SPC Updates its Guidance on Judicial (Adjudication) Committees

2016 meeting of SPC judicial committee, to which NPC, CPCC representatives, and certain experts were invited

On 22 September the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) updated its guidance to the lower courts on judicial committees (关于健全完善人民法院审判委员会工作机制的意见). (also translated as “adjudication committees”) (审判委员会). For those new to this blog, these committees are made up of certain senior members of a court, and they have special decision-making authority, as detailed below. They decide cases that are too difficult or important for an individual judge or judicial panel to decide, to ensure the optimal substantive result (as seen from the institutional perspective of the courts).

The document is a policy document (explained here), as indicated by its document number 法发〔2019〕20号). Lower courts (and the specialized courts) can issue further detailed guidance, have in the past and will do so.  In 2010 the SPC issued guidance on judicial committees (2010 guidance), which I analyzed in this article, Reforming-judicial-committees.  The article includes some insights from a number of judges with whom I spoke at the time.  Reforming judicial committees has been on the SPC’s agenda since the prior round of judicial reforms, as my 2014 blogpost discusses. I predicted that reform would occur “in the medium term.”  There are is a great deal of writing about judicial committees in English and especially in Chinese.  My 2014 blogpost links to some of the English language research, and other insights about how judicial committees work can be found in Embedded Courts, the prize-winning book by NG Kwai Hang and He Xin.

The broad consensus on judicial committee reform can be seen in Articles 36-39 of the Organic Law of the People’s Courts, as amended in 2018 (2018 People’s Courts Law), but the 2019 guidance sets out more detailed rules.

This blogpost will highlight some of the issues that come to mind in a quick review.

A quick list of what is new follows:

  • There are some changes in the format of SPC Opinions (意见) so that it is usual for them to begin with a list of basic principles.
  • As to be expected, Party leadership and related principles are listed at the top of both the 2019 and 2010 guidance.  Both stress upholding Party leadership of the work of the people’s courts, with the 2019 guidance referring to “upholding the Party’s absolute leadership over the work of the people’s courts.”  This should not at all be surprising, as the phrase has been used repeatedly since the 2019 Political-Legal Work Conference. The Party Regulations on Political-Legal Work use the phrase “Party’s absolute leadership.” As I mentioned earlier this year, Li Ling (of the University of Vienna) sees this as indicating a complete and unambivalent severance from the judicial independence framework.
  • On membership of judicial committees, The 2018 People’s Courts Law and the new guidance retain the old system of having the court president and vice-presidents, but no longer requires division heads (庭长) to be members, but refers to “experienced”(资深) judges and to the possibility of having full-time members.  The  SPC already does this.  Justices Hu Yunteng, Liu Guixiang, Pei Xianding, and He Xiaorong are full-time members of the judicial committee, which gives them a bureaucratic rank equivalent to being an SPC vice president, with attendant privileges. It is likely that the Central Staffing Commission regulates the number of persons who can be SPC vice presidents.  Judging by the SPC website, some SPC judicial committee members are not SPC Party Group members, although of course there is some overlap.
  • Another innovation in the 2018 People’s Courts Law, repeated in the 2019 guidance, is having specialized judicial committees, to focus on more specialized issues, and to deal with the problem of having non-specialist judges making decisions on issues regarding which they are not familiar.  This provision consolidates ongoing practice in both the SPC and lower courts  My understanding is that the Shenzhen Intermediate Court was one of the earlier courts to establish specialist judicial committees.  The roots of this innovation lie in the 2004-2008 Second Judicial Reform Five Year Plan Outline. (This also illustrates the time it takes for some judicial reforms to be adopted.)
  • On the functions of judicial committees, new language mentions “sensitive, major, and difficult cases such as those involving national security, diplomacy, or social stability.”  That language is new as compared to the 2010 guidance.  It is not new to the SPC, as it appears in the SPC’s 2017 judicial responsibility regulations, about which I wrote.  I surmise that this is just spelling out what had been the general practice.   Most of the other functions are consistent with previous guidance.
  • The operational language is more detailed than before and gives a glimpse into the bureaucratic nature of the Chinese court system ( a collegial panel or single judge who thinks a case should go to the judicial committee  “submit an application and report it up to the court president for approval level by level; and where an application is not submitted, but the court president finds it necessary, they may request that the adjudication committee deliberate and make a decision. The language enabling a court president to designate a case for judicial committee discussion likely represents a consolidation of practice, rather than something new.
  • Other procedures in the operational section are new, reflecting the new institution of the professional judges committee and much more specific requirements concerning the content of the report that the judges are required to prepare for the judicial committee, including arguments by both/all parties, prosecution/defense counsel and a clear listing of the issues on the application of law that require discussion and decision by the adjudication committee, the opinions of the professional (presiding) judges meeting. In a clear signal about how the SPC sees the importance of case research, it also requires judges preparing these reports to search for similar or related cases.
  • The 2019 guidance requires judicial committee members with a conflict to recuse themselves  (the language is unclear about whether a party can apply to do that).  This is new, and reflects many years of criticism of the failure to have a recusal mechanism.
  • The 2019 guidance also imposes a quorum requirement on judicial committee meetings, both the plenary and specialized committee meetings. Certain outsiders (people’s congress delegates, scholars, etc) may attend, as well as the chief procurator at the same level or his delegate (this latter provision is not new).
  • Decisions are made by at least half of the members attending and dissenting opinions must be recorded in the case file. It does not mention that dissenting opinions will be mentioned in the judgment issued to the parties and the public. As before, the decision of the judicial committee is binding on the judge or judges who heard the case (principle of democratic centralism).
  •  The 2018 People’s Court Law and new guidance require the decision and reasoning in cases discussed by the adjudication committee to be disclosed in the judgment documents unless the law provides otherwise, so a significant step forward in judicial committee transparency.  The lack of judicial committee transparency had been criticized for many years.
  • Judicial committees at all levels of the courts are now required to create an audio or visual recording of the entire process of judicial committee meetings and keep them confidential. Judicial committee proceedings are required to be incorporated in a court’s caseflow management system. It is not clear from the guidance who or which entity would have access.
  • Those not involved in judicial committee proceedings (outside leaders, senior judges not involved) are forbidden from involving themselves in judicial committee proceedings.  If this didn’t happen in practice, it wouldn’t have been included in this guidance.
  • Similarly, the language in the 2019 rules on judicial committee members and other maintaining confidentiality and work discipline, and not leaking trial work secrets (I discuss this in my article published earlier this year.  If this didn’t happen in practice, it wouldn’t have been included in this guidance.

Although for many years proposals have been made to abolish the judicial committee, I have rarely heard anyone who has worked in the Chinese judicial system agree with that proposal.  It seems more likely that the SPC thinking is maintaining the judicial committee system is appropriate for China at this time, given the level of professionalism nationwide, the need to share/avoid responsibility for making difficult decisions, and the greater political environment.  This guidance appears to be designed to deal with some of the abuses of the judicial committee system, have greater (but not complete) transparency, incorporate new court institutions, and generally improve how the committees operate.

 

Central Inspection Group inspecting the Supreme People’s Court (again)

Mobilization meeting for the #4 CIG inspection

This week the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC’s ) media outlets are carrying this 10 September report of the Central Inspection Group (CIG) #4’s mobilization meeting to inspect the SPC’s Communist Party group.  The same group is also inspecting the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP). Senior leaders (that with a bureaucratic rank of deputy bureau chief and above 副局级以上干部) of the SPC and its institutions attended in person (as well as related personnel). Those in the SPC’s six circuit courts  (巡回法庭) attended by videolink.  Zhao Fengtong is heading  (this English biography is outdated) the inspection group. He gave a speech at the mobilization meeting. President Zhou Qiang, who chaired the meeting, spoke as well. A search of Caixin’s website reveals that Zhao Fengtong has headed many such inspection groups. News of the inspection was announced on the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) website last week and other media outlets. The inspection is part of the current round of CIG inspections, which total 37 Party, government, and other entities.  A CIG group last inspected the SPC almost three years ago. The previous mobilization meeting and inspector results were previously mentioned on this blog.

The China Law Society (a mass (government-organized non-government organization)) and the Ministry of Justice are being inspected in this round of inspections. Each has held its own mobilization meeting.

The inspection appears to be one example of the strengthening of Party leadership in the SPC. The inspection appears to be linked to language in earlier documents to strengthen the leadership of the Communist Party (加强党的领导) and to strengthen Party political construction (党的政治建设).  The Party Center issued a document on political construction earlier this year.

The remarks that Zhao Fengtong made are consistent with the document on political construction. Some of the points that Zhao Fengtong and Zhou Qiang made are highlighted below (along with my brief comments in italics):

  • the SPC, as a central organ, assumes a major political responsibility and glorious historical mission (重大政治责任和历史使命).  This phrase is to be found in SPC policy documents supporting important government initiatives;
  • Inspections are political supervision and a comprehensive political examination of the implementation by the Party Group of a Central and national organ of its political responsibility and duties (巡视是政治监督,是对中央和国家机关党组织履行政治责任和职责使命情况的全面政治体检). The term “political inspection” appears to be used frequently since earlier this year–the report on the previous mobilization meeting did not use this term.
  • The focus is on inspecting how the SPC is implementing the Party line, direction and policies and the major decisions that the Party Center has announced (重点监督检查落实党的路线方针政策和党中央重大决策部署情况);
  • The inspection will search out political deviance (深入查找政治偏差).  This phrase is found in the document on political construction–“put efforts into discovering and correcting political deviation” (着力发现和纠正政治偏差).

President Zhou Qiang stated that the Party group fully supports the work of the inspection group, will correct the problems found, will not delay or blame.  He mentioned that the institution will combine support for the work of the inspection group with current work (要把配合做好巡视工作与抓好当前工作结合起来).  The SPC is a court, to whom the public looks for justice. Informal inquiries indicate that the SPC has an even larger civil and commercial caseload this year.  Although earlier this year it raised the minimum amount in dispute for cases that it will take, the current state of the economy means that the SPC is facing a large increase in civil/commercial disputes. Domestic cases have a six-month deadline for resolution, placing a great deal of pressure on judges to resolve them timely, either by encouraging settlement or issuing judgments (or rulings).  

As in the previous round, the CIG is inspecting the SPC for approximately two months. The inspection group has provided an email and telephone number for those wishing to provide further information.

Background on CIGs and how they operate can be found in a 2016 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.

 

Signals from the Supreme People’s Court’s national civil/commercial trial work conference

download

Justice Liu Guixiang in a photo from some years ago

During the first week of July,  the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) held its civil/commercial work conference (民商事工作会议), at which senior SPC and lower court leaders (and other leaders) gathered to hear about the latest SPC policies concerning civil and commercial cases.

As this blog has noted, most of the work of the Chinese courts involves civil and commercial disputes, not criminal cases. President Zhou Qiang gave an important speech which set the tone for the conference, but the one that the practitioners (judges and lawyers) are paying close attention is the keynote speech by Justice Liu Guixiang, full-time member of the SPC Judicial Committee and organizer of the conference. From the content of Justice Liu’s speech, it appears that the focus was domestic commercial cases.  For those who want to review the text in full, it is available here and here (the second version was published on the Wechat account Empire Lawyers (法客帝国)and includes an introduction and highlighting by the lawyer who has the account.) (The last conference was in December 2015.) This blogpost highlights some of the many issues his speech raises.

(For those not familiar with SPC work conferences, the description I provided 25 years ago remains accurate: “Another important way through which the [SPC] uses these meetings is to transmit central legal policy, unify court practices in accordance with such policy, and obtain an overview of current court practices and problems.”)

Justice Liu Guixiang is a senior member of the SPC and one of a relatively few senior judges who graduated from the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) (formerly affiliated with the predecessor to the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM)) and so is familiar with cross-border issues in particular (and was earlier head of the #4 Civil Division, in charge of cross-border issues). He is well known to the international community. Justice Liu has been given responsibility for the SPC’s campaign to basically resolve enforcement difficulties within two or three years (as the former head of the Enforcement Bureau).  Because problems in the Chinese economy means that many more business deals in China are ending up as disputes in the Chinese courts, the SPC needs to signal to the lower courts how important issues should be handled and to the senior political leadership that the courts are supporting the Party and its core.

Justice Liu conveyed messages on two types of issues to two parts of the audience for his speech.  The two parts of his audience were (are) the political leadership and tens of thousands of judges involved with civil and commercial issues, as well as others in the court system.   The two types of issues are political issues and legal issues, both on substantive law and procedural law.  People outside of China might be tempted to dwell on the political messages (as this analysis does, as time doesn’t permit better analysis of the legal issues), but the messages on legal issues are those ones that will have the greatest impact on the court system and on practitioners. The speech will be reviewed, discussed, and used as the basis for further work in the court system, and attentive lawyers and in-house counsel know that the content of the speech will affect their litigation strategy and business. I’ve spotted one synopsis on the takeaways from the conference from one of Beijing’s prestigious law firms and more are following.

Political issues

The first part of his speech addressed political issues, but that part also includes some highlighting of critical legal issues. He states that politics is the most important. Justice Liu repeats some of the “innovative” language from January’s Political-Legal Work Conference that I mentioned in a blogpost earlier this year (with which his speech is harmonized).  “As a political and legal organ, the people’s court is first and foremost a political organ. It must put political construction in the first place and clearly talk politics” )人民法院作为政法机关,首先是政治机关,必须把政治建设摆在首位,旗帜鲜明讲政治 )(I was tested on the phrase “talk politics/讲政治“ recently by some persons in the system with a sense of humor).

Principle #1 (of four)–“To uphold the absolute leadership of the Party. The leadership of the Party is the fundamental requirement of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and it is the root and soul of the people’s court.”…However, “the erroneous thoughts of so-called “constitutionalism”, “separation of powers” and “judicial independence” of the West must be resolutely resisted. This is a major issue of political principle and we cannot be vaguely ambiguous.” One commentator noted that this principle is greater than any ordinary principle of law.

This language harkens back to that used by President Zhou Qiang in January 2017. Why this was included, when the audience would know these principles clearly?  Likely for senior political leadership to see that the courts are harmonized with the Center and to ensure that the Center knows that SPC leadership is doing everything to ensure court cadres (judges and other court officials) are as well.

Principle #2, serve the Party and the greater situation.

Justice Liu reminds his audience that “it is necessary to fully realize that there is no rule of law that does not have political positions or political views” (没有不具有政治立场、政治观点的法治). In civil and commercial trials, we must have a stable political stance, determine the political direction correctly, pay attention to the political effect, consider the political influence (impact), and be good at analyzing complicated issues from the perspective of politics, from the perspective of the fundamental interests of the people, and from the perspective of the overall economic and social development of the party and the country, integrate politics in civil and commercial trial work.” (在民商事审判中必须站稳政治立场,把准政治方向,注重政治效果,考虑政治影响,善于从政治角度从人民群众根本利益角度、从党和国家经济社会发展大局的角度分析处理错综复杂的民商事矛盾纠纷,把政治融入具体的民商事审判业务中.

Interestingly, he notes that the system of recording interference by senior court leaders and other Party/government leaders has not been effective, and this must be implemented as well as the judicial responsibility system (问题在于我们在审判实务中没有不折不扣地落实好,非法过问案件登记制度的功能没有得到有效发挥。必须采取有效措施把这项与司法责任制相配套的改革措施落到实处).  This appears to be a reflection of the concern of many judges that they will be held responsible for judicial decisions that they made because they were under pressure to do so from senior court officials or local officials.

American civil (and criminal) procedure law professors would be intrigued to know that “so-called long-arm jurisdiction” merited mention in Justice Liu’s speech (“Pay close attention to the United States’ all-around suppression in the fields of economy, politics, science and technology, etc. and the implementation of so-called ‘long-arm jurisdiction”‘to bring new challenges to our country’s judiciary;高度关注美国从经济、政治、科技等领域对我国进行全方位打压,实施所谓“长臂管辖”给我国司法带来的新挑战.

Justice Liu includes in this section several legal issues and highlights the way that Chinese judges should think when hearing cases:

When making judgments, we must fully consider the overall situation of economic and social development, political effects, and social effects.  When dealing with major and sensitive cases, we must pay attention [carefully listen] to the opinions of financial supervision departments, state-owned asset management departments, and social organizations such as  small and medium enterprise associations to accurately grasp the overall situation of social stability, social impact, and political impact. 我们在作出判断时,要充分考虑经济社会发展大局、政治效果、社会效果. 在处理重大敏感案件时,要注意听取金融监管部门、国有资产管理等部门以及中小企业协会等社会组织的意见,精确把握社会稳定大局、社会影响、政治影响。

Justice Liu called for more work on bankruptcy law, particularly strengthening coordination with government, resolving obstacles in bankruptcy liquidation and reorganization, and introduce judicial interpretations to deal with the legal issues. In order to prevent and resolve major risks, the people’s courts should issue judicial interpretations or judicial policies on issues such as bond defaults that directly affect financial security and social concerns, equity pledges of listed companies, and Internet lending.

He calls for deepening supply-side structural reform and promoting high-quality economic development; clearing out “zombie enterprises”; preventing financial risks, protecting the legitimate rights and interests of private enterprises, establishing a legalized business environment, and other civil and commercial matters, and mentions the “Fengqiao Experience,” but in relation to the 2018 SPC Joint Opinion with the China Securities Regulatory Commission on increasing diversified dispute resolution for securities disputes and a single dispute resolution platform linking litigation and other forms of dispute resolution.  He flags future work in using other forms of dispute resolution to resolve financial/securities disputes.

Legal issues

Substantive legal issues are the ones that have attracted the interest of judges and other legal professionals. Politics is also visible in the way that Judge Liu phrased his summary of the legal issues briefly noted below  (particularly his use of dialectical analysis, consistent with Party Center language). (This analysis will be expanded later as time permits). The issues that he is highlighting are the major ones, particularly regarding commercial issues.  He is providing the view of the SPC (likely drawing on the views of the #2 Civil Division, the division focusing on domestic commercial issues), and is signaling where Chinese courts are in disagreement and should conform.

As to why Chinese courts disagree or are unclear on these issues, and why this speech will unify courts’ approaches, it has to do with Chinese legislation and judicial interpretations. Judge Liu’s speech is a type of judicial policy document, in essence. As I mentioned in a recent blogpost, rules or policies included in SPC judicial policy documents may eventually be crystallized in SPC judicial interpretations and eventually codified in national law, but that process is slow and cannot meet the needs of the lower courts. The lower courts need to deal properly (politically and legally) with outstanding legal issues pending a more permanent stabilization of legal rules. This is true for judicial policy documents in all areas of the law, not only in commercial law.  Therefore Justice Liu used this conference to convey the SPC’s views:

  1.  He flags the issues where Chinese courts disagree: validity of external guarantees given by companies; the validity of a contract if a fake chop is used; scope of the security rights when a security contract and registrations are inconsistent; guarantee contracts linked to shareholding (让与担保); how to adjust damages, how to implement the right to terminate a contract (如公司对外担保的效力问题、盖假章合同的效力问题、合同约定与登记簿记载不一致的担保物权的范围问题、让与担保问题,甚至连违约金如何调整、解除权行使的条件等一些常见问题);
  2. Methodology–in trying difficult and new civil and commercial issues, judges should search for “similar cases” and determine whether prior cases have derived related principles.  This links with my recent blogpost flagging the SPC’s development of its case law system (with Chinese characteristics). Justice Liu does not use the word “precedent.” He directs judges to consider whether principles in prior cases are applicable, if not, reasons should be given, and if an old principle is to be reversed, reasons should be given and these should be discussed by either the specialized judges committee or judicial committee. He stresses what I had mentioned previously, that principles are needed on what the scope of “similar cases” are.
  3. On disputes involving Value Adjustment Mechanisms (VAMs), judges should seek to coordinate the conflicts of interest between investors, companies and creditors. and implement the principle of capital maintenance and the principle of protecting the legitimate rights and interests of creditors, and to balance the interests of investors, shareholders, the company, and its creditors;
  4. He repeats SPC policy on an old FAQ (frequently asked question)–what if a contract violates a local policy, normative document, or ministerial rule–should a court invalidate the contract? The answer is no, the court needs to consider whether there is a violation of public order (公共秩序), which he says is mostly seen in violations of law or State Council administrative regulations;
  5.  How to protect all types of entities equally and provide special protection to groups such as minority shareholders and financial consumers;
  6. He gives practical guidance to for judges grappling with a theoretical legal issue–how to understand the status of the relevant law when the General Principles of Civil Law (2017) is inconsistent with earlier legislation such as the 1986 General Principles of Civil Law,  the 1999 Contract Law, the Company Law (last amended in 2018). The new law supersedes inconsistent prior law, but if provisions of the 2017 law are inconsistent with the special part of the Contract Law, the Contract Law prevails (on the theory that specialized provisions prevail)
  7. Issues related to the validity of contracts, including contracts that never went into force,
  8. Corporate guarantees to third parties–an issue regarding which there has been a great deal of litigation and court rulings have varied widely,  He sets down some rules;
  9. How to correctly understand a provision of the Company Law Judicial Interpretation #2, that gives creditors the right to seek the liquidation of a company in certain circumstances;
  10. Private lending (particularly interest-related issues);
  11.  Issues related to a debtor or guarantor using company shares to secure an obligation, and the related rights of the company and its creditors, voting rights and rights to dividends in the company., and whether the creditor has a priority right. Justice Liu notes the law is silent on the validity of such agreements but the SPC takes the view that these agreements are valid, as long as no mandatory provisions of law are violated;
  12. Remedies for a third party–raising objections in enforcement proceedings, requests for retrial, and applying to proceedings.
  13. How to deal with cases with both civil and criminal aspects–if civil and criminal case involves the same facts, it should be referred for criminal investigation first, and if there is some dispute, it can be coordinated by the local political-legal committee.  The major issue in practice is how to determine whether “the same facts are involved.”  Justice Liu points his audience to several factors. This is also an old issue in the Chinese courts, but has taken on new importance now that the Chinese government is using criminal prosecution to deal with abuses in the financial system that affect the interests of consumers and investors.

Not said in Justice Liu’s speech is whether the broad substantive content will be reissued in a form more useful to frontline judges (and other members of the legal community).  If practice is any guide, that is likely we will see a conference summary (会议纪要)–the SPC issued a conference summary based on the 2015 conference 11 months after the conference itself, on one set of issues.

 

 

China’s new judicial reforms on case law & other guidance

Gazette of the Jiangsu Higher People’s Court

As mentioned in my earlier blogpost, the Supreme People’s Court issued the fifth judicial reform plan outline in February, of this year (2019), harmonized with the current focus on Party leadership. For people with the fortitude to decode Chinese official documents, some real content can be found in the document. One of those provisions is #26 and relates to the ongoing efforts of the SPC to implement greater uniformity and consistency in the way that the law is applied in the courts (the translation below is from Chinalawtranslate.com):

#26 Improve mechanisms for the uniform application of law. Strengthen and regulate work on judicial interpretations, complete mechanisms for researching, initiating, drafting, debating, reviewing, publishing, cleaning up, and canceling judicial interpretations, to improve centralized management and report review mechanisms. Improve the guiding cases system, complete mechanisms for reporting, selecting, publishing, assessing, and applying cases. Establish mechanisms for high people’s courts filing for the record trial guidance documents and reference cases. Complete mechanisms for connecting the work of case discussion by presiding judges and collegial panel deliberations, the compensation commission, and the judicial committee. Improve working mechanisms for mandatory searches and reporting of analogous cases and new types of case. (完善统一法律适用机制。 加强和规范司法解释工作,健全司法解释的调研、立项、起草、论证、审核、发布、清理和废止机制,完善归口管理和报备审查机制。完善指导性案例制度,健全案例报送、筛选、发布、评估和应用机制。建立高级人民法院审判指导文件和参考性案例的备案机制。健全主审法官会议与合议庭评议、赔偿委员会、审判委员会讨论案件的工作衔接机制。完善类案和新类型案件强制检索报告工作机制)

As for why the uniform application of law is an issue, the quick explanation is the drafting of Chinese legislation often leaves important issues unresolved and outsources to the SPC (and SPP for some issues) the hard job of drafting more detailed provisions. (see Chinalawtranslate.com for many examples and NPC_observer.com for insights about the legislative drafting process).  Comments about the role of case law are found below.

#26 mentions the following:

  • improving judicial interpretations;
  • improving the guiding case system;
  • establishing a system for higher people’s courts to record with the SPC their guiding-type documents and reference cases;
  • improving China’s case law system.

Judicial interpretations

The SPC regulations on judicial interpretation work date from 2007. Some later guidance on that topic was issued several years ago, but that guidance has not been made broadly available. So it appears that one signal that this provision is sending is that the 2007 regulations need to be updated. It appears likely that the SPC will harmonize the language in its rules with the 2015 Legislation Law. Other provisions are unclear. One guess (based on the SPC document on incorporating socialist core values into judicial interpretations) is that language about socialist core values will be incorporated into any amended rules on judicial interpretation work. The Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) revised its rules on judicial interpretation work earlier this year, and it is possible that the SPC will harmonize some of the language in its rules with those of the SPP.

Another guess is that those rules will codify existing practices on drafting, discussions, etc.. As my blogpost (and recently published article) on the SPC’s Pilot Free Trade Zone Opinion details, the drafting process for judicial interpretations (and similar types of guidance) operates on the basis of long-standing practices. (My forthcoming article stuck in the academic publishing process has many more details on the drafting process for criminal procedure law interpretations).

This provision appears to be aimed at the SPC’s Research Office, which takes the lead in managing the judicial interpretation process and deals with ongoing criticism that the SPC allows inconsistent judicial interpretations to be issued. It is unclear whether the improvements mentioned will involve more public consultation than previously.

Guiding cases

I will leave detailed comments on how the guiding case system will be improved to others, as research by others (see Jeremy Daum’s article) tends to show that guiding cases are rarely cited. I surmise that the intent of the provision is to speed up the selection and approval process for guiding cases, as well as the use rate.

Local High Court Guidance

This language codifies the long-standing practice of local high courts issuing guiding rules applicable within their jurisdictions. As discussed in my article on judicial transparency, published earlier this year, senior legal scholar Li Buyun raised questions about the validity of local court guidance in his letter to the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress last year (2018). Article 104 of the Legislation Law forbids adjudication and procuratorate organs other than the
Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate from making specific interpretations on the application of law. 2010 SPC guidance had normalized the long-term practice of higher people’s courts (and their equivalent in the specialized courts) in issuing documents, characterized as ‘”trial work documents” (审判业务文件) and issuing reference-type cases (参考性案例).

Evidence of the importance of the practice can be seen by the fact that leading law firms publish client alerts about important local court guidance. This provision calls for a filing for the record system (with the SPC) of higher court guidance and reference cases to be established. It is not clear whether this system (apparently intended to enable the SPC to monitor local guidance and reference cases better) will result in a system that provides greater transparency to these rules. I had noted varying transparency requirements for local court guidance in my article. The Gazette of the Jiangsu Higher People’s Court (pictured above) publishes its court guidance under the section “judicial documents” (司法文件). That Gazette also includes local reference cases, entitled reference cases (参考案例)。 Terminology for local reference cases is not consistent, with the Shanghai Higher People’s Court issuing cases with a referential nature (参考性案例).

Improving China’s Case Law System

I wrote about in greater length in this short academic article published in the Tsinghua China Law Review two years ago (and in this blogpost three years ago) on how non-guiding cases guide. This part of the #26 consolidates some of the provisions of previous judicial reform documents and signals that the SPC’s judicial reform office is focusing on how to provide better guidance to the lower courts on using non-guiding cases and other forms of guidance documents that are not judicial interpretations. One issue not specifically mentioned is the relative authority of guidance documents and judgments/rulings by courts. It is assumed that SPC decisions are more authoritative than lower court ones.

The first sentence addresses the use of other forms of case guidance and transforming this case guidance into written documents. The titles, authority, etc. of these guidance documents are likely to be settled over time. One type that I have observed is the specialized judges conference (专业法官会议)(mentioned in at least two 2017 SPC documents: Opinions on Putting a Judicial Responsibility System in Place and Improving Mechanisms for Trial Oversight and Management ;(Provisional) and the SPC’s Judicial Responsibility implementing opinion (最高人民法院司法责任制实施意见(试行)(Implementing Opinion), In these conferences, difficult issues are discussed and provided to the collegial panel involved, but the panel members are not bound by the views of the conferences. This academic study notes that it is a uniquely Chinese institution and has arisen because of judicial caution about deciding cases independently (可以说,专业法官会议是中国特色的法院内部向办案法官提供咨询意见的专门机构,是在走向审判独立的特殊过程中,对法官自由办案能力担心而产生的一种特殊组织), likely in the face of extensive and long term accountability for decisions.

Some portion of SPC specialized judges conference discussions has been consolidated in the form of documents, such as in the form of a conference/meeting summary (会议纪要).  The SPC’s #2 Civil Division (focusing on commercial issues) seems to be leading the way in publishing these meeting summaries–some of the summaries have been published in book form, also with updates published on the internet/Wechat–see this example.

The last sentence of #26 addresses the case law system. The increasing importance of non-guiding cases shows the strength of the case law system that the authorities rejected about 10 years ago. It is clear from Justice Hu Yunteng(currently president of the National Judicial College)’s recollections of the history of the case system with Chinese characteristics, that Judge Jiang Huiling, then his colleague at the China Institute for Applied Jurisprudence (and currently vice president of the National Judges College) had looked to jurisdictions outside of China to advocate that China establish a case law system (Justice Hu doesn’t specify whether Judge Jiang was looking to case law systems in civil or common law jurisdictions in the “West.”). Mark Jia (of Harvard Law School), in his 2016 article, cites Li Shichun of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to the effect that it was the NPC that opposed those seeking to establish a Chinese case law precedential system.
My understanding that the last sentence is intended requires judges handling a case to engage in similar case searches and to report on the results of those searches in certain circumstances (for example, to report on their search before the case is discussed in the specialized judges conference). My earlier blogpost discusses the 2018 document requiring prior case search.–the specific rules for prior case search are not yet in place. What should be searched is not entirely clear.  One knowledgeable person described prior case search as a tool for “catching valuable cases in the sea of cases.” My own understanding is that it will depend on the area of law.  It can be seen from the last blogpost the type of cases considered authoritive in criminal law, but the types of persuasive cases will differ in other areas of law. Prior case search is meant as a tool for the courts to apply the law more consistently (and consistent with the views of the SPC) (an ongoing goal of the SPC). It is also likely that new legal rules evolved in cases will eventually be crystalized in other forms of documentary guidance, be it local court guidance, an SPC policy document, or an SPC judicial interpretation.

On the topic of precedent, as I noted in my 2017 blogpost on the SPC’s implementing opinion on its judicial responsibility system, special approval within the SPC is required if a ruling in a case will be inconsistent with prior SPC rulings on the issue. It means that the SPC is seeking to improve the consistency of its judgments internally.

So it appears that we will be seeing further evolution over the next few years in the tools used by the Chinese courts to provide legal rules: judicial interpretations, guiding cases, local high court guidance and reference cases, other guiding documents, and prior cases, with many of these intended to strengthen the firm guiding hand of the SPC.

 

Signals in the 2019 Supreme People’s Court work report to the NPC

Screenshot 2019-04-19 at 8.49.37 AMI have spent some time decoding Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang’s March 2019 report to the National People’s Congress (NPC). As I explain below, it provides signals into how the Chinese courts are changing and may change in the post 19th Party Congress New Era.

This report is both different from and similar to previous reports. The major difference is linked to the 2019 Central Political-Legal Work Conference (at which Xi Jinping set out in his speech (重要讲话) his view of the New Era for political-legal work(新时代政法各项工作) and the accompanying Party regulations on Political-Legal Work.  As I explain below, the report is linked to other recent Party regulations, such as the Regulations on Requesting Instructions and Reporting on Major Matters (中国共产党重大事项请示报告条例)and Regulations on the Work of Selecting and Appointing Party and Government Cadres (党政领导干部选拔任用工作条例). Although the Regulations on Party Groups were only recently issued (15 April), Zhou Qiang must have been aware of their content when drafting his report. It is also likely that he was aware of the Regulations on the Evaluation of the Work of Party and Government Leading Cadres (党政领导干部考核工作条例), issued on 21 April. As I have written before on this blog, the SPC Court President’s work report must be harmonized with the latest stance on political-legal issues.

What is different?

What is different is greater emphasis on political study and Party leadership, although these are themes that found in many previous SPC court president reports.  The emphasis in this year’s report on political study is on Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想) and Party leadership is on implementing the spirit of the 19th Party Congress  (党的十九大精神) and the January, 2019 Central Political-Legal Work Conference (全面贯…中央政法工作会议精神).

This emphasis shown by the first numbered section of the report.  It is entitled  “Deeply study and implement Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and Uphold the Party’s Absolute Leadership [emphasis added] Over the Work of the People’s Courts (深入学习贯彻习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想坚持党对人民法院工作的绝对领导).”  The phrase “uphold the Party’s absolute leadership over the work of the people’s courts” has been used repeatedly since the 2019 Political-Legal Work Conference.  The Party Regulations on Political-Legal Work (mentioned above) use the phrase “Party’s absolute leadership.”  Li Ling (of the University of Vienna) sees this as indicating a complete and unambivalent severance from the judicial independence framework. The report identifies the primary political task for the courts to be studying Xi Jinping Thought and the 19th Party Congress decision (坚持把学习贯彻习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想和党的十九大精神作为首要政治任务), and it calls for related training for all  350,000 court personnel (深入开展大学习大研讨大培训,对全国法院35万名干警进行全员轮训).

This section also calls for the strict implementation of the [Party] system of reporting and seeking approval for major matters [also known as requests for instructions](严格落实重大事项请示报告制度)(the Party regulations on reporting and seeking approval for major matters(Chinese version here). Those regulations appear to be linked to the Political-Legal Work Conference but were not publicly issued until the end of February).  As mentioned in my recently published article, 1995 regulations on trial work secrets require requests for instructions and their responses in a case to be placed in the supplementary file. These supplementary files are classified as trial work secrets.  There has been significant criticism over many years of the system of requesting instructions/reporting and seeking approval (as I wrote 26 years ago!), and proposals even within the SPC for the system to be “proceduralized” or “judicialized.” Some  academics have called for abolishing it. For those who can read Chinese, I recommend Renmin University Professor Hou Meng’s 2011 article analyzing the system of seeking instructions. The second judicial reform plan (under the late SPC President Xiao Yang), called for reform to the system of reporting and seeking approval/request for instructions system. In a quick search I did of the SPC’s judgment database for the phrase “sought instructions from the higher court (请示上级法院), I found almost 350 that mentioned the phrase (although a certain proportion related to requesting the higher court to designate jurisdiction).

Another indication of the emphasis on Party leadership is found in the section of the report that relates to the courts’ tasks for 2019.  Section #5 of the court tasks refers to improving the quality of court personnel–“speed up the creation of a revolutionized, regularized, specialized, professionalized team, forge a high quality court team that the Party Center relies upon and the masses are satisfied with.”  As explained in an earlier blogpost, “revolutionized” signals absolute Party leadership  (五是加快推进队伍革命化、正规化、专业化、职业化建设,锻造党中央放心、人民群众满意的高素质法院队伍). This language is consistent with the 2019 Political-Legal Work Conference and President Zhou Qiang’s speech to implement the spirit of that Political-Legal Work Conference (note that similar language is found in Procurator-General  Zhang Jun’s report to the NPC).

As in previous years, most of Zhou Qiang’s report was devoted to the SPC’s and lower courts’ accomplishments in various substantive areas and providing selected statistics to support the narrative. Those statistics reveal that most of the cases heard in the Chinese courts are civil and commercial, not criminal.  My incomplete research on the caseload of the SPC comes to a similar conclusion.

What needs to be observed (for those of us focusing on Chinese court developments) is how these recent Party regulations will be integrated with court-related legislation–for example, how the Judges Law will be amended to reflect the latest political developments. [The Judges Law was promulgated on 23 April, a future blogpost will analyze its significance].

Other issues to be observed include the following questions.  What does increased emphasis on Party leadership and political study mean for the operation of the Chinese courts and the increasingly professional judges working within the Chinese court system? The 19th Party Congress report calls for strengthening and improving Party leadership over bodies of state power.   A late January 2019 Central Committee document on strengthening the Party’s political construction (中共中央关于加强党的政治建设的意见) states that the basic nature of various institutions, including the courts (called adjudication /trial organs 审判机关) ) is that they are political institutions (中央和地方各级人大机关、行政机关、政协机关、监察机关、审判机关、检察机关本质上都是政治机关). What does this designation mean for the operation of the courts?

One of the post 19th Party Congress changes that Zhou Qiang mentions is implementing the system of seeking instructions from the Party organization and superior Party organizations and strengthening the leadership role of the Party group in operational (substantive) work and Party construction  (加强对本单位业务工作和党的建设的领导). So what does this mean, for example, for the China International Commercial Court and the SPC’s Intellectual Property Court (and their elite judges), as well as the other SPC judges together dealing with almost 35,000 cases, retaining and attracting high quality legal professionals, particularly at the lower court level (this year’s report recognized that the resignation rate in some local courts is “severe”)? Most of the 28 million cases heard in the Chinese courts were heard at the local level.  What does this mean for confidence in the Chinese court system, be it on the part of the Chinese public, the Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan public, and the international public?  President Zhou Qiang’s report reveals that most of the cases in the Chinese courts involve civil and commercial disputes that for the most part arise between individuals or corporate entities (in 2018 9,017,000 first instance cases involved people’s livelihood, including 1,111,000 first instance employment, medical, pension, and consumer cases), and the courts heard 1,814,000 marriage and family cases. Will integrating socialist core values into judicial interpretations promote the rights of women, not to mention other groups whose rights have traditionally not been fully protected?

Screenshot 2019-04-22 at 10.48.42 AM

graphic from the SPC English language website

 

 

 

Shining a light on Chinese judicial transparency

photo-download

flashlight in the dark

I last wrote on judicial transparency in December (2018), giving a quick analysis of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s latest transparency policy. Two quick updates on this topic:

  1. The Fifth Judicial Reform Plan Outline (Opinions on Deepening the Reform of the Judicial System with Comprehensive Integrated Reforms – Outline of the Fifth Five-Year Reform Program of the People’s Courts (2019-2023) lists as one of the overall goals improving judicial transparency:

further deepen judicial openness, constantly improve the openness of the trial process, openness of court proceedings, openness of judgment documents, openness of enforcement information–the four transparency platforms, comprehensively expand the breadth and depth of judicial openness, improve the form of judicial openness, smooth the parties and lawyers to obtain judicial information channels, build a more open, dynamic, transparent, convenient sunshine judicial system.

The transparency developments highlighted in the Fifth Judicial Reform Plan Outline will be guided by the policy document Supreme People’s Court’s Opinion Concerning the Further Deepening of Judicial Transparency  (Judicial Transparency Opinion 最高人民法院关于进一步深化司法公开的意见)) that I wrote about in December.

2.  The article I mentioned as being in the academic article production pipeline has finally emerged.  It can be found here. It is a chapter from the book Transparency Challenges Facing China and examines some recent developments in China’s judicial transparency. It suggests that although the scope of judicial transparency is inevitably shaped by the requirements to keep state and trial work secrets confidential, the Supreme People’s Court, within the boundaries of what is politically achievable, is taking concrete steps to expand the scope of judicial transparency.  The article focuses on information on judges and courts, statistics and big data, and judicial normative documents, digging into relevant court rules and highlighting Chinese language commentary.  The article shows that views on judicial transparency within the Chinese judiciary are not as monolithic as an outsider might have initially assumed.

 

What does China’s Judges Law draft mean?

Screenshot 2019-01-25 at 11.47.56 AM

21 January China Law Society organized discussion of Judges Law draft (note disproportionately few women)

Although the redraft of China’s Judges Law has the potential to have an impact on many in the world outside of China, few people have taken an interest, judging by the pageviews of its translation on Chinalawtranslate.com (62). (I’m indebted to Jeremy Daum and others for translating it).  Judging by a search on Wechat, the same is true in China.  The workshop pictured above, organized by the China Law Society, appears to be one of the few in which views on the draft were aired.  There must have been strong views on the draft, but the report did not provide any details (and it is apparent no foreigners participated). The draft was released before the Communist Party (Party) Central Committee’s 2019 Political-Legal Work Conference and therefore does not reflect the most current political signals. The draft is open for public comments until 3 February and over 800 comments have been submitted as of 25 January.  An earlier draft was made available for public comment (as well as related institutions) for comment and the China Law Society organized comments on that draft as well. The current draft incorporates input from various sources.

The law, if enacted in its current form, will have short and long term implications for the Chinese judiciary.  As the Chinese judiciary seeks to be increasingly connected with the outside world, through its work in negotiating the (draft) Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Judgments at the Hague Conference on Private International Law, the Arrangement on Reciprocal Recognition and Enforcement of Judgments in Civil and Commercial Matters between mainland China and Hong Kong, as well as other more controversial involvement, the questions it raises for outside observers (and Chinese ones as well) is–what vision does it convey of the Chinese judge?  What rights and responsibilities does a Chinese judge have under this law? Will this law, if enacted in its current form, encourage competent people to remain in the judicial system and promising young people to enter it?  When I first flagged the redrafting of the law in 2015, I commented–“how to reorganize the Chinese judiciary and what professional status Chinese judges should have and work under will affect how judicial reforms are implemented and less directly, more fundamental issues concerning China’s economy and society.”

Some brief (not comprehensive) comments follow:

It consolidates the framework of the old law, incorporates legislative changes and many judicial reforms, leaves some flexibility for future reforms, and reflects current Communist Party (Party) policy towards political-legal institutions and their personnel as set forth in the 2019 Party regulations on political-legal work.

The Judges Law does not stand on its own. It is connected with other legislation, such as the recently amended Civil Servants Law  the amended court organizational law, and of course, relevant Party rules.   The initial drafting was led by the SPC, in particular, its Political Department (as the Party is in charge of cadres).

Chapter I: General Provisions

This section with broad statements is longer than the previous version.  Among the notable amendments.

Article 1, concerning the purpose of the law: “advance the regularization, specialization, and professionalization of judges; to strengthen the management of judges; to ensure that the people’s courts independently exercise the adjudication power; to ensure judges’ performance of their duties in accordance with law; to ensure judicial fairness; and to preserve the lawful rights and interests of judges”–sends signals concerning the professionalization of the Chinese judges, with principles of independence (better read as autonomy) and fairness not listed first. It should be noted that during the 2019 Political-Legal Work Conference, the “revolutionization” of political-legal teams was listed before regularization and professionalization (加快推进政法队伍革命化、正规化、专业化、职业化建设,忠诚履职尽责). (“Revolutionization” appears to meant to signal the absolute leadership of the Party.) SPC President Zhou Qiang gave a speech at a meeting to implement the spirit of that Political-Legal Work Conference which also listed “revolutionization” first, but he stressed the greater importance of professionalization (加快推进队伍革命化、正规化、专业化、职业化建设,把专业化建设摆到更加重要位置来抓) as the operation of and public confidence in the Chinese court system depends on retaining and attracting professionals. The establishment of the CICC, the Shanghai Financial Court and the Intellectual Property Court of the Supreme People’s Court all represent professionalization and specialization.

Article 2 mentions various types of judicial personnel, the functions some of which are defined in the court organizational law, but for others, such as division chiefs and deputy division chiefs, mentioned without definition.  A Chinese court has many administrative characteristics, but it would be helpful for the Chinese and offshore public to flag some basic principles regarding the functions of persons with these different titles, as these are found scattered in various SPC regulations.

Article 4: Judges shall treat parties and other litigation participants justly. The law is applied equally to any all individuals and organizations.  But the law treats different types of parties differently (embezzling money from a private enterprise vs. state-owned company) and other provisions of law treat cases involving senior officials differently from ordinary people (see this article on the principle of trying criminal cases involving high officials in a jurisdiction outside which the case arose).

Chapter II: Judges’ duties, obligations and rights

On Judicial duties, Articles 8 and 9, on the duties of ordinary judges and ones with a title do not clarify what participating in trials and being responsible for their cases mean (the latter is linked to the 2015 responsibility system that (as this blog has mentioned), gives judges a great deal of stress. Perhaps the German Judiciary Law could be a source of inspiration on judicial duties.

Chapter III: Requirements and Selection of Judges

This chapter incorporates a number of policy changes that have been implemented under the judicial reforms and also explains why the China International Commercial Court (CICC) will not be able to appoint foreign judges, unlike its counterparts in Singapore and Dubai.

Article 12 is a revised version of old Article 9, requiring judges to be PRC citizens, uphold the PRC constitution, and have a good political and professional character. Article 65 mentions that new judges must have passed the legal qualification examination.

This chapter mentions the establishment of Judicial Selection Committees (also a borrowing from abroad) and which must have some linkage to Party organizational departments. The chapter mentions recruiting judges from outstanding lawyers and academics (thus far, proving more difficult than anticipated), and requiring higher court judges to be recruited from those with experience in the lower courts.  I described the  “classic” appointment system in my 1993 article on the Supreme People’s Court, in which fresh graduates were assigned directly to the SPC.  As mentioned in my earlier blogpost on the court organizational law,  court presidents are required to have legal knowledge and experience.

Chapter IV: Appointment and Removal of Judges

This chapter has expanded conflict of interest rules for judges considerably. that had previously been set out in a separate chapter of the Judges Law.  Some of these had mostly been contained in subsidiary rules that the SPC has issued but are now being incorporated into the Judges Law itself.

Chapter V: Management of Judges

This chapter flags a number of issues, including the quota judge system, pre-career judicial training and the resignation of judges.

Article 24 states that a personnel ratio system is implemented for managing judges. This codifies the quota judge system, but it does not explain how it works and whether is any way to challenge the determination of the personnel ratio.

Article 30 provides that a uniform system of pre-career training is to be carried out for new judges.  This is an innovation in which the SPC has looked to what is done in Japan and Taiwan, and was flagged several years ago in this blog. As mentioned in that earlier blogpost, training is likely to include both ideological and professional aspects.

Article 34 provides that”judge’s applications to resign shall be submitted in writing by themselves, and after approval, they are to be removed from their post in accordance with the legally-prescribed procedures.”  It is unclear from this article what the procedure is for resignation and the standards for approving or rejecting a judge’s application.  But it is meant to harmonize with the Civil Servants Law,2017 regulations of the Party Organization Department and two other authorities on the resignation of civil servants, and SPC regulations implementing the latter regulations (discussed here).  From Wechat postings and other discussions in Chinese legal circles, it is not unusual for the senior management of a court to delay decisions on permitting a judge to leave for a year or more. 

Chapter VI: Evaluation, Reward and Punishment of Judges

This chapter sets out the outlines of the recent judicial reforms regarding the evaluation of and disciplining of judges.

Article 45 on punishment of judges–while many of the provisions are found in many other jurisdictions, some are unique to China and could be worrisome to judges, as they could be widely construed–such as “(5) Causing errors in rulings and serious consequences through gross negligence; (6) Delaying handling cases and putting off work.”  There is considerable concern among judges about the standard for “errors” in rulings because that standard may evolve over time (see this earlier blogpost) and the reason for delay may not be solely a legal one.

Articles 48-50–In contrast to the previous version of the Judges Law, this draft provides for disciplinary committees (rules to be drafted by the SPC) under which the judge will have the right to be represented and to provide evidence in his defense.

Chapter VII: Professional assurances

This section, on professional protections for judges, also flags the limitations on and weaknesses of those protections, with inadequate procedural protections against unfair determinations made against judges.

Article 52, providing that  “Judges may not be removed from the trial post except…”–also does not provide a mechanism for judges to challenge a decision or determination made against them.

Article 64: Where there are errors in judicial sanctions or personnel dispositions, they shall be promptly corrected; where it causes reputational harm, the reputation shall be restored, the impact eliminated, and formal apologies made; where economic harm is caused, compensation shall be made.  But there is no mention of how a judge can challenge the judicial sanctions or personnel disposition, or request that he (or more likely she) be reinstated.  Dispassionate analysis of the responsibility system by both academics and judges (previously mentioned on this blog) describes the responsibility system as a “Sword of Damocles” hanging over the heads of judges and lists some cases in which judges were prosecuted and found not guilty, with another one reported by another Wechat account.

A final word

It is unclear at this stage of the draft whether comments on the draft will have any impact on the final draft.  Presumably, some of the comments made at the workshop mentioned above will be accepted, as the participants included a group of senior experts either working within or retired from “the System” or academics whose expertise is recognized and valued.