one example);
  • court confiscating the personal property of the entrepreneur and his (her) family, failing to distinguish between corporate and personal property;
  • courts failing to give parties opposing freezing or confiscation order a chance to be heard;
  • courts failing to hear disputes between government and entrepreneurs fairly.

The first document (apparently drafted by the SPC Research Department, because its head explained its implications at the press conference at which the first two documents were released) repeats existing principles that state-owned and private litigants, Chinese and foreign litigants should be treated equally.  It repeats existing principles that public power must not be used to violate private property rights.

The Historical Property Rights Cases Opinion (apparently drafted by the SPC’s Trial Supervision Division, because its head explained its implications at that press conference) calls on provincial high courts to establish work groups to review mistaken cases and to avoid such tragedies in the first place, focusing on implementing the regulations restricting officials from  involving themselves in court cases and the judicial responsibility system.

The third document seeks to impose better controls on the use of enforcement procedures by the lower courts.

Comments

It is hoped that these documents can play some part in improving the quality of justice in China, despite the difficulties posed while the local courts remain under local Party/government control, and may lead to the release of unfairly convicted entrepreneurs and the return of unfairly confiscated property. Perhaps these documents may provide some protection to local judges seeking to push back against local pressure.  On the historical cases, the SPC Supervision Division should consider appealing to current or retired judges who may have been involved in these injustices to come forward (without fear of punishment), as they likely to be able to identify these cases. A defined role for lawyers would also be helpful.

On the equal protection of enterprises, it should be remembered that the SPC itself has issued documents that give special protection to some parties, such as “core military enterprises.”

It appears that these documents respond to the following:

  • years of criticism of  differential legal treatment of and discrimination against private entrepreneurs;
  • academic studies by influential institutions on the criminal law risk faced by private entrepreneurs;
  • Downturn in private investment in the Chinese economy;
  • Lack of interest on the part of private enterprise in private-public partnerships;
  • Increase in investment by private enterprise abroad, most recently illustrated by the Fuyao Glass investment in Ohio;
  • articles such as this one describing Chinese entrepreneurs as either in jail or on the road to jail.

Fourth, proactive service for the construction of “one belt one road” 

This section repeats many of the themes highlighted in the SPC’s earlier pronouncements on One Belt One Road (OBOR or Belt & Road), the maritime courts, and foreign-related commercial developments. The Chinese courts continue to grapple with the increased interaction and conflicts with courts in foreign jurisdictions. The OBOR jurisdictions are handicapped by a dearth of legal professionals with familiarity with the Chinese legal system.

We should expect to see more developments directly or indirectly linked to OBOR, including a more standardized approach to the judicial review of arbitration clauses.

Fifth, strengthen the judicial response to the risks and challenges of the economy

Among the issues that President Zhou Qiang mentioned

  •  Internet finance;
  • Internet fraud;
  • illegal fund-raising and other crimes;
  • real estate disputes;
  • cases involving people’s livelihood, increasing the recourse of migrant workers and other cases of wage arrears.

These are all ongoing, difficult issues for the courts. Legislation does not demarcate clearly the line between legal and illegal forms of financing as discussed here. Migrant workers, particularly in the construction industry, are often not hired under labor contracts but labor service contracts, which reduces their entitlements under the law. As the Chinese economy continues to soften, it is likely that complex real estate disputes (of the type seen in 2015) will burden the lower courts.

We are likely to see further developments in these areas.

President Zhou Qiang told the courts to make good use of judicial “big data” to detect trends and issues so the courts can put forward targeted recommendations for reference of the Party committee and government decision-makers. He has made this point repeatedly recently.

For foreign observers of China, judicial big data is in fact a useful source of indicating trends across the Chinese economy, society, and government.  This blog has flagged some analyses, but there is much more than can and should be done.

Inspectors stationed at the Supreme People’s Court & Procuratorate

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CIG mobilization meeting at the SPC

Close followers of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) media outlets will have noticed a 15 November report of a mobilization meeting of the Central Inspection Group (CIG) #2 inspecting the SPC’s Communist Party group.  A brief report on CCTV is found here. Further digging reveals that news of the inspection was released on the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) website in early November, and that the inspection is part of the current round of CIG inspections of 27 Party, government, and other entities.  Other legal institutions being inspected in this round include the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) and the China Law Society (a mass (government organized non-government organization)).  The Ministry of Public Security was inspected earlier this year in an earlier round,  along with the State Council’s Legislative Affairs Office, the National People’s Congress (including its Legislative Affairs Commission), the State Intellectual Property Office, and many others.

report on CIG #7’s mobilization meeting at the SPP was released at the same as the SPC’s, and is worded similarly to the SPC report.These institutions are being inspected for approximately a two month period, from 11 November (14 November for the SPP) to 10 January 2017.

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CIG mobilization meeting at SPP

Background on CIGs and how they operate can be found in a recent New York Times article (focusing on the Ministry of Public Security’s inspection) and this scholarly article by Professor Fu Hualing of the University of Hong Kong’s law faculty.

According to these  notices, the focus is on the Party leadership of these institutions, at the highest and next highest level, and compliance with political and Party discipline.

Some comments

Matters that require the attention of the SPC’s  senior leadership (and similarly the SPP’s), of which there are many (one small example is considering whether a draft judicial interpretation is ready for passage) , are likely to find a much slower response time, as persons in the most senior positions, and those senior personnel with whom they work most closely, will most likely be preoccupied with responding to the requests of the inspectors. (This insight is derived from my personal experience (with school inspectors), my many discussions with in-house counsel facing government inspectors, and the rich professional/scholarly commentary on government inspections/audits).

I can only hope (as a long-time foreign observer of the SPC (and less so of the SPP), that the leaders of these institutions have done a good job in personal compliance, as well as signalling to their institutions the importance of complying with various types of political and Party discipline, because a well-functioning Chinese judicial system (and a prosecutorial system) is important not only for China, but the rest of the world.

One small example of the work facing the SPC that is relevant to the rest of the world is one of the Chinese government’s commitments at the Hangzhou G20 meeting, which requires the SPC to take on a major role in improving the operation of China’s bankruptcy system:

China and the United States recognize the importance of the establishment and improvement of impartial bankruptcy systems and mechanisms. China attaches great importance to resolving excess capacity through the systems and mechanisms relating to mergers and acquisitions; restructuring; and bankruptcy reorganization, bankruptcy settlement, and bankruptcy liquidation, according to its laws. In the process of addressing excess capacity, China is to implement bankruptcy laws by continuing to establish special bankruptcy tribunals, further improving the bankruptcy administrator systems and using modern information tools. China and the United States commit to, starting as early as 2016, conduct regular and ad hoc communication and exchanges regarding the implementation of our respective bankruptcy laws through forums or mutual visits.