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.

 

Update on Judge Xi Xiaoming

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Judge Xi Xiaoming

In the run up to the Sixth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which will focus on “intra-Party political life in the new situation,” the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) released further information concerning former Supreme People’s Court (SPC) Vice President Xi Xiaoming.  As this blog noted over one year ago, his case was transferred from the Party disciplinary authorities to the SPP for further investigation.  According to a recent report, The SPP has finished its investigation and has transferred Judge Xi’s case to the Second Branch Procuratorate of the Tianjin People’s Procuratorate.  The procuratorate has filed its case in the #2 Tianjin Intermediate People’s Court. The authorities apparently considered these institutions reliable,  because they had dealt with other sensitive cases earlier this year. 

The charges against Xi include:  using his office and position to obtain benefits for others or using his authority and position to provide conditions [for obtaining benefits], and obtaining improper benefits through the acts of other state staff in the course of their work, illegally accepting huge amounts of money and assets.  The judgment to which the charges relate has been published.

The report repeated statements made about Judge Xi earlier by Meng Jianzhu, head of the Central Political Legal Committee, and SPC President Zhou Qiang.  In August, 2015, Meng said: “Xi Xiaoming has shamed the judiciary, as an experienced judge who has worked in the Supreme People’s Court for 33 years, who has colluded with certain  illegal lawyers, judicial brokers, and lawless business people by accepting huge bribes.” During his report to the NPC in March, 2016, Zhou Qiang said: “especially the effect of Xi Xiaoming’s case of violating law and discipline is terrible, has deep lessons” (尤其是奚晓明违纪违法案件影响恶劣、教训深刻). The report also mentioned that Judge Xi’s case has been used as a typical case by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Although the SPC and several other central criminal justice institutions have recently issued a policy document on making the criminal procedure system trial-centered, the first principle of which is “no person may be found guilty except by the lawful judgment of a people’s court,” Judge Xi’s case seems to be yet another instance in which the exigencies of the political system trump respect for the formalities of the operation of the criminal justice system.

 

 

Further violence against Chinese judges

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-1-09-54-pmDuring the Mid-Autumn festival, several of the major legal Wechat accounts carried articles deploring the latest report of violence against judges in a Shandong bank (which occurred on 8 September) (and making caustic comments about the local authorities), attracting hundreds of thousands of page views.  An official statement about the incident has now been issued by the central authorities decrying “no matter what the reason, violent resistance to law in any country is very serious legal event, it has touched the base line of the rule of law, respect of the dignity of the individual, it is about the authority of the law, if even in a judge’s personal safety can not be guaranteed in the society, what is the rule of law?”

A video of the incident (from which the above photo was taken) has been circulating of the incident, which originally had been deleted from Tencent video but now has been restored.The video shows two judges from the enforcement division of a county court at a local bank being attacked by personnel from the defendant company. The video states that the judges were taken to “headquarters,” with one kept as a captive and the other taken back to the bank.  A subsequent local government statement said that the investigations were continuing and the two judges were safely escorted from the county.

The official statement, made first by the Supreme People’s Court on its Weibo account , was subsequently reprinted in other official media, including on the front page of the People’s Court Daily and the website of the Central Political Legal Commission.

Presumably social media was flooded with thousands of messages from local judges on the lack of respect for the judiciary by the public and officials.

Comments on public accounts include:

 Wang Dong, prosecutor, author of CU检说法: Today enforcement division judges were beat up, maybe tomorrow it will be the criminal, civil court, and administrative division judges.

Today  Shandong judges were beaten, maybe tomorrow it will be Anhui, Henan, or Zhejiang judges.

Today those who were beaten were judges executing their public duties, maybe tomorrow it will be public prosecutors (procurators), police, or lawyers.

Everyone will not always be just a spectator.

If we say that the safety of judges, prosecutors, and police officers in the execution of public duties is not guaranteed, how can we expect them to protect the safety of social justice yet.

And a last sentence to say: If the judge can not feel justice when he encounters violent resistance to law, how can he make people feel justice in every case?

From a retired intermediate court judge, published on Legal Readings (法律读品):

If there is no limit on public power, judicial power loses its authority (公权无抑遏,司法失权威).

Supreme People’s Court judge convicted of taking bribes

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Bottega Veneta man bag (©BV)

In a blow to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s efforts to bolster its prestige and that of the Chinese judiciary, a ruling recently published on the SPC’s court database reveals that Ms. Zuo Hong, formerly a judge (with division level rank) in the SPC’s Trial Supervision Tribunal was convicted of accepting bribes.    The published ruling omits her full name and that of others involved in the case.

The initial judgment by the Beijing Eastern District People’s Court (District Court), dated 10 March 2016, from which she appealed was upheld by the #2 Beijing Intermediate People’s Court on 31 May 2016.  Because the amounts involved were small (approximately RMB 70,000, particularly in comparison to many of the other corruption cases that have come to light in the last two years), her one and a half year sentence was suspended for two years.  Although she avoided a jail term, she will be unable to draw on her state pension and cannot be involved directly in the legal profession.

The facts, according to the ruling (which summarizes Zuo’s confession and witness statements of others involved in the case):

The then Judge Zuo received as gifts US dollars (USD) and a BV bag (men’s style) from Judge Hui of the Shanghai Higher People’s Court, Trial Supervision Tribunal (USD $6000) and Mr. Yang, Deputy General Manager of Zhongxia Construction Group (Zhongxia, a Shaoxing, Zhejiang-based private company) (bag and USD $2000). (It appears that the bag was originally intended for Judge Hui.)

Judge Hui and Mr. Yang were classmates.  Judge Zuo, who was contacted by Judge Hui, involved herself in a private lending case in the Shaanxi Higher People’s Court in which a Zhongxia subsidiary was a party (the related judgments are listed in this article). The SPC had ruled on the Zhongxia subsidiary’s re-trial petition and remanded to the Shaanxi Higher People’s Court for further proceedings. During 2014, Judge Zuo traveled to Xian four times on the matter, where she met with Judge Hui and Mr. Yang. Judges Zuo and Hui met with their contacts at that court to set out Zhongxia’s position and to have those views conveyed to the judges directly involved. According to the judgment, the Shaanxi judges met with Judges Zuo and Hui because she was from the SPC and given the hierarchical relationship, it was awkward to refuse to meet.   The case was further discussed by the collegiate panel and  judicial committee and eventually remanded to the Xian Intermediate Court for retrial on the basis that the facts were unclear.

According to this article, the case came to the attention of the Supervision Bureau of the SPC in January, 2015, when its personnel were investigating other cases and her iPhone and BV bag came to their attention.  In April, 2015, the Supervision Bureau opened an investigation file for her case. Judge Zuo  cooperated with the Supervision Bureau’s investigation and handed over the money and bag to investigators.  Her case was transferred to the procuratorate on 12 June 2015, when she was taken into custody. She was arrested at the end of that month.

On 1 February 2016, the Communist Party Central Political-Legal Committee designated her case as one of seven typical cases of leadership interference in the judicial process. By that time she had been expelled from the Communist Party under its disciplinary procedures.  At the end of August 2015, Ms. Zuo was formally removed from office.

Comments

It appears from Judge Zuo’s case that the Central Political-Legal Committee’s need to issue a set of  typical cases of leadership interference to scare judges and other members of the political-legal establishment into compliance trumped respect for the formalities of the operation of the criminal justice system. (It is unclear whether the Central Political-Legal Committee considered the impact of that lack of respect on retaining highly qualified judges (and on other legal professionals)).  (This blogpost highlighted the first set of these cases). It is likely that the Central Political-Legal Committee relied on the Party disciplinary decision in her case (see a description here) to make a determination that her case should be made public.

Senior court personnel involving themselves in cases, whether motivated by friendship or bribes, is an ongoing problem. What the two judges did is prohibited by SPC 2015 regulations and previous SPC rules. It is likely that Judge Hui has also been punished for his role in this. It seems unlikely that the Shaanxi judges were punished, as the case does not show that the internal advocacy did not affect the eventual outcome.

The case also illustrates that structural aspects of the court system have left space what is now considered “improper interference” by senior judges and were previously common practice. It also shows that internal court procedures in this case seem to have operated to blunt that interference.

The trial supervision procedure had been one of the soft spots for “improper interference,” although reforms of the trial supervision procedure under the 2015 judicial interpretation of the Civil Procedure Law (and further 2015 SPC trial supervision regulations) should diminish abuses.  Chinese law had given trial supervision judges relatively broad discretion in deciding whether to re-open a case, which is important because China has a two instance system.  (Current reforms require the application for re-trial to be sent to the opposing party and permit the reviewing judge to hear arguments from both sides). Judge Zuo is only one of many trial supervision judges who has been convicted of bribery.  (See recent cases in Liuzhou, Shanxi, and Putian.)

As Professor Li Yuwen of Erasmus University has previously written (and which I quoted in an earlier blogpost):

judicial corruption cannot be divorced from its social context…It is unrealistic to expect judges to operate completely outside the social environment, especially in the absence of a workable system to reduce the incidence of judicial corruption…certain shortcomings of the court system leave the door open for corruption. For instance, the flexible use of the re-trial system [trial supervision] leads to the easy re-opening of cases if influential people wish to interfere in a case.This not only diminishes the finality of a case but also creates opportunities for using personal networking to change a court’s judgment.

Furthermore, the relatively law judicial salary makes judges an easy target for corruption…In modern-day China, a profession’s income is too often linked to the profession’s social status. Judges’ low salaries are not conducive to building self-respect amongst the profession and, moreover, they constitute a major ground for fostering judicial corruption.

How low was Zuo Hong’s salary, that she thought it worth her while to risk her freedom and career for USD $8000?

What’s new in the Supreme People’s Court’s diversified dispute resolution policy?

Opening of court-annexed mediation center of Qianhai court

Opening of court-annexed mediation center of Qianhai court

On 29 June 2016, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued a policy document on diversified dispute resolution (Opinion on the people’s courts more deeply reforming the diversified dispute resolution mechanism) (Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion)(关于人民法院进一步深化多元化纠纷解决机制改革的意见). The document uses the term “diversified dispute resolution” (consistent with Chinese practice) rather than “alternative dispute resolution” (more often used outside of China) to reflect the central place of mediation, arbitration, and conciliation in Chinese dispute resolution. (This post has been superseded by the 31 July version.)

It was accompanied by regulations on court-appointed mediators.  For those interested in the way the SPC works, it is another example of an SPC policy document in the form of an “opinion” (discussed here) accompanied by regulations  (a type of judicial interpretation, discussed here).

The policy document sets out in a consolidated form the SPC’s latest policies on mediation, arbitration, and its relationship with litigation.  It provides a framework for further reforms. It is intended to inform the lower courts as well as related Party/government agencies of forthcoming reforms.  It signals to the central leadership that the SPC is on course to achieve one of the reform targets set out in the 4th Court Reform Plan. The current head of the SPC’s judicial reform office, Judge Hu Shihao, spoke at the press conference announcing the Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion, indicating that the office took the lead in drafting it.

A summary follows below, highlighting, based on a quick reading, focusing on its:

  • objectives and origin;
  • signals and practical implications.

A very useful academic article on diversified dispute resolution, with survey data and more on the political background, can be found (behind a paywall) here. (To the many academics and practitioners who have written on this topic, please feel free to use the comment function or email to expand/contradict, or correct this).

Objectives & origin

The SPC issued the Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion as a way to implement one of the targets in the 4th Judicial Reform Plan:

46. Complete diversified dispute resolutions mechanisms.Continue to promote mediation, arbitration, administrative rulings, administrative reconsideration or other dispute settlement mechanisms with an organic link to litigation, mutually coordinate and guide parties to choose an appropriate dispute resolution. Promote the establishment of dispute mechanisms that are industry-specific and specialized in the areas of land requisition and property condemnation, environmental protection, labor protection, health care, traffic accidents, property management, insurance and other areas of dispute, dispute resolution professional organizations, promote the improvement of the arbitration systems and administrative ruling systems. Establish an operating system that links people’s mediation, administrative mediation, industry mediation, commercial mediation, and judicial mediation. Promote the legislative process of a diversified dispute settlement mechanism, establish a system for a systematic and scientific diversified dispute settlement system.

The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion is a product of the 4th Plenum decision. Its underlying approach was approved by Xi Jinping and other top leaders.  Judge Hu, who mentioned  at the press conference that at a 2015 meeting, the Leading Small Group on Comprehensive Reform approved a framework policy document (not publicly available) on improving the diversified resolution of disputes (关于完善矛盾纠纷多元化解机制的意见) and the General Offices of the State Council and Central Committee followed with an implementing document.  The principal reason that this topic merited top leadership time and involvement is because of its direct links to maintaining social stability and reducing social disputes.

Similar to other SPC policy documents discussed on this blog, comments on the draft were sought from the central authorities, lower courts, relevant State Council ministries and commissions, industry association, arbitration organizations, scholars, and the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion was approved by the SPC judicial committee.

Signals

The objective of the document is to promote a more sophisticated, efficient, and effective approach to dispute resolution that will reduce social tensions.  Part of the objective is to reduce the number of cases filed, heard, and tried by courts. For commercial disputes, it is intended to push disputes to institutions that can more competently, efficiently and timely mediate cases and better mediate cases within the courts by involving court-annexed mediators, before or after the person or entity files suit.  The implications of this document for the reform of labor and rural land contract dispute resolution remain to be seen.

The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion requires better linkages between other institutions and the courts, so, for example, that mediation agreements can be enforced without a re-hearing in the courts.  It stresses Party leadership while emphasizing that forces in society can do a better job of dispute resolution than official ones.  The document also cautions against borrowing institutions wholesale from abroad.

Practical implications to expect in the medium to long term

  • For the foreign investment community (and their lawyers), a signal that the SPC is working on a judicial interpretation concerning the judicial review of foreign and foreign-related arbitral awards (“standardize judicial review procedures for foreign-related and foreign commercial arbitration awards”) (规范涉外和外国商事仲裁裁决司法审查程序).  As this blog has reported earlier, this was signaled at the November 2014 National Conference on Foreign-related Commercial and Maritime Adjudication and last year’s One Belt One Road Opinion.  It is unclear whether the future interpretation will change the prior reporting procedure, for example, to give parties a chance to submit arguments orally or in writing, or whether it is intended to consolidate the principles the SPC sets out in its responses to lower courts (released to the public in one of the SPC’s publications), summarized in comprehensive overviews of Chinese arbitration law, such as this one.
  • Changes to labor dispute resolution, as highlighted by the 2015 Central Committee/State Council document mentioned earlier. This is important in light of the uncertain economy and increasing number of workers being made redundant. in recent years, judges in different areas of China have published devastating criticism of the current labor arbitration system and labor dispute resolution generally.  The judges pointed out the current labor arbitration system is not independent of the government, fails to protect labor interests equally, and .  The judges also criticize the brief statute of limitations in labor disputes and lack of a specialized labor tribunal.  It appears from reports that Zhejiang Province is taking the lead in providing greater choices and professionalism in labor dispute resolution, but it unclear how far those reforms go.
  • Further attention to rural land arbitration.The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion mentions better linkages between the courts and rural land arbitration. This area is important, as the government seeks to encourage farmers to expand their landholdings and mortgage their land, but the merits of the system are not the SPC’s issue.  A 2014 report highlights the lack of independence of these arbitration commissions, lack of arbitrators, and absence of qualified arbitrators. A 2016 paper by several China Banking Regulatory Commission staff on the mortgage of rural land notes that those arbitration commissions need improving.
  • Local courts to establish “court-annexed mediation centers” to encourage and give parties “one stop shopping” for choices in mediating some of the cases most often seen in the courts–family, conflicts between neighbors, consumer, small claims, consumer, traffic accident, medical disputes;
  • “Improving” criminal conciliation and mediation procedures.  Reforms in this area bear close monitoring because, as discussed in earlier blogposts, criminal conciliation and mediation procedures are often used to avoid embarrassing more powerful institutions (such as schools) and people especially in cases involving claims of rape, sexual assault, and child molestation;
  • recognizing the results of and encouraging litigants to use neutral valuation organizations, for civil and commercial disputes such as medical, real estate, construction, intellectual property, and environmental protection, the results of which could be used as the basis of mediation;
  • More small claims and expedited procedures for minor civil disputes;
  • more lawyers to be appointed as court-appointed mediators;
  • Improvements to administrative dispute resolution procedures.

What does all this mean for making people “feel justice in every case”  when some persons and institutions enjoy a better quality of dispute resolution than others?

 

 

 

Chinese courts recruiting more bankruptcy forces

imgres-1The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) recently issued a notice  (notice concerning the plan for establishing liquidation and bankruptcy trial divisions in intermediate courts)(bankruptcy division notice) (关于在中级人民法院设立清算与破产审判庭的工作方案) aimed at establishing liquidation and bankruptcy trial divisions in China’s intermediate courts and increasing the number of judges and support staff focusing on liquidation (winding up companies not in bankruptcy) and bankruptcy-related issues, to implement the central leadership decision to use bankruptcy law to reduce the number of zombie enterprises.

SPC Judge Du Wanhua had foreshadowed this development in many previous statements. The SPC required the concurrence of the Central Staffing Commission, a Party-State organization that regulates staffing in Party and state entities. A summary of the bankruptcy division notice follows below:

  • Establish bankruptcy divisions in intermediate courts, with some courts taking the lead;

In the directly administered cities, at least one intermediate court should establish a bankruptcy division, intermediate courts in provincial capitals and cities of deputy provincial level also. At lower levels, it will depend on economic development, local need, and professional infrastructure, with provincial courts to make arrangements with staffing authorities.

The following locations will take the lead in establishing bankruptcy divisions: Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing; and the provincial capitals (and cities of deputy provincial level) of Jilin, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Shandong, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Guangdong, and Sichuan. These arrangements are to be put in place by the end of July, with the other areas to follow by year end. This blog has reported on previous bankruptcy developments in Jiangsu,  Zhejiang, Anhui, Shandong, and Guangdong.

  • Sets out the work of  bankruptcy divisions;

Try compulsory liquidation and bankruptcy cases, guide lower courts trying these types of cases; coordinate with other courts on these issues; manage and train bankruptcy administrators.

  • Describes the jurisdiction of the bankruptcy divisions;

Intermediate courts should be responsible for the compulsory liquidation and bankruptcy of companies registered at the business registration authorities (administration of industry and commerce) of its own level and below, with variations possible if the provincial high court approves.

  • Staffing principles

Staffing should be according to judicial reform principles and linked to the caseload–the judges should be those familiar with liquidation and bankruptcy from the same or lower courts and they should have a clerk and judicial assistance on a 1:1:1 principle.

  • Measures needed

Improved measures are needed to supervise and evaluate liquidation and bankruptcy work; expedited liquidation and bankruptcy procedures need to be explored; promote reforms in trying liquidation and bankruptcy cases; put in place judicial responsibility (this relates to the judicial lifetime responsibility system announced in September, 2015) to ensure an honest judiciary.

  • Coordinate better with local Party/state authorities

Liquidation and bankruptcy divisions should report regularly to the local Party committee/government to seek their support and major issues should be reported to the SPC.

Some thoughts

This is a positive step although it cannot deal with the underlying political issues related to implementing bankruptcy law in China, particularly local government interference in bankruptcy cases.  Putting in place more qualified judges and support staff is a critical part of making bankruptcy law work.  The political support of the local authorities remains critical and the local judiciary provides a training and liaison function. The bureaucratic level of a troubled company (state owned enterprise) affects the ability of a court to deal its issues.

Academics reaching out beyond the universities and social media is playing a positive role in creating a corp of more competent bankruptcy specialists in the judiciary.  The Bankruptcy Law and Restructuring Research Center of the China University of Political Science and Law, directed by Professor Li Shuguang  has established a Wechat public account, which provides bankruptcy and liquidated news to the profession, including judges, as well chat groups in which Chinese bankruptcy professionals can share their experiences and tap into the experience and knowledge of others.

 

 

How the Supreme People’s Court serves major government strategies

serve the people

serve the people

In the past year, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has issued several policy documents that contain the same phrase: serve the nation’s major strategy (服务国家重大战略).  When SPC President Zhou Qiang gave his report to the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March, 2016, one section addressed this topic.

Provided service for the country’s major strategies.  Issued opinions on the people’s courts providing judicial service and protection for the construction of One Belt, One Road, the development of coordinated development of Beijing-Tianjin, and Hebei, and the development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt, appropriately tried related cases, promoted the coordinated development of geographic areas.

(服务国家重大战略实施。制定人民法院为“一带一路”建设、为京津冀协同发展、为长江经济带发展提供司法服务和保障的意见,妥善审理相关案件,推动区域协调发展)

What, if anything, does serving the country’s major strategies mean for the Chinese courts?  This blogpost briefly looks at one of the policy documents cited by President Zhou Qiang to find out.

What are the documents?

The titles of these three are similar:

  1. Opinion of the SPC on Providing Judicial Services and Guarantees for One Belt One Road (OBOR Opinion)最高人民法院关于人民法院为“一带一路”建设提供司法服务和保障的若干意见;
  2. Opinion of the SPC on Providing Judicial Services and Guarantees for the Development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt (最高人民法院关于为长江经济带发展提供司法服务和保障的意见)(8 March 2016 )(Yangtze River Opinion); and
  3. Opinion of the SPC on Providing Judicial Services and Guarantees for the Coordinated Development of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Region 最高人民法院关于为京津冀协同发展提供司法服务和保障的意见 (18 February 2016)(Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei Opinion) .

What are the country’s major strategies?

A Rand Corporation report set out a definition of the fundamental purposes of China’s national strategy:

the fundamental purposes of China’s national strategy (guojia zhanlue) (1) to safeguard China’s national territory and sovereignty, (2) to guide national construction and social development, (3) to strengthen national power, and (4) to ensure continued national prosperity….China’s national strategic objectives (guojia zhanlue mubiao) constitute those fundamental strategic principles, concepts, and priorities guiding not only foreign and defense policy but also critical domestic realms concerned with national construction and internal order. These objectives include the attainment of great power status in the economic, technological, social, and military realms…, and the development or maintenance of capabilities to defend against any internal or external threats to China’s political stability, social order, national sovereignty, and territorial integrity.

Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei Opinion

It was drafted to support the Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei regional integration plan because the economic integration plan will “inevitably produce a large number of legal disputes, particularly trans-regional legal disputes.” The SPC research office seems to have taken the lead on drafting it, because its head appeared at the press conference to explain it.

The Opinion stresses the following types of cases, in the following order:

  • Criminal law: punish crimes that may effect social stability and regional integration: intellectual property rights infringement; embezzling corporate funds, illegal fund raising;  market manipulation etc. (the priority crimes);
  • Commercial law: priority cases include those involving company relocation; regional logistics centers; relocation of regional markets, including leases, labor disputes; reorganization or bankruptcy of companies with outdated technology; construction of industrial parks and promotion of companies with high quality technology;
  •  Cases involving people’s livelihood, particularly those involving public services, education, medical and health; social protections; promoting entrepreneurship, equal education, etc.
  • Cases involving financial innovation and safety: those include private lending, internet financing, protecting the rights and interests of creditors and financial consumers;
  • Expanding the protection of intellectual property:
  • Environmental cases: focus on environmental civil/commercial and administrative cases;
  • Focus on administrative cases related to regional development; and
  • Focus on major projects and construction projects related to regional integration.

The Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei Opinion also establishes greater coordination among the three courts, including a mechanism chaired by the SPC, exchange of judges, and calls for work on centralization of certain types of cases in certain court.

The Opinion calls for the lower courts to focus on the overall regional integration plan and promote the use of “diversified dispute resolution,” and pre-filing mediation, especially in policy-oriented, sensitive cases, where the local Party Committee, government, and other departments must be relied upon to resolve issues.  ( 特别是对于政策性、敏感性强的案件,要紧紧依靠当地党委、政府及有关部门依法解决).

(The phrase “policy-oriented, sensitive case” was helpfully described by another judge as it is a concept used often within the Chinese judiciary.  Although it is a not a formal legal term, it refers to the following categories of cases: those that affect a larger group of people than the parties involved; involve issues of widespread concern; require the adjustment of certain long-term government policies; and have political implications. Those include cases involving a large number of people, special groups (such as migrant workers, well-known enterprises, offshore entities), ones that can cause social conflict, including bankruptcy, labor disputes caused by restructuring, employee relocation compensation cases, land acquisition and resettlement compensation. Cases involving political, ethnic and religious issues are also included.)

Policy documents serving major government strategies

As a central government institution, the Court must do its part to support national major strategies. To inform the lower courts of the priority issues, projects, and matters, the SPC issues policy documents, which are the court system’s version of policy documents issued by other Party and state organs. Each of the three national major strategies raises a set of legal issues.  Some of those legal issues are relevant to the function of the courts in hearing cases, while others relate to the function of the SPC as a “quasi-legislator,” as when it issues judicial interpretations.  They often relate to forthcoming initiatives or sometimes long-term issues for the SPC, as in the case of the OBOR Opinion.  However, these documents also signal that some issues, projects, and matters are more important than others, and ultimately does not contribute to public trust in the judiciary.

Some thanks in order

My thanks to a Hong Kong solicitor for criticizing the Hong Kong courts for lacking the “spirit of service” during a recent symposium on the mainland (bringing this issue to my attention) and a (mainland) academic for expressing to me his doubts that the SPC’s OBOR Document had any significance whatsoever.

Supreme People’s Court’s Party School

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study group at the SPC’s Party school

On 29 April 2016, Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang, Vice President He Rong, and Xu Jiaxin, head of the SPC’s political department attended a nameplate unveiling ceremony at the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s branch of the Communist Party’s Central Party School  at the National Judges College.

For those unfamiliar with the Party school system in China, the Central Party School (with local counterparts) is both think tank and indoctrination center for Party officials, “a furnace for tempering the Party spirit” (according to the Central Party school’s website) (for more, see these articles).  According to press reports, the SPC has had a Party school since 1993 and has trained nearly 1000 officials.  Under the Chinese political system, officials slated for promotion are generally required to attend Party school.  Judge Xu pointed out that “the Party school must firmly uphold the basic principle of ‘the surname of Party schools is the Party,’ and ensure the political attributes of the political-legal institutions (机关党校要坚持“党校姓党”的根本原则,把握政法机关的政治属性).  This is linked to a December, 2015 Politburo document calling for the strengthening of ideological and political education, and it is likely that the SPC issued a document implementing the Central Committee document (a report of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate one can be found here).

Does this take away from the SPC’s judicial education plans, announced last  year, and analyzed here? Not really, as those plans prioritize ideological training.  As one of China’s central political legal institutions, the SPC must implement the latest Party policies.  Given the increased substantive demands on judges of the court reforms, the focus in judicial training still has to be on improved skills and substantive law training, as described in the five year judicial education plan.  It seems from reports, also, that the SPC’s Party school has its practical side, with study groups sent down to the basic level to research (and eventually report) on issues in the basic level courts, the judicial counterpart of some of what occurs in the Central Party School.

 

Supreme People’s Court & 43 other central institutions commit to punishing judgment debtors

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cover sheet for this document

For many years, one of major issues for the Chinese court system has been that enforcing a judgment is difficult (there is scholarship on whether that is in fact the case). Supreme People’s Court (SPC) Justice Liu Guixiang, however, interviewed in January, 2016, noted that the number of cases involving unsatisfied judgments rose from 3.4 million in 2013 to 4.8 million in 2015 and said “The problem of some litigants escaping enforcement by transferring or hiding properties is still serious.”

For this reason, resolving difficulties in enforcement (执行难), one of the Chinese courts’ “three difficulties,” is one of the performance targets for the SPC’s judicial reforms.  The 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan calls for “establishing a legal system for credit supervision, deterrence and punishment of those not fulfilling judgments against them.” The document analyzed in this blogpost fulfils that performance target and is an important building block in the construction of China’s social credit credit system.

The document analyzed is a long memorandum of understanding (MOU) concluded by the SPC and 43 other central institutions and issued in late January, 2016. It is not the first time that Chinese government institutions have used MOUs, but it appears to be the largest one of its type. The document builds on previous work by the SPC in linking its judgment debtor database with other regulators, described in an earlier blogpost.  It appears that the SPC’s Enforcement Bureau, headed by Justice Liu Guixiang, head of the #1 Circuit Court, took the lead in negotiating it.  He provides more background on the SPC’s enforcement efforts in this interview.

This (much longer than usual) blogpost looks at what entities are a party to the MOU, what type of document it is, what it does, and one report on how it is being implemented and issues that it raises.

44 Institutions

The 44 cooperating institutions include government, Communist Party institutions, a public institution, and a government controlled non-profit organization, listed below in the same order as the document itself:

National Development & Reform Commission (NDRC), SPC, People’s Bank of China (PBOC), Central Organization Department, the Central Propaganda/Publicity Department, the Central Staffing Commission (SCOPSR), Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization, Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP), Ministry of Education (MOE), Ministry of Industry & Information Technology (MIIT), Ministry of Public Security (MPS), Ministry of State Security (MSS), Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA), Ministry of Justice (MOJ), Ministry of Finance (MOF), Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MHRSS),  Ministry of Land & Natural Resources (MLNR), Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, Ministry of Transport, Ministry of Agriculture (MinAg), Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM), Ministry of Culture, National Health & Family Planning Commission (NHFPC), State Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), General Administration of Customs (Customs), State Administration of Taxation (SAT), State Administration of Industry and Commerce (SAIC), General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, & Quarantine (AQSIQ), State Administration of Work Safety (Work Safety Administration), China Food & Drug Administration (CFDA), State Forestry AdministrationState Intellectual Property Office (SIPO), China National Tourism Administration (National Travel Administration), State Legislative Affairs OfficeState Internet Information OfficeChina Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC), China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC), China Insurance Regulatory Commission (CIRC), State Administration of Civil ServiceState Administration of Foreign ExchangeCommunist Youth League,  All  China Federation of Industry & CommerceChina Railway Corporation.

What is this document?

This document was issued in the form of a two page notice by 44 institutions to provincial governments and authorities, giving the policy basis, including a 2005 Central Political Legal Committee document linked here as well as the recent Plenums and other documents.  It has four pages of chops (seals) of those institutions, attaching a ten page MOU and almost 40 page appendix (where the bulk of the content is).

It appears to be the first time (or at least one of the first times) that a large group of central Party-state institutions has concluded an MOU. It shows that despite ongoing criticism of Western rule of law concepts, the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese government finds it useful to borrow some of them for its own uses.

Like the commercial version with which many of us are more familiar, this MOU is an agreement between the SPC, SPP, and regulatory bodies–in this case government, Party, dual purpose (entities that are both Party and state) organizations, an important SOE, and several public institutions. Some questions about this practice will be discussed below.

Using MOUs to do so seems to be borrowed from the United States (other jurisdictions use them, too, but among regulators or between courts), and is being used for the same reasons that US federal government  agencies do (and apparently without an explicit statutory  basis).   as described in excerpts from this 2012 report by the US Administrative Conference by two professors, one from Harvard Law School and Vanderbilt University Law School (follow-up recommendations found here):

A typical MOU assigns responsibility for specific tasks, establishes procedures,
and binds the agencies to fulfill mutual commitments. These
agreements resemble contracts, yet they are generally unenforceable
and unreviewable by courts…Nevertheless, there appears to be no generally applicable
statutory or executive branch policy regarding the use of MOUs, leaving
their content largely to the discretion of the agencies.

Agencies sign MOUs for a variety of purposes, including (1) delineating jurisdictional lines, (2) establishing procedures for information sharing or information production, (3) agreeing to collaborate in a common mission, (4) coordinating reviews or approvals where more than one agency has authority to act in a particular substantive area, and (5) in rarer cases (and potentially subject to additional procedures under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA)) agreeing on substantive policy. Their content varies widely. Some MOUs are quite detailed, although they tend to be short documents, often less than ten pages. MOUs may specify goals, assign responsibilities, establish metrics, commit personnel and funding, and establish responsibility for oversight. Some include deadlines for revisiting and updating the agreement. Others are more like framework documents that outline principles and leave more detailed elaboration to subsequent agreements or “implementing arrangements.”

This Chinese MOU is for reasons (1), (2), and (3).  There is no dispute resolution clause (unlike most commercial MOUs) and in this case the SPC is one of the parties.  Chinese public policy and legal academic literature, with the occasional article in the official press has promoted the use of MOUs as a useful tool for coordination by government agencies (i.e., getting them on the same page).  In fact, a number of them can be seen on the regional level, such as a recent one coordinating the tax authorities of Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei.

A quick search of MOUs involving courts outside of China reveals one between the Supreme Court of New South Wales and the Courts of the Dubai International Financial Courts,  between the Supreme Court of Indonesia and the Federal Court and Family Court of Australia, and other similar  agreements.

What does this document do?

It provides for information sharing and joint implementation of penalty measures.  Regarding privacy issues, it requires record keeping of users, operators, and visitors, and the establishment of necessary technical measures to protect the data security of sensitive crucial information and prevent unauthorized operations.

Information sharing and joint implementation of penalty measures

The MOU commits all those other institutions to use their authority to implement sanctions against judgment debtors, both individuals and entities, as set out on the SPC’s lists of judgment debtors, which the SPC will update regularly. These institutions are obligated to issue provisions to implement the agreed upon measures to their bureaucratic subordinates. The measures that the institutions are implementing are not new ones, as the appendix makes clear. The NDRC commits to operating the social credit platform, Credit China, linked here. All the other government departments and entities commit to enforcing or coordinating the enforcement of the penalty measures through their regulatory systems to reporting to the NDRC and SPC quarterly through the social credit platform.

Measures

Most of the MOU sets out an outline of the measures and the entities responsible for implementing them.

It requires each entity and provincial level government to issue implementing regulations.  This spring has seen some regulations issued at the provincial level to implement the MOU, but few regulations seem to have been issued on the regulatory level.

Legal analysis and reality check

A Hubei judge set out his analysis of the legality of restricting high consumption by judgment debtors and a reality check on how the system is working in an article published in late April in People’s Court Daily. He said it raises jurisprudential questions, because the Constitution protects a citizen’s personal and property rights, and those constitutional rights include consumption rights.  The Legislation Law provides that limits on a citizen’s personal freedom, which restrictions on high consumption can be considered to be, can only be set out in national law and interpretations of national law by the SPC.

On the topic of the operation of the system, the judge mentions that the system is only in place for a number of economically advanced areas, but is not in place nationally, and in some areas, although the system is on place at the top-level, it is not implemented at the district level.  It is in place for the banks and transportation, but not yet for other authorities such as the industrial and commercial, educational, and travel authorities. How to link local systems with the national system is a problem not yet resolved.

Some comments and questions

A few comments and questions come to mind. It seems likely that the issuance of this document was approved by the political leadership at a high level, such as the Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform.  This document does not appear to have sparked much public discourse in China, but that may be because many members of the legal community, many of whom are Communist Party members, may be concerned about improperly discussing Central policy ((妄议中央), as discussed in this earlier blogpost.

What is the status of this document under Chinese law? An MOU is not one of the types  documents mentioned by the SPC’s regulations on documents or on judicial interpretations, unless it can be said to be covered by Article 9 of the former regulations (setting out the principal types of documents, which may imply that other ones may also be issued (人民法院公文的种类主要有).  That being said, the SPC has been signing MOUs with courts outside of mainland China for many years, and a report of the SPC entering into an MOU can be found from 2013, also relating to enforcement of judgments, so it seems clear the SPC takes the view that it has the inherent authority to conclude them.  Is it binding on the lower courts?  It appears to be the case, from the reports on the document in lower court websites.  Can lower courts conclude MOUs with their counterparts at the local level?  It is also unclear.

What are the domestic and international implications of the SPC and 43 other government/Party institutions concluding this MOU?  How is this to be understood by Chinese and foreign legal professionals, and the Chinese and foreign public?  Does it have any implications for China’s obligations under the WTO, of China establishing, or designating, and maintaining tribunals, contact points and procedures for the prompt review of all administrative actions relating to the implementation of laws, regulations, judicial decisions and administrative rulings of general application…which shall be impartial and independent of the agency entrusted with administrative enforcement (emphasis added) and shall not have any substantial interest in the outcome of the matter?  What implications does this document have for China’s bilateral investment treaty (BIT) negotiations with the United States and the European Union?  The US model BIT (as is usual) includes an obligation of fair and equitable treatment of covered investments and EU BITs contain similar language.

Other issues that this raises include–what procedural rights will individuals or entities have to challenge their designation as judgment debtors, and the penalty measures imposed upon them?  What assurance would those individuals or entities have that their challenge would be heard fairly by the courts, if the SPC is a party to these arrangements?

Quick guide to the penalty measures

What follows is a rough summary of the MOU in table form.  In the MOU, in a few instances, relevant institutions undertake to  forbid judgment debtors (either individuals or entities) from the activities listed below, but generally it uses other words–“restrict” (限制) (which usually means forbid), “consider seriously” (审慎性参考),  and review strictly (从严审核). How are front-line staff to implement “consider seriously” and “review seriously”?

Measures Responsible entity
1. Approval for establishing securities co., investment management co., futures co.; & registration of private investment fund—consider as factor/evidence

Restrict issuing bonds, acquiring listed co.

CSRC to implement restriction on acquiring listed co., NDRC re issuing bonds
2. Issuing securities on the interbank—review strictly PBOC
3. Establishing a financing guarantee co.; restrict the appointment the appointment as a director, supervisor, or senior management of a financial institution CBRC, CSRC, NDRC, CIRC, MIIT, MOF, MOC, PBOC, SAIC & other authorities with authority to approve appointments of financial institutions
4.Assist in reviewing information concerning govt. procurement & restricting participation in govt procurement MOF
5. Restrict the establishment of insurance companies, purchase of high premium insurance products with cash value; restrict natural person & senior personnel, controller of a corporate judgment debtor from purchasing high premium insurance products CIRC
6.Consider seriously when considering the approval of the establishment of commercial banks or branches, offices and the acquisition of partial or full shareholding of commercial banks CBRC
7. Assist in suspending share option plans or terminate the ability of persons to exercise share options of domestic state controlled listed companies SASAC, MOF
8. Consider seriously judgment debtor status in the approval or management of quotas for QDIIs and QFIIs SAFE
9. When financial institutions consider financing/extending credit to a entity, consider whether it, or its legal representative, actual controller, director, supervisor, or senior management are judgment debtors, if so, approve strictly CBRC, PBOC
10. Cooperate in restricting judgment debtors from applying for subsidy-type funds & social security funding support NDRC, MOF, MHRSS, SASAC etc.
11. In implementing policies for favorable treatment in investment, tax, import/export, etc., review whether the institution, its legal representative, actual controller, director, supervisor, or senior management are judgment debtors; seriously consider in implementing these policies NDRC, MOFCOM, Customs, SAT, AQSIQ
12. Focus & increase regulatory attention on judgment debtors & the legal representatives, actual controllers, directors, supervisors, senior management of judgment debtors; increase random checks; impose administrative measures according to law/administrative regulations Market and industrial regulators
13.For individual judgment debtors, restrict them from appointment to be a wholly state owned company director, supervisor, as well as a director or supervisor, or senior manager of a state-controlled company; for those already so serving, submit an opinion that the person should not continue to serve SASAC, MOF etc
14. For individual judgment debtors, restrict them from being registered as the legal representative of a public institution SCOPSR
15.Through Credit China website, make company credit information accessible to the public NDRC & SAIC
16.Publicize to the public through the principal news websites information about judgment debtors State Information Internet Office
17.Restrict the recruitment/hiring as civil servants or public institutions staff Central Organizational Department, MHRSS, State Civil Service Administration
18.For those state organs, companies, public institutions, social organizations or their leaders, or members that are judgment debtors, forbid designation as a civilized unit or moral model or cancel such designation Central Propaganda Department, Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization
19.Restrict from taking flights, soft sleeper and certain other specified non-necessary forms of transportation Ministry of Transportation, China Railway Corporation
20. Restrict judgment debtors & their legal representatives, principal responsible persons, those directly connected with fulfilling obligations, actual controllers from staying in 4 star hotels & above; restrict consumption at nightclubs & golf courses National Travel Administration, MOFCOM, MPS, Ministry of Culture
21. Restrict judgment debtors & their legal representatives, principal responsible persons, those directly linked to fulfilling obligations from purchasing real estate; assist in restricting judgment debtors from engaging in transactions involving state owned company assets, state assets, etc. MLNR, MHRUC, SASAC, other relevant authorities
22.   Cooperate in providing information about 4 star & above hotels; restrict judgment creditors and their legal representatives, principal responsible persons, those directly involved in fulfilling obligations, actual controls, from participating in tour groups; restrict them from enjoying travel related services; restrict judgment debtors from consuming services in resort areas MOFCOM, Nation Travel Administration
23. Restrict the children of judgment debtors and the legal representative, principle responsible person, and those directly involved in fulfilling obligations, actual controllers from studying at expensive private schools SPC, MOE
24. Assist in reviewing judgment debtor’s identity, passports, vehicle registration; assist in locating judgment debtors, restrict them from exiting the country; assist in seizing and sealing vehicles MPS
25. Restrict the use of state-owned forestry land; restrict applications for focal forestry construction projects; restrict application for focal grasslands protection projects NDRC, State Forestry Administration, MinAg
26.Review information about Customs certificates and qualifications of judgment debtors; restrict them from being companies confirmed by Customs; for import/export goods & other Customs operations, implement strict controls; Customs
27. Review information concerning product safety approval & licensing; restrict engaging in food, drug & other industries; restrict persons from being the responsible person, director, supervisor, or senior manager CFDA, AQSIQ, Work Safety Administration, SAIC
28. Cooperate in reviewing registration information concerning fishing ship by judgment creditors MinAg
29.Cooperate in reviewing information concerning judgment debt passenger & freight vehicle registration Ministry of Transportation
30.Cooperate in reviewing information concerning whether lawyers or law firms are judgment debtors; restrict judgment debtors for a certain time from being designated as advanced or outstanding MOJ
31.Assist in reviewing the marriage registration of judgment debtors MCA, MFA, NHFPC
32.Assist with establishing a file to investigate, prosecute, etc. of the crime of refusing to enforce a judgment or ruling SPP & MPS

What China’s judicial reform white paper says about its vision for its judiciary

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Portrait of Qing dynasty inspector

Over one year has elapsed since the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has implemented the judicial reforms set out in the February, 2015 4th five year plan for reforming the judiciary.  While thousands of words have been written in Chinese and English, some praising,  criticizing, mocking, and bemoaning the reforms, it was only in late February, 2016 that the SPC issued a comprehensive official assessment, focusing on its achievements. That official assessment takes the form of a bilingual white paper (White Paper) issued in early March (but full text released on-line only in English), plus a section of President Zhou Qiang’s work report devoted to the judicial reforms, a first for the SPC.  I surmise that it was approved by the Judicial Reform Leading Group.

This blogpost looks at the vision for the Chinese judiciary that the White Paper conveys, by looking at several sections.

 

Chinese court system and the reform process

The description of the reform process in the first section of the White Paper tells us who/what is driving the reform process, the nature of the process, the core issues, and how the judicial reform process is being monitored.

Facts highlighted:

  • During 2014-2015,13 out of 19 plenary sessions held by the Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform involved judicial reform, where 27 judicial reform documents were adopted.
    • A partial list of those 27 documents is found here.
  • The Social System Reform Specialized Group (the Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform) is in charge of judicial reform;
  • The SPC has a leading group in charge of judicial reform, replicated at the provincial level, and any judicial reform plans piloted by them need to be approved by the SPC or above (the 4th Judicial Reform Five Year Plan states this).

According to this section, the four core judicial reform measures are:

  • improving the classified management of judicial personnel [treating judges differently from clerks and other support personnel and civil servants0;
  • the judicial accountability system [the lifetime responsibility system set out in regulations issued in September, 2015, but only implemented in areas piloting judicial reform, controversial among judge and academics];
  • professional protection of judicial personnel ;
  • unified management of personnel, funds and properties of local courts below the provincial level.

These four measures will be piloted throughout the country in several rounds before they are implemented nationwide.

Comments

From the description of the reforms we can see that the specific reforms discussed in the remainder of the report have been cleared by the Party leadership.  It seems reasonable to assume that each reform involved hundreds of hours of policy paper drafting by SPC staff and internal and cross-institutional discussions, and responses to comments during those discussions.

What the White Paper did not mention is that the Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform and the Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform established their own inspectorate for monitoring the progress of reform,including judicial reform, (reviving a traditional institution).  It is unclear which reforms will be targeted this year for inspection. The separate inspectorate seems to indicate that these Central Leading Groups want their  own source of information on how reforms are being implemented.

 

Judicial independence (Ensuring Independent and Impartial Exercise of Judicial Power Pursuant to Law)

One of the messages conveyed in this section is that local courts do not belong to local governments but are established by the State at the local level to exercise judicial power on behalf of the State. The goal as stated in this section, is to “form an institutional environment and social atmosphere that respects [the] judiciary, supports [the] judiciary and trusts [the] judiciary.”

It  lists about a dozen measures. What is new in this section:

  • a summary of the policy thinking on judicial appointments and funding of the local courts.  On judicial appointments, judges will be selected by judicial selection committee at the provincial level in terms of professionalism, and will be appointed and removed according to common standards. This is a push in the direction of professionalism, and away from the phenomenon noted in the past few years of having chief judges who lacked a legal education.  On the funding issue, the Central Government will fully guarantee the funding of the local courts. The provincial fiscal departments manage the funds of local courts below the provincial level, the local courts will submit their budgets to the provincial fiscal departments, and  budget funds will be appropriated by the centralized payment system of the national treasury.
  • Fuller discussion of cross-administrative district courts to hear administrative cases–piloted in Beijing and Shanghai and other locations, under the umbrella of a policy document of the SPC that has not been made public. The concept is to have cases against local governments heard outside of the area in which they arose.  The SPC recent policy document on the development of the greater Beijing area has further content in that area.

This section also discusses the following reforms, previously discussed: circuit courts; cross-administrative division courts; intellectual property courts (by Mark Cohen, chinipr.com); administrative cases being centralized in one court (Shenzhen is one of the pilot project venues); maritime courts; environmental protection divisions; official interference.

Improving the way the courts function ( Improving the Functional Mechanism of Adjudicative Powers)

The fourth section of the White Paper provides useful insights into how the judiciary is intended to operate post reform.  It starts out with a statement that judicial power is a judging power in essence and emphasizes impartiality, neutrality and personal experience.”

The focus on this section is on reforms to the way Chinese courts operate. As I have written previously, they have operated in many of the same ways that other Party and government organs operate.     This section describes pilot reforms, new policies, or regulations concerning the following (among others):

  • personnel reforms described above (but do not mention the pay rise that goes along with it in at least some courts);
  • senior judges within a court (court presidents, vice presidents, division chiefs) will no longer approve judgments, except for a small number going to the judicial committee);
  • senior judges will hear cases instead of concentrating solely on administrative matters;
  • courts will establish a specialized judges council made up of judges in specialized areas (criminal, civil, etc) to provide views to judges hearing cases on the interpretation of substantive issues, on an equal basis rather than seniority;
  • the SPC has abolished irrational performance indicators and forbidden senior judges from involving themselves in cases that they have not heard;
  • the SPC has issued policy guidance on the reform of judicial committees (not yet made public).  The principles set out follow generally what was described by President Zhou Qiang earlier, but include judicial committee discussion of “major and complicated cases concerning national diplomacy, security and social stability and those required by law.”  The guidance calls for more transparency (unclear whether to be within the court or greater), better record-keeping, and less involvement by judicial committees with specific cases. As discussed in an earlier blogpost, judicial committees have often been a route for transmitting the views of local officials and have been been implicated in some of the wrongful conviction cases);

    judicial committee

    judicial committee ©SPC

  • judicial responsibility/accountability system, mentioned above;
  • regulations on the jurisdiction of different levels of courts in civil cases (described in this blogpost).

These reforms look to do a number of things that are significant within strictures of the Chinese system: distinguish judges from other Party cadres and give them better status and pay; break down or reconstitute some of the basic internal structures of the courts that have facilitated corruption, unjust cases, and discouraged talented judges; abolish performance indicators that have been poisonous for judges and litigants alike.

 The vision

The vision that the SPC  has for the Chinese judiciary and judges can be seen from the description of the reforms above.  The SPC intends to create a more professional judiciary (with a lower headcount), that is better paid, more competent, has performance indicators that look more like other jurisdictions, with an identity and operating mechanisms separate from other Party/government organs, that will be more autonomous, no longer under the thumb of local authorities, but operates within the big tent of Party policy.  To be incorporated in the judicial reforms, the implications of each measure must have been thoroughly discussed by the Party leadership and the Party leadership is using its own institutions to monitor results.  Will the judicial reforms achieve their goal of making people feel justice in every case?  For that, the jury (or is it the people’s assessors(also being reformed)?) is still out.

Takeaways from the Supreme People’s Court 2015 work report

20160313104344_51387The Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s 2015 work report has many takeaways for different audiences.  The apparently formulaic report took five months to draft, involving comments and input by many within and outside of the SPC (this article  describes the process, as did my earlier blogpost), most likely involving clearance by the Central Leading Group on Judicial Reform.  It was drafted to show certain accomplishments, send certain signals–show that judicial reform is on the right path and is successful, particularly that the court leadership and the courts are doing their part to fulfil the tasks set for them by the Party/state leadership.  This year’s report has three sections, rather than the usual two, with one section summarizing judicial reform accomplishments. This post will focus on highlights of the overview of 2015, and leave judicial reforms and tasks for this year for another day.

In a sign that the diminished attention spans have come to China, the SPC has come up with graphic and even musical versions of the report.

Statistics to convey current message

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This short book, explaining how statistics are used to convey certain messages, was originally published in the 1950’s and translated into Chinese about 10 years ago (and given to me when I was 11 by my parents). It is a useful reference when puzzling out what SPC court statistics are saying and mean, because as this  Wall Street Journal article noted, the categories used in the annual reports often shift from year to year, making comparisons difficult, and breakdowns of specific categories are generally missing. The reason for that is the report (including the statistics) are meant to harmonize with the latest government/Party policies and be on message. The SPC is reforming judicial statistics and seeking to make better use of big data, but the fine details are not in this report.

Takeaway #1–Caseload Up Significantly

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The caseload of all levels of courts were up significantly, primarily because of the docketing reforms implemented last year (mentioned here).  Civil (family, inheritance, private lending) and commercial cases account for most of the growth.

Cases heard at the Supreme People’s Court were up 42.6% compared with 2014 (accepted 15985, concluded 14,135). with most of those heard at headquarters in Beijing rather than the two circuit courts.    The local people’s courts heard 19,511,000, and concluded 16.714 million cases, with large increases  in the amounts in dispute, an increase of 24.7%, 21.1% and 54.5%, respectively. This seems to exclude cases heard in the military courts.

Performance target reforms mean that judges are no longer under enormous pressure to conclude cases by year end (although some local court officials may not been on message).

The bar chart below compares 2014 and 2015 numbers for criminal, civil, commercial, administrative, and enforcement cases respectively.Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 7.16.13 pm

Criminal and Commercial cases up–Takeaway #2

Just briefly on the criminal cases, as the overview graphic of commercial cases is linked to criminal cases-criminal cases are up by 7.5%. Significantly, criminal cases involving refusal to pay wages were up 58%, with last year’s report revealing that 753 persons were convicted, which means that 2015 convictions were close to 1200. a\Analysis of  the statistic of 1419 persons convicted of state security and terrorist crimes can be found here.

e8fade90gw1f1v665sc3uj209i0ugq6mCommercial cases were up 20% (3,347,000, with 120,000 intellectual property cases (up from 110,000 in 2014).  This is likely linked to the new intellectual property courts, but I will cede further analysis on this to my fellow blogger Mark Cohen of Chinaipr.com.  Again, tiny numbers of foreign-related (6079), but up from last year (5804) and Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan-related cases.  Cases involving subsidiaries of foreign companies are not in this category–this is a commercial case with a foreign party. The maritime courts heard 16,000 cases, the large increase apparently also attributable to the case registration system.  The language in the speech (making headlines) about making China an international maritime judicial center reflects language in previous speeches Zhou Qiang gave in China (analyzed here), but unnoticed until the NPC report.

Private lending disputes up significantly

The courts heard 1,420,000 private lending disputes, up from 1,045,600 in 2014.  Further background on private lending disputes can be found in my previous articles for the Diplomat. Last year the private lending disputes were categorized with the civil cases, rather than commercial cases.

SPC doing its part for greater government policy

The SPC issued policy documents on One Belt One Road (see this analysis of its implications), the Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei area, and Yangtze River Economic Belt to implement government policies. Those strategic projects are priorities for government.

Takeaway #3 Commercial disputes

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 8.33.59 pm

In 2015, 1,053,000 financial disputes were heard and 100,000 insurance disputes, as well as 4238 securities fraud and insider trading cases, compared with 824,000 financial disputes in 2014, a number which included insurance cases.  This speaks to the weakness in the Chinese economy.

The bar chart to the left illustrates percentage increases in product liability (in 2014 there was also a large increase), reputation, real estate development (see this blogpost), loans, sales contracts, labor (up 21%!), and rural residential land disputes. The report flags 1400 bankruptcy cases and highlights pilot projects.

In another indication of problems with the real estate sector, Zhou Qiang mentioned “mass real estate disputes” and the expert handling by the Jinan court (in coordination with the government) of a large villa project in Jinan that encountered financial difficulties in 2008 (see this description) and led 2000 purchasers to petition in Beijing and even surround the Jinan Party Committee, Shandong Party Committee, and the Central Inspection Group that was on site. In 2014, the Shandong government decided to use “legal thinking” to involve the Jinan intermediate court.

An area for commercial lawyers to monitor is unfair competition and anti-monopoly, where the regulators are working on a stream of regulations. Last year the Chinese courts heard 1802 cases.

Takeaway #4– Big jump in civil disputes

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 5.38.32 pm

 

The pie chart on left shows the distribution of first instance civil cases–26% family (1,733,000), 1.5% inheritance, 5% ownership disputes, 17% personal rights (privacy, portrait, reputation), 22.8% private lending, 7.32% labor disputes, including 300,000 migrant worker wage arrears (and other cases related to rural residents rights (拖欠农民工工资等涉农案件 30 万件).  Consumer, education, housing and employment accounted for 720,000 cases.

For environmental cases, 78,000 civil cases were concluded, along with 19,000 criminal cases.

 

Takeaway #5 Big jump in administrative cases

The amendment of the Administrative Litigation Law last year, the docketing reforms, and the decision to push disputes off the streets and into the courtroom has been a large increase in administrative disputes, although the baseline was very low.  In 2015, 241,000 first instance administrative cases were accepted, up 59% from the year before, with 199,000 concluded.  Reforms have been undertaken to move administrative cases outside of the area in which they arise, which is another reason that some persons or entities have been willing to file.  The bar chart has the percentage increase in different types of administrative cases, with an 176% increase in education cases. The remaining categories (from the left are: public security, trademark, pharmaceutical, construction, transportation, energy, and the environment.

(Black & white charts from SPC work report, thanks to Josh Chin of the Wall Street Journal).

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 10.51.25 pme8fade90gw1f1v66664yyj209i0tstbr-1

Why is assigning responsibility for wrongful convictions in China so difficult?

d397e647d9fea2da22ef78a1f4a2ecc6At least two recent articles in the Chinese media provide some answers to the question of why assigning responsibility (within the courts) in wrongful conviction cases (known in China as “mistaken cases”) is so difficult. ( A recent  New York Times article has previously discussed the question as well and provided commentary by several well known authorities.) This brief blogpost looks at these two recent articles, which provide additional insight.

  1.  “Russian doll” system of committee decisions

The first response can be found in an article in the official Chinese press, published 20-21 February,  entitled “China’s judicial reform stepping into a deep water area facing people, power, and money.” The article sets out a response to the dissatisfaction of the public (and experts), which captures, in officialese, the core of the reason–decisions in high profile court cases are made in through a “Russian doll” (Matryoshka, the Russian nested doll) set of committee decisions.

Russian nesting dolls (from Wkipedia)

Russian nesting dolls (from Wikipedia)

“For a long time, Chinese judicial organs [referring both to courts and procuracy] have internally formed an administrative work system.  For example internally, in the courts, cases are approved and checked on by division chiefs and heads of courts level by level, and it is the person with the highest administrative position who has the final say, which created the situation in which the persons hearing the case do not decide it, and those deciding the case do not hear it.  This not only affects judicial efficiency and justice, it also makes it difficult to pursue responsibility for mistaken cases.”

    长期以来,中国司法机关内部形成了一套行政化的工作机制,比如法院内部,案件由厅长、院长层层审批把关,由行政职位高的人说了算,造成审者不判、判者不审的局面,不仅影响司法效率和公正,也难以追究错案责任。

What this means in plain English is that Chinese courts exercise an administrative system in which all cases are approved by division chiefs or higher.  For major cases, as well as cases in which the death penalty is proposed to be imposed, the case is forwarded to the judicial committee of the court.  As I wrote over one year ago, although this has not been mentioned, judicial committees must have approved the original decisions in a number of cases recently revealed to have mistaken, such as:

the 1996 execution of Huugjilt, in Inner Mongolia;
The 1995 conviction of Tian Weidong, Chen Jianying and others in Hangzhou, Zhejiang.

One layer of the Russian doll is the judicial committee. In that December, 2014 blogpost, I described how judicial committees operate (and some proposals for judicial committee reform).  Court legislation states that these committees “practice democratic centralism” and that their task is to “sum up judicial experience and to discuss important or difficult cases or other issues relating to judicial work.”

The reason that the panel that hears the case must follow the decision of the judicial committee is that judicial committees are designated as the “highest judicial organ” within a court and implement the principle of democratic centralism.  Wang Bin, a Nanjing judge whom I quoted in that blogpost,  stated that judicial committee members [made up of the court leadership] have neither the opportunity nor the time and energy to learn more about the specific circumstances of each case.Members are not required to state their view and rationale before voting.  Decisions are made by a simple majority.   Additionally, as I implied, during judicial committee consideration, members are aware of their bureaucratic rank vis a vis the court president and vice presidents.  As Professor He Xin of City University noted in his study of judicial committees, since the decision is made collectively [by the judicial committee], no single committee member is held personally responsible.”

What is implied by the administrative system described by the statement in the official media is that the local political-legal committee or other Party authorities may liaise with the court leadership concerning high profile cases.  That is the next layer of the Russian doll, and may involve higher level Party authorities.

Professor He’s study found that judicial committees had in many cases succumbed to external influences, while my own (more limited sample) found that external pressure was sometimes resisted.  Pressure by local political-legal committees was likely involved in some of these mistaken cases, but liability is not pursued, for a similar rationale as Professor He’s–since the decision is made collectively, no one is held personally responsible.

What effect will the 2015 regulations aimed at reducing official interference in court cases have on this practice?  As noted in this earlier blogpost, one of those regulations does not require the recording of certain types of guidance–that of “Party and government organs, professional associations, social public interest organizations and public institutions with administrative functions in accordance with law retained or permitted by people’s courts to follow the working procedures to submit consultative opinions in cases of national interest or societal public interest, may be not entered into information archive on prying, but relevant materials shall stored in the case file for future reference.”  But will documents issued by Political Legal Committees at various levels really be placed in case files and made accessible to lawyers?

2.  Why does affixing responsibility in mistaken cases take so long?

The author of the second article,  published in a popular legal Wechat public account highlighted earlier, suggests reasons that it often takes 10 or more more years for mistaken cases to be redressed, and proposes that the SPC and SPP increase their staffs to review mistaken cases:

Ten years is the time it takes for two terms of the [local] Party Committee and the heads of the court and procuracy.  That means that the heads of the Party Committee and court/procuracy have changed at least once or twice… [Why won’t it take less time?] It is because when the leaders who have had the final say still have their positions,…if they reverse the mistaken case and one can well imagine that they will not want to overturn a case in which they had the final say…There is hope …only when the leaders have retired, have become old or passed away, and a new leader is in position and takes the matter seriously.

 

 

“Improper discussions” of Chinese judicial reform are forbidden

 

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Home of Judges

One of my favorite Wechat public accounts, the “Home of Judges” (法官之家) was closed down earlier this month.  The public account had about 100,000 followers. (Wechat public accounts  are explained here.)  While some public accounts are used as corporate marketing platforms, “Home of Judges,” along with several other public accounts have become platforms for (primarily) young judges (and lawyers) to share their views, experiences, and analyses. The Home of Judges public account published articles by many local judges, many with their concerns and thoughts about different aspects of judicial reform, with other articles describing by current or former judges explaining why they left or were thinking of leaving the judiciary.  The account holder for the public account, Li Liang, a former Guizhou Higher People’s Court judge wrote:

I had a feeling that Home of Judges would be closed down–first the News Bureau of the Supreme People’s Court contacted the news department of my court, demanding that the name of the public account be changed, but the editor did nothing, then I heard that the internal reference service of the Supreme People’s Court SPC) carried some Home of Judges articles, then recently the Beijing News Department deleted articles.

法官之家被禁封了,其实最近即有预感,先是最高法院新闻局找到我院新闻处长,要求将公号改名,小编未置可否,后来听说最高法院内参连续刊载法官之家文章,最近北京新闻处长多次联系删稿,

An anonymous article by the Sword of Heavenly Peace (长安剑) (according to some sources a pseudonym for the Central Political Legal Committee set out a seemingly more official explanation of why the account was closed down.  The name of the public account was a problem, because the account holder had left the court.   However the same name (Home of Judges) is used for the name of a hotel in Beijing, apparently the Supreme People’s Court’s guest house (see the comments to this hotel review).

Others (including some other legal bloggers) have said that it was because the Home of Judges was “improperly discussing” judicial reforms (妄议司改), a variation of “improperly discussing Central policy (妄议中央)”, a violation of the Chinese Communist Party Standards on Integrity and Self Restraint.

Stepping into the shoes  of the Supreme People’s Court leadership for a minute, it seems likely that a public account with a large number of judges criticizing the judicial reforms approved by the Party leadership would make the SPC leadership uncomfortable.   Why?  Because it would indicate that they were not doing a good job of “uniting thinking” (统一思想)–uniting the judges of the lower courts behind policies drafted by the SPC that had been approved by central Party authorities.

Comments by a fellow blogger

Following the closure of the “Home of Judges,” one of its fellow bloggers commented on the current environment.   Zhao Jun, a judge of the Jiangsu Higher People’s Court, who has a popular (among the legal community) public account, under the pen name  Gui Gongzi 桂公梓,  explained why he hasn’t been writing legal articles:

Third and more importantly , with the fluttering banner of democracy and the rule of law more and more ambitious,  the space for speech is obviously  tightening.

三也是更重要的是,随着民主和法治的旗帜招展得越来越宏大,言论的尺度却显而易见地越来越收紧了也是更重要的是,随着民主和法治的旗帜招展得越来越宏大,言论的尺度却显而易见地越来越收紧了

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Comments from the outside

Chinese social media is an invaluable way to understand what is going on in the Chinese court system and Chinese law generally, enabling you to keep up with developments wherever you are.

It is a shame if public accounts such as “Home of Judges” are seen as a threat to the government rather than a way to understand what the younger generation of judges, prosecutors and lawyers are thinking.

The older generation?

The older generation of judges and lawyers, particularly those who have lived through the Cultural Revolution, comment privately that at this time,  the best approach is to say nothing.

Supreme People’s Court rushes to achieve year end targets

imgres-4The rush towards year end in the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), as in the business world, means a flurry of announcements of important developments, to ensure that the SPC meets its own performance targets.  Among the recent announcements are:

  • reform of the maritime courts, to make them internationally influential (this has both political and legal implications, blogpost to come);
  • approval by central Party authorities of the third round of judicial reform pilots, and the holding of a large scale meeting of representatives from the Leading Group on Judicial Reform with the SPC and Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP),  on the focus (personnel reforms) and roll out of these projects.  Jiang Wei,deputy director of the Office of the Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform, spoke along with his SPC and SPP counterparts.  Political legal committee secretaries from the pilot areas attended, along with court and procuratorate officials.
  • Reform of the family court system, announced at a conference held in Guangzhou, attended by Justice Du Wanhua, highlighting that the rush of judges to meet performance targets (closing cases) Iamong other factors) has had a negative effect on children, elderly, disabled, and women.  The SPC likely published typical/model family law cases in November (discussed in this  blogpost)  because pulling together those cases was part of the preparations for the Guangzhou conference;
  • progress report and further plans on improving judicial assistance (separate but related to legal assistance), with the release  of the2014  multi-agency document (Central Political Legal Committee, SPC, SPP, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of Justice), stating that the central government had allocated 700 million RMB for judicial assistance and local governments  1.7 billion RMB, targeted at financial assistance for victims of crimes and others, with funds allocated to about 80,000 in 2014, (certainly a fraction of what is needed)
  • long pronouncement by Justice Shen Deyong on the “standardization” of the courts, citing the important status and important role of the judiciary in the governance of the country, but the growing contradiction between the needs of the people and  judicial resources and judicial capacity, decrying the lack of “top level design,” and calling for the implementation of related reforms.

This list will be supplemented later this month, as further announcements are made.

 

Central Political Legal Committee issues model cases on leadership interference with the Judicial process

0d338744ebf81a4cfaf247bad42a6059242da685Five model cases on interference with the judicial process are are making the headlines today on the Communist Party’s Central Political Legal Committee’s website (www.chinapeace.gov.cn) (and therefore on its press outlet, Legal Daily as well as one of the Supreme People’s Court’s websites). It is the first time the Central Political Legal Committee has done so, but is unlikely to be the last.

The practice of issuing model cases in the courts has been discussed previously on this blog, but these have been issued to create an example (in this case a senior judge) to scare others into compliance (“kill the chicken to show the monkeys” (杀鸡儆猴)).

The first of the five cases, and the only one from the courts, is that of Chen Hai’ou, chief judge of the #2 civil division of the Beijing Higher People’s Court (and judicial committee member). Chen seems to be well-known as a bankruptcy law specialist and was likely known to counterparts on the Supreme People’s Court.

According to the press release, Chen received an administrative penalty and has been transferred away from doing trial work because he involved himself in a case that was not within his authority In violation of March, 2015 Central Political Legal Committee regulations on judicial personnel prying into cases.  Some more specific conflict of interest allegations against Chen remain posted on the Internet, although other allegations (and photos) on other sites have been taken down.  It seems likely that these led to his downfall.

China’s judicial legislation takes first step on road to complete overhaul

Vice President Shen Deyong

Vice President Shen Deyong

Implementing the judicial reforms in China requires an overhaul of China’s current basic legislation, the Judges Law (法官法)and the Organizational Law of the People’s Courts (人民法院组织法). The Supreme People’s Court (the Court) media outlets have recently reported that on 23 October the first meeting was held of the drafting group to amend the Judges Law, with Court Vice President Shen Deyong chairing the meeting, and senior Court judges in attendance.  The report notes that the focus is on securing the independence of the courts (but having them remain firmly under Party control). Judge Shen mentioned that issues under consideration include: criteria for the selection of judges; protection for judges undertaking their duties; evaluation of judges, judicial assistants, salaries scales, retirement and insurance, and rewards and punishments.

Part of the preparatory work for amending the Judges Law is to include field research and surveys, particularly of front-line judges in the judicial reform pilot areas.  The drafting group will designate some local courts and some universities/research institutes to assist with the drafting.  The drafting of the Judges Law will need to be consistent with the principles of the amendment of the Organizational Law of the People’s Courts and the work of the Central Leading Group on Judicial Reform.  This summer, the Court convened an initial meeting to discuss amending the Organizational Law of the People’s Courts.  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.

Judge Xi Xiaoming and his vanishing assets

Although Chinese judicial reforms include establishing a trial-centered judicial system that provides better protection for human rights (including property rights), under Party disciplinary regulations senior Party officials (such as former Supreme People’s Court Vice President Xi Xiaoming, subject of an earlier blogpost),  often have property confiscated or other property punishments imposed at the conclusion of Party disciplinary proceedings. This means that confiscation of assets occurs before an official’s case is transferred to the procuracy and heard by the courts.  According to the official statement on the disposition of Judge Xi’s case:

(He) was ordered to make restitution of certain amounts that were in violation of discipline;the issues related to his suspected crimes and related amounts are transferred to the judicial organs for handing.责令退赔违纪款;将其涉嫌犯罪问题及涉款物移送司法机关依法处理.

The wording  is similar to official statements issued in relation to other senior officials investigated by the CCDI and the same language is to be found in reports on the dispositions of local Communist Party disciplinary investigations.

Han Jinping, director-general of the CCDI’s case coordination department and a former judge in the #2 criminal division of the Supreme People’s Court, provided more details on the CCDI’s authority to impose property punishments in a July, 2015 interview she gave to Chinese Central Television.

(A 2014 profile of Ms. Han reveals that she was involved in guiding some of the lower courts in recent high profile corruption cases and has been involved in some of the thinking behind China’s initiatives to pursue corrupt officials abroad).

She mentioned that more than half of the assets recovered since the beginning of the anti-corruption campaign have been confiscated by the CCDI itself (RMB 20.1 billion) and handed over to the national treasury, while 18.6 billion has been recovered through the formal legal system.  Ms. Han explained that according to applicable rules (set out below), CCDI is authorized to:

  • confiscate assets (没收);
  • recover assets(追缴);
  • order restitution (责令退赔)

relating to violations of Party and government rules and orders.

She noted the following rules guide their authority:

Related to the rules she cited are additional regulations issued by the General Offices of the Central Committee and the State Council on the handling of money and property management in criminal cases earlier this year, focused on coordination between departments (and less explicitly with CCDI).

Assets of officials determined by CCDI to have violated Party rules are confiscated in closed proceedings (subject to Party Committee approval at the relevant level), but the handling of the property must be in accordance with the above procedures. The official under investigation does not have access to counsel, and there does not seem to be a procedure by which a third party can oppose the property punishments imposed by CCDI. ( 2014 regulations of the Supreme People’s Court, by contrast, give third parties that right when property punishments are imposed in criminal proceedings.) For the family members, friends, and associates of an official subject to CCDI proceedings, it appears that any recourse they have is very limited.  A good proportion of the assets recovered in the current anti-corruption campaign have been recovered by skirting the procedural protections of the persons involved under the Chinese Criminal Procedure Law.  It appears to be a modern day version of the traditional legal system’s punishment of officials.

(Please use the comment function if there are errors in the above analysis.)

 

 

 

 

Official interference or leadership?

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Interference in cases forbidden!(©Xu Jun, Xinhua)

In late August, the Supreme People’s Court (Court) issued a pair of regulations, aimed at reducing the phenomenon of officials, within and outside a court, involving themselves in cases.

Translations of the regulations are available, thanks to Chinalawtranslate.com: (the Chinese originals are available on the Court’s website here and there):

  • Implementing Measures for People’s Courts Carrying Out the ‘Provisions on Recording, Reporting and Pursuing Responsibility of Leading Cadres Interfering with Judicial Activities or Tampering with the Handling of Specific Cases (Leading Cadres Measures); and
  • Implementing Measures On Pursuing Responsibility In Cases Of Internal Judicial Personnel Prying Into Cases (Judicial Prying Measures).

This blogpost takes a quick look at the first one.

What do the Leading Cadre Measures say?

The Leading Cadre Measures (which implement State Council/Central Committee (General Office) regulations issued in March are directed at officials outside the judiciary who seek to influence court decisions, and require judges (who are other subject to penalties for not doing so) to  record all communications relating specific cases made by entities and individuals other than those in courts, and retain the relevant materials. These Measures implement language in the 4th Plenum Decision (Establish a system for recording, reporting, and investigating the responsibility of instances wherein leading cadres interfere in judicial activities or get involved in the handling of certain cases.)  The reports are to be submitted to the local political legal committee (or next higher political legal committee, depending on the status of the offending individual) and the next highest court, generally on a quarterly basis. If the conduct is serious, and might cause unjust, false and wrongfully decided cases or other “serious consequences,” the court is directed to report immediately.

Article 7 of the Leading Cadre Measures lists some of the most frequently used techniques, many of which have a economic, rather than political motivation:

The Leading Cadre Measures place the views of certain organizations in a different category:

“Party and government organs, professional associations, social public interest organizations and public institutions with administrative functions in accordance with law retained or permitted by people’s courts to follow the working procedures to submit consultative opinions in cases of national interest or societal public interest, may be not entered into information archive on prying, but relevant materials shall stored in the case file for future reference.”

Professor He Haibo of Tsinghua University explains what this means:

the courts must accept these materials, and it gives those organizations a chance to participate and speak; placing the materials in the case file gives the other party as well as possibly the public an opportunity to understand and evaluate them. This is consistent with the requirements of due process…

Will documents issued by Political Legal Committees at various levels really be placed in case files and made accessible to lawyers?

How do officials and judges interact?

The patterns of behavior that these regulations are aimed at changing are long-standing. From Doing Business in China, a leading book for practitioners (chapter by Harry Liu, Meg Utterback, Yu Simin):

Informally, judges are occasionally given instructions by political leaders on individual cases. Intervention by Party leaders in individual cases remains acceptable…The forms of interference vary: sometimes oral instructions are given, or sometimes the instructions are incorporated into official documents, with a requirement that the judge report back on the outcome. As to the content, the instructions may (1) tell courts to emphasize a case or handle a particular case “according to law,” (2) express an opinion on certain aspects of the case, or (3), recommend certain action to the court in lieu of dictating the outcome.

Professor He Haibo of Tsinghua University School of Law, writing in the People’s Court Daily–the line between “coordination in accordance with law” and interference with judicial activities is very hard to draw (什么是“统筹协调依法处理”、什么是“干预司法活动”,界限似乎难以划得清清楚楚)。

Comments from an unscientific sampling of judges

  • How the regulations work out in practice will depend to a large extend on how the officials undue intervention recorded will affect their future career or have legal liability.  If yes, the leaders will refrain from intervening. It will also depend on whether the judges would suffer from recording the intervention, particularly if he institutions are not administratively or financially independent from the agencies the officials represent or are able to influence.  In the latter case, judges wold be reluctant to record the intervention. It is likely that court leaders will interfere less frequently and with less success.
  • It will be of some help, when the interference is from strangers. But if from old friends, direct leaders, those won’t be reported, because it would betray the relationship.

More autonomy under Party leadership

The Leading Cadre Measures are not a magic bullet that will change the way the Chinese courts operate. The intent is to reduce the involvement of local officials in court cases to achieve fairer outcomes, while maintaining central policy leadership (and recognizing current reality by having a framework for Party officials to provide their views “for consideration”).

How well will the Measures work during the transitional period that the local judiciary remains under the control of local authorities? And how should the line be drawn between interference, leadership, and coordination?

A model case?

In late August, the Jinhua Intermediate Court (Zhejiang province) used the March regulations to call the attention of the press (and higher authorities) to a local official who threatened a judge with physical harm, when local courts ruled against the official’s wife in a shareholding dispute, although the case led one Zhejiang University law professor to comment that it wasn’t typical of official interference. According to the latest reports, the Jinhua Intermediate Court has withdrawn the notice, and both the judge and official in question are being investigated by the relevant CCDI organization.  A local Jinhua lawyer was quoted as saying that the local court staff had erred in making the matter public at this point.

The Jinhua case, while perhaps not a typical interference case, is typical of the widespread lack of civility confronting Chinese judges (and doctors), that in too many cases means a threat to their physical safety, and could indicate how difficult it will be to actually implement the Leading Cadre Measures.