China’s draft court law

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Screenshot of trial in the Haidian district court

A draft of the first comprehensive overhaul of China’s court law since 1979 (the organic/organizational law of the people’s courts) is now open for public comment (until 4 October).  A translation of the draft is available at Chinalawtranslate.com (many thanks to those who made it possible).  A translation of the current law is here and an explanation of the amendments has also been published.  The draft is significantly longer than the earlier version of the law (66 vs. 40 articles). It retains much of the framework of the old law, incorporates legislative changes as well many of the judicial reforms, particularly since the Third and Fourth Plenums, and leaves some flexibility for future reforms. As with the current law, Communist Party regulations address (and add another layer to) some of the broad issues addressed in the draft law. Some comments:

Drafting process

The drafting process (the explanation has the details) reflects the drafting of much Chinese legislation (further insights about the process from Jamie Horsley here)–several years of soft consultation by the drafters of relevant Party and government authorities, plus one month of public consultations. Among the central Party authorities consulted were: Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Central Organizational Department (in charge of cadres); Central Staffing Commission (in charge of headcount); Central Political Legal Committee.  On the government side: Supreme People’s Court and Procuratorate; State Council Legislative Affairs Office; Ministry of Finance, National People’s Congress Legal Work Committee. Investigations and consultations were also done at a local level.

General Provisions

Some of the dated language from the 1979 version has been deleted (references to the “system of the dictatorship of the proletariat,” “socialist property,” and the “smooth progress of the socialist revolution.” replaced by “lawful rights and interests of legal persons,” and protection of national security and social order. Although the draft court law deletes language that distinguishes among owners of different types of Chinese companies, Chinese criminal law still does (see this chart setting out sentencing guidelines, for example).

Article 10 of the draft incorporates judicial responsibility systems into the law (a prominent feature of the recent judicial reforms), but a topic regarding which dispassionate analysis is hard to find.

The draft contains clear statements about judicial openness and the right of the masses (i.e. ordinary people, that term is alive and well) to know about the work of the courts (according to law).

Organization of the courts

The draft mentions some of the specialized and special courts that have been established over the last thirty years:

Article 14 incorporates the guiding case system into the draft.

Article 15 of the draft crystallizes the SPC’s circuit courts (tribunals) into law (SPC regulations on the jurisdiction of those courts found here).

Article 24 gives space for establishing cross-administrative region courts (the time has not yet been ripe for establishing them).

Articles 26 and 27 give courts some flexibility on their internal structure (courts in remote areas with few cases need not establish divisions, while large city courts can have multiple specialized ones. (Earlier blogposts have mentioned establishing bankruptcy divisions, for example.)

Trial Organization

This section of the draft law incorporates the current judicial reforms in several ways, including:

  • In Articles 30-31, on the operation of collegial panels and requiring the court president to be the presiding judge when s(he) participates in a collegial panel;
  • Mentioning in Article 32 that the members of the collegial panel are the ones to sign their judgments and dissenting opinions are to be recorded;
  • Article 34 gives space for eliminating the role of people’s assessors to determine issues of law;
  • Article 37 incorporates into law previous SPC regulations on judicial interpretations and guiding cases, specifying that they must be approved by the SPC judicial committee;
  • Article 40 contains provisions imposing liability on members of the adjudication/judicial committee for their comments and their votes. It also incorporates into the law SPC regulations on disclosing the views of the judicial committee in the final judgments, except where the law provides it would be inappropriate;
  • Article 41 also incorporates into the law the specialized committees mentioned in judicial reform documents (briefly discussed in prior blogposts).

Court Personnel

Article 42 requires court presidents to have legal knowledge and experience.  It has long been an issue that court presidents have been appointed more for their political than legal expertise.

It appears that the reform of having judges below the provincial level appointed by the provincial level is not yet in place,

This section of the draft court law incorporates the personnel reforms set out in the judicial reform documents in several ways: quota judge system; selecting higher court judges from the lower courts; the roles of judicial assistants and clerks (changed from the old model); other support personnel in the courts; a new career track for judges, including judicial selection committees; preference to hiring judges with legal qualifications;

Safeguards for the courts’ exercise of authority

Article 56 gives courts the right to refuse to engage in activities that violate their legally prescribed duties (with this end the phenomenon of judges sweeping streets?);

Article 57 relates to reforms relating to enforcement of judgments (and the social credit system);

Article 59 relates to threats to judges’ physical safety and personal dignity, that occur several times a year in China, and have been the subject of SPC regulations;

Scope for further reforms for judicial personnel management (including salary reform!) are included in this section.

Article 60 reiterates the principle that judges may only be transferred, demoted, dismissed according to procedures specified by law (Party procedures  to which most judges are subject,are governed by Party rules.)

Article 62 relates to judicial (and judicial personnel training)–some earlier blogposts have shed light on this topic.

Article 64 incorporates into the draft law President Zhou Qiang’s focus on the informatization (including use of the internet and big data) of the Chinese courts.

Etc.

My apologies to readers for the long gap between posts, but several long haul trips from Hong Kong plus teaching have left me no time to post.

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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?

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 the 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.

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

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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).

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Chinese bankruptcy courts to become “hospitals for sick companies”

hospital-clipart-hospital3As recent blogposts  (and academic studies) have shown, Chinese bankruptcy courts have been acting as underused morgues rather than hospitals for ailing Chinese companies.  The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) anticipates major changes, because (as highlighted on this blog) the government has decided that a stake needs to be driven through the heart of zombie companies.

This blogpost will focus on the role that courts are to play in clearing up zombie enterprises.  But because the role of the courts in bankruptcy is linked to other government policies, it will also flag some significant ones that have not yet come to the attention of observers outside of China. It appears that behind the scenes, officials have been working on putting together the policy machinery to do so and that the process is ongoing.

In late February, the SPC convened a conference of bankruptcy judges and other officials on dealing with zombie enterprises in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, both to transmit the newest judicial policy on bankruptcy and to find out from local judges and other officials what the issues are.

Judge Du Wanhua, a senior SPC judge, has been designated to take the lead on bankruptcy law reforms. The location of the conference is intentional, because (as mentioned in an earlier blogpost), Zhejiang Province has been piloting new approaches to bankruptcy law. The Zhejiang Higher People’s Court has been working with government to promote bankruptcy related policies, but at the same time has emphasized that the courts need to hear cases independently. In 2015, the courts of that province accepted over 600 bankruptcy cases.

According to Judge Du, the “courts are to become hospitals for sick companies.” Listed below is the approach that the SPC is intending for the lower courts to take (with some of my comments).

  • The courts should promote more bankruptcy reorganization and conciliation, and diminish liquidation cases (a contrast to what has occurred in recent years).  (The SPC has promoted this approach through recent reports promoting reorganizations by the courts and is continuing to promote this in its pronouncements. Local governments are adopting policies to promote reorganization of companies.)
  • A market-oriented mechanism should be established which classifies zombie enterprises.  The mechanism should distinguish ones than can be saved through restructuring or conciliation procedures from the ones that should be liquidated.  The classification should fulfil the industrial development goals, targets, and other principles of the central government.  (But, Professor Liu Zhibiao, a leading economist suggested in a recent interview that it should the market to determine this, not government.)
  • The rights and interests of the state, workers, creditors, and investors should be protected (listed in this order).
  • A corporate restructuring bankruptcy information platform mechanism that uses modern information technology tools should be created to promote the greatest degree of success of corporate restructuring, and better use of economic resources.  (This is consistent with government (including SPC) policy promoting the use of information technology tools);
  • A unified coordination mechanism for bankrupt enterprises needs to be created under the local Party committee’s strong leadership and support of the relevant government departments to ensure cases are handled in an orderly manner. (However, in the fall of 2015, Ma Jian of the SPC’s research office pointed to local government interference in the acceptance, and trial of bankruptcy cases, as being an major issue.
    • A local court judge writing recently described a judge’s role: “bankruptcy involves the vital interests of many people, and directly affects social harmony and stability. Thus the social dimension of bankruptcy cases determines that the court can not ” go it alone” in bankruptcy cases. Some local governments do not want companies to go bankrupt for statistical , performance, maintenance of stability and other considerations.  [According to Professor Liu, it can have a negative effect on the performance evaluation of local officials.] The court should actively seek the support of the local government where the debtor is located, to provide good placement of workers of bankrupt enterprises, payment of wages, disposal of plant or other fixed assets disposal.  By communicating with relevant departments, policy support can be provided to help pay taxes , apply for transfer [of property], coordinate the interests of creditors, debtors , investors, employees and others) ;
  • Orderly mechanisms should be established to deal with wages, state tax, and the priority and realization of secured claims, unsecured claims.
  • Local courts should establish bankruptcy divisions and provide bankruptcy judges with better bankruptcy law training;
  • Procedures should be established to consolidate related bankruptcy proceedings in different courts;
  • Procedures for bankruptcy administrators should be drafted and their status should be improved;
  • Special funds should be established to pay for bankruptcies and bankruptcy administrators.

Related to this are the following government initiatives:

  • Local governments, such as Guangdong, are starting to issue policy programs on “supply-side reforms.” The Guangdong program, issued on 28 February, contains a section on bankruptcy. The policies reiterate and further detail the principles Judge Du enounced (and merit further analysis).
    • The Guangdong policies mention separate databases for bankrupt state-owned and non state owned enterprises, mentioning that special policies would be forthcoming for state owned enterprises and that courts would be given the “green light” to deal with the bankruptcy of zombie companies. Reflecting policies seen elsewhere, the Guangdong government is seeking to encourage private enterprises to assist in reorganizing state-owned zombie enterprises and is considering establishing special funds to assist companies to upgrade.
  • The central government is also looking to simplify procedures by which companies with no debts can be closed.  During 2015, the State Administration of Industry and Commerce announced that it was piloting reforms in a number of locations, first designating Shenzhen, the Pudong district of Shanghai, and several other locations, and subsequently expanded the locations.
  • Training sessions on bankruptcy law, either within the courts or with related government agencies and institutions. In late February, the Changsha (Hunan) Intermediate People’s Court held a training session with experts from the SPC (First Circuit Court) and professors of bankruptcy law from Beijing, while the local government in Quanzhou organized cross-institutional training.
  • Local courts (such as this one in Quzhou, Zhejiang Province) are providing reports to local government/Party Committees on what the courts can do.

But what are bankruptcy judges really doing?  If a recent message on Wechat is any indication, they are reaching out to their fellow judges for guidance and creating a chat group on how to deal with the many legal and social complexities that bankruptcy cases pose.

Can bankruptcy court “doctors” save zombie enterprises and their millions of employees?  It is very early days. What can safely be said is that bankruptcy and zombie enterprise related policies merit close monitoring by lawyers, the business community and others.

 

 

Another Chinese judge killed

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The Chinese legal community is mourning Judge Ma Caiyun, who served in a tribunal of the Changping District Court, in suburban Beijing, is understood to have been killed outside her home by two men, one of whom was a party to a divorce property settlement case. (They have committed suicide.)  Her husband, a court policeman, was wounded.

Details recently released indicate that the two men attacked the husbands of their former wives, killing the husband of one, before killing the judge.  This domestic violence tragedy, seen elsewhere in the world, has occurred a few days before China’s new Domestic Violence Law goes into force.

Official commentary took over 24 hours to be released, as was pointed out in these caustic remarks (“what is the wait?) by a former judge.

One announcement by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), found here, initially stressed that she settled almost 400 cases each year and had received awards for her work, but has now been supplemented by an article linking her tragedy to earlier cases of violence against judges.

A article on the case posted on Wechat on 27 February by one of the prominent legal Wechat public accounts (CU检说法) was viewed almost half a million times in four hours before being removed and received almost 700 comments.

Today (28 February), many articles are being published on Wechat without being removed, so it appears that there has been a change in policy. Local court Wechat accounts have posted articles about the tragedy (always with one from the SPC), and many other legal public accounts have done so as well.  One of Judge He Fan’s (of the SPC) postings has received over 100,000 age views.

This tragedy is the latest in a series of violent attacks against judges, and like some of the earlier cases, was carried out by a man upset by the property settlement in his divorce case.

Donations are being collected by some former judges to give to the family of Judge Ma.