Supreme People’s Court and “One Belt One Road”

Judge Luo Dongchuan. chief judge,#4 civil division

Judge Luo Dongchuan. chief judge,#4 civil division, at the OBOR Opinion press conference

On 7 July the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) issued an opinion (意见) policy document on how the courts should provide services and protection to “One Belt One Road” (OBOR Opinion) (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). This blogpost explains why the Supreme People’s Court issued it, what the policy document provides and what it means for legal professionals. The typical (model) cases issued at the same time include the Sino-Environment case, subject of an earlier blogpost  (and deserve closer analysis).

Why was the One Belt One Road document issued?

One Belt One Road (OBOR) is a major government strategic initiative.  As a central government institution, the Court must do its part to support OBOR.  Major SOEs contemplating investing in OBOR projects or trading with companies on OBOR recognize that their interests are best protected through legal infrastructure and the Court has an important role in this. MOFCOM and other related regulatory agencies realize this as well. Local courts linked to the Belt or the Road, are dealing with new demands because of OBOR and are looking to the Court for guidance.

The OBOR Opinion was drafted with input from these regulatory agencies and certain legal experts, but was not issued for public comment.

What the OBOR Opinion covers

The OBOR Opinion covers cross-border criminal, civil and commercial, and maritime as well as free trade zone-related judicial issues.  It also deals with the judicial review of arbitration.

Criminal law issues: the lower courts are requested to improve their work in cross-border criminal cases, and the courts are to do their part in increased mutual judicial assistance in criminal matters.  The focus is on criminal punishment of  those characterized as violent terrorists, ethnic separatists, religious extremists, and secondarily on pirates, drug traffickers, smugglers money launderers, telecommunication fraudsters, internet criminals, and human traffickers. It also calls on courts to deal with criminal cases arising in trade, investment, and other cross-border business, and deal with criminal policy and distinguishing whether an act is in fact a crime, so that each case will meet the test of law and history.  The political concerns behind criminal law enforcement issues are evident in this.

Much of the focus in the OBOR Opinion is on civil and commercial issues, including the exercise of jurisdiction, mutual legal assistance, and parallel proceedings in different jurisdictions and in particular, improving the quality of the Chinese courts in dealing with cross-border legal issues. These issues are explained in more detail below

One of the underlying goals set out in the OBOR Opinion, is to improve the international standing and influence of the Chinese courts and other legal institutions.

What does it mean for legal professionals

The OBOR Opinion signals that the Court is working on a broad range of practically important cross-border legal issues.  Some of these issues involve working out arrangements with other Chinese government agencies and are likely to require several years to implement.  The OBOR Opinion mentions that the Court:

  • seeks to expand bilateral and multilateral mutual judicial assistance arrangements, for better delivery of judicial documents, obtaining evidence, recognition and enforcement of foreign court judgments.
  • supports and promotes the use of international commercial and maritime arbitration to resolve disputes arising along One Belt One Road.  China will promote the use of the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention) between countries on One Belt One Road and encourage countries that have not yet acceded to the Convention to do so.
  • supports and promotes the use of various types of mediation to resolve OBOR related cross-border disputes.
  • it signals that the Court will become more involved in Chinese government initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the conference of supreme courts under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and other international or regional multilateral judicial cooperation organizations.
  • is signalling the lower courts that they should limit the range of cross-border contracts being declared invalid or void.
  •  sets out the new thinking on the issue of reciprocity in the enforcement of foreign judgments, in particular that Chinese courts can take the initiative in extending the reciprocity principle to parties from other jurisdictions.  This is practically significant for foreign parties and their counsel, and has been discussed repeatedly by both practitioners and academics (such as these);
  • will improve Chinese legal infrastructure on overseas evidence, overseas witnesses giving evidence, documenting the identity of overseas parties, “to better convenience Chinese and foreign parties. ”  This would involve evolving from the current system embedded in Chinese legislation of requiring notarization and legalization of many documents (because mainland China is not yet a party to the Hague Convention on the Abolishing the Requirement of Legalization of Foreign Public Documents. This is a positive sign;
  • The Court has on its agenda further legal infrastructure on the judicial review of arbitration (as signalled at the end of last year), involving foreign/Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan parties, aimed at supporting arbitration and having a unified standard of judicial review on the following issues:
    • refusing enforcement of arbitral awards; and
    • setting aside arbitral awards.
  • has on its agenda judicial legal infrastructure for supporting the resolution of bilateral trade, investment, free trade zone and related disputes.
  • Reflecting language in the 4th Plenum, it calls for China to be more greatly involved tin the drafting of relevant international rules, to strengthen China’s voice concerning issues of international trade, investment, and financial law.
  •  mentions that an improved version of the Court’s English language website and website on foreign-related commercial and maritime issues is forthcoming.  Specific suggestions can be emailed to supremepeoplescourtmonitor@gmail.com.

The Supreme People’s Court and interpreting the law, revisited

Marriage law judicial opinion

Marriage law judicial opinion

The topic of the Supreme People’s Court and the interpretation of law is one that vexes many, legal practitioners and academics alike.  Although the Chinese constitution vests the power to interpret law with the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC SC), the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) actively issue interpretations of law. The Court more so than the SPP, because it deals with a broader range of legal issues.  These interpretations of law are critical to the operation of the Chinese legal system because national law tends to set out broad principles that require additional legal infrastructure to be workable and the courts, in particular, need that legal infrastructure to decide cases.

A 1981 decision by the NPC SC delegated to the Court the authority to interpret law relating to questions involving the specific application of laws and decrees in court trials, while the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) was delegated authority to interpret law relating to questions involving the specific application of laws and decrees in procuratorial work.  The Organic Law of the People’s Courts re-iterates the delegation of authority to interpret law to the Court. Oddly enough, the principle is not in the Organic Law of the People’s Procuratorates. Interpretations by both the SPP and the Court are known as “judicial interpretations.”

In 2015, the Legislation Law, which had previously not addressed interpretation of law by the Court and the SPP, addressed the issue in Article 104.  This article is taken as intended to codify existing practice, because the explanation of the law recognizes the practical necessity of judicial interpretations:

  • “Interpretations on the specific application of law in adjudication or procuratorate work issued by the Supreme People’s Court or Supreme People’s Procuratorate shall primarily target specific articles of laws, and be consistent with the goals, principles and significance of legislation.”
  • It requires the Court (or SPP) in the situation described in the second paragraph of Article 45 of the Legislation Law (where the NPC SC  gives interpretations of national law), to submit a request for a legal interpretation, or a proposal to draft or amend relevant law, to the NPC SC.

(The explanation of the law  (legislative history) provides further background).

The process for drafting Court interpretations described in the 2007 regulations requires that the views of the relevant special committee or department of the NPC SC be solicited during the drafting process, and there would be pushback from the NPC SC if it was considered that the judicial interpretation had gone ‘too far.’

What types of judicial interpretations are there?

The 2007 Court regulations on judicial interpretations (linked here)  limit judicial interpretations to the following four types:

Those 2007  regulations set out various procedures for drafting and promulgating judicial interpretations, including a requirement that they be approved by the Court’s judicial committee and be made public.  As discussed in earlier blogposts, broad public consultation may be done if it affects the “vital interests of the people or major and difficult issues. These regulations also provide that judges may cite judicial interpretations as the basis for a court decision or ruling. Article 23 of the 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan mentions reform of judicial interpretations:

Improve the Supreme People’s Court’s methods of trial guidance, increase the standardization, timeliness, focus and efficacy of judicial interpretations and other measures of trial guidance. Reform and improve mechanisms for the selection, appraisal and release of guiding cases. Complete and improve working mechanisms for the uniform application of law.

As discussed in earlier blogposts, the Court also issues other documents with normative provisions that do not fit the above definition.  Those will be discussed separately.

New docketing procedures come to the Chinese courts

local court case filing office

local court case filing office

New docketing procedures (case filing) (立案) have come to the Chinese courts.  Chinese courts have a separate case filing divisions, which up until 1 May of this year acted as gatekeepers to courts.  They exercised their approval authority over cases in a non-transparent manner, which meant for litigants in Chinese courts that their cases could be and were rejected without having the opportunity to argue why they should be accepted.  Case filing divisions also were known to put troublesome filings aside, without issuing a rejection, or repeatedly asked for supplementary documents, seeking to drive away litigants by repeated formalistic demands.

More background is given in these blog posts and law review article.  It has been an ongoing problem for many years, provoking endless complaints and articles by ordinary people, lawyers, academics, and NGOs, and has been one of the issues driving petitioners to the streets.

The Supreme People’s Court (Court) leadership identified case filing as one of the needed reforms (and as one of the many contributing factors to the low prestige of the Chinese judiciary), even before the Third Plenum. Because of that, the Communist Party’s 4th Plenum Decision and the 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan flagged this as a priority.  (Unsurprisingly), the language in the two documents is almost identical:

  • Reform systems for courts’ acceptance of cases, change the case filing review system to a case filing registration system, and in cases that should be accepted by the people’s courts, ensure parties procedural rights by requiring filing when there is a case, and requiring acceptance where there is a lawsuit.
  • Change the case filing review system into a case filing registration system, making it so that for cases that should be accepted by the people’s courts, where there is a case it must be filed, and where there is a suit it must be accepted; safeguarding the parties’ procedural rights.

Litigants in line at the #1 Circuit Tribunal

In late April, the Court issued case filing regulations which address many of the longstanding problems that litigants and their lawyers faced:

Case filing divisions

  • refusing to accept complaints;
  • refusing to issue notices rejecting complaints;
  • repeatedly asking for supplementary materials.

The new rules require case filing divisions to accept filings of civil and criminal private prosecution cases (brought by the victim of a crime if the state refuses to prosecute, generally relating to minor crimes) on the spot if possible, provide templates for frequently used types of cases, and to respond within statutory deadlines.  Case filing divisions are directed to make requests for supplementary materials once. (The new administrative litigation law judicial interpretation, described in this earlier blogpost, contains similar provisions.) Litigants who encounter noncompliant behavior can file a complaint with the relevant court or the court above it.

Cases that the courts must refuse:

  1. Matters that endanger national security;

Rights activists have likely noticed that these carveouts are broad and flexible enough to keep out some cases that they might want to bring.

The take-up on the reform: some “Big Data”

According to Court statistics, in the first month since the regulations went into effect, there was a 30% jump in the number of cases accepted,(1.13 million), with most of them accepted immediately. The Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shandong courts accepted over 80,000 cases, with Beijing, Hebei, and other areas accepting over 40,000.

In particular:

  • the number of civil cases was up about 28%.
  • the number of administrative cases accepted was up 221% in comparison to last year (starting from a low base), with Tianjin cases up 752.40%,Shanxi, 480.85%,and Shanghai 475.86%, reflecting both the new case registration and new Administrative Litigation Law going into force.
  • Courts in Zhejiang found that fewer litigants were mediating their cases before filing suit (down 17%), and the success rate of mediation was down by 14%.  Does this mean a better outcome for litigants?  Closer analysis is needed.

Much of the press coverage has been about litigants filing cases themselves, rather than with the assistance of a lawyer or other legal personnel, but I haven’t seen statistics that address this.

Some more detailed data from Jiangsu province:

download 1

Case filings in Jiangsu Province, by city

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Civil 60791, enforcement 25438, administrative 1980, private prosecution 256, state compensation 56

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May, 2015 cases accepted, by location

An evaluation after six weeks

Some thoughts about the case filing reform

  • It will mean more cases in the courts and greater stress for fewer judges and other judicial staff, to assist the many pro se litigants.
  • It should reduce the dissatisfaction level of some proportion of litigants with the court system, such as the anonymous staff from a Guangzhou car finance company quoted in a press report.
  • Violence against court personnel (like medical personnel), is another factor driving qualified and experienced people away, as described in these recent articles.  Will the reforms reduce the level of frustration of ordinary people with the court system, and reduce physical and verbal attacks on judicial personnel?  It is early days to say.
  • It does not resolve underlying issues such as local courts not wanting to offend local government or locally state-owned enterprises.  The 4th 5 Year Court Reform Plan identifies cross-jurisdictional courts as a solution, and pilot projects have started on this in various locations, including Beijing, but a comprehensive framework is not yet in place.
  • For the numerically small number of foreign litigants in the system, it does not change all the documentary requirements needed, such as notarization and legalization of documents and powers of attorney. It should make it easier for foreign invested companies to litigate.
  • As a Court spokesman suggested,  the rejection of many cases could come later, leading to greater pressure on the courts later on, from appeals, more requests for cases to be re-tried, and not ultimately reduce the number of petitioners.
  • It will inevitably lead to abuse of process and frivolous cases, such as the over-publicized case of a Shanghai man suing because of the stare of a TV star caused him spiritual damage. The Court is working on rules to address this.

Supreme People’s Court president says court reforms in “deep water area”

566929On 12 March 2015, Zhou Qiang, president of the Supreme People’s Court (Court) delivered his work report to the NPC, putting the best face on where the Chinese courts are and where they’re going. He described court reforms as being in a “deep water area” (深水区)(a high risk area).  This blogpost will highlight issues that other commentators (outside of China) have so far missed:
  • the mismatch between the focus of the work report and the work of the courts;
  • what the work report (on other than criminal cases reveals); and
  • the challenges to the Court leadership in the year ahead.

What is the mismatch?

charts for SPC

© Tiantong & Partners; charts illustrating SPC report

The primary focus of the work report (as always) is law and order, as seen from the perspective of Communist Party leadership, particularly state security related offenses (including terrorism and “splittism”) as well as ordinary crimes.  A big difference in this year’s report is that President Zhou Qiang apologized for previous miscarriages of justice and highlighted efforts to prevent future ones.  Other commentators have already focused on these both of these important developments and and other issues related to the criminal justice system.
2014 cases in chinese courts

bar chart: 2010-2014 increase in cases resolved by courts (in 10K) Pie chart: civil/commercial/IP; admin; re-trial/govt compens/enforcement/; parole; other/criminal

What the work report reveals is that most cases heard in the Chinese courts are not criminal and that the number of cases heard by the courts is rising.

What are cases are the Chinese courts hearing?

The pie chart (distributed as an attachment to President Zhou Qiang’s report at the NPC), illustrates that over 63% of the cases heard in the Chinese courts are civil cases (including commercial, family law and intellectual property cases), not criminal. Criminal cases (including parole related cases) account for something over 10% of cases (as others have discussed, many minor offenses are handled as administrative, rather than criminal offenses).

A closer look at civil cases in the Chinese courts

 A bit of arithmetic reveals (unfortunately the authors of the Report did not set out a corresponding chart), that 34% of civil cases (2,782,000) in 2014 were commercial cases (up 8.5% year on year), while 66% were what classified as civil cases (in the narrow sense, described below).

Commercial cases:

(These cases are illustrated in the chart to the left that has the ¥ sign.)
1. Finance cases (824,000)(a broad category including various types of loans, credit cards, securities, futures, insurance etc.).
2.  Sales contracts disputes (664,000).
3.Intellectual property (110,000, up 10% year on year)(I  the detailed analysis of this can be found here, by my fellow blogger, Mark Cohen, at the ChinaIPR blog);
4. Corporate disputes (12,000) (shareholder, merger and acquisition, creditor initiated bankruptcy);
5. Maritime cases (12,000).
Foreign-related cases (5804), )these, although a focus of foreign law firms alerts and the press, are a tiny drop in the sea of Chinese civil cases.  Many cases involving foreign companies actually involve their China incorporated subsidiaries.
The number of finance cases suggests a large number of disputes relating to loans by financial institutions.

Civil cases

(These cases are illustrated in the chart that has two people standing next to one another and the pie chart below.)
2014 civil cases in the Chinese courts

2014 civil cases in the Chinese courts

In 2014,  5,228,000  civil cases were heard in the Chinese courts (up almost 6% year on year):
1.  Family law cases (1,619,000),(this category includes  contested divorces, inheritance, support cases), accounting for about 30% of civil cases. The chart above 13% year on year increase in inheritance cases (showing an increasing number of people have assets worth fighting in court over, and perhaps also inadequate estate planning).
2.  Loan cases not involving financial institutions (between individuals, company and individual, or two companies) (1,045,600), accounting for almost 20% of civil cases. (The categorization has changed, making a year on year comparison not easily possible).
3. Labor cases (374, 324), accounting for 7.16% of all civil cases.  These include appeals from labor arbitration as well as cases that can be directly brought in the courts).
4.  Environmental tort cases (3331) (up 51% year on year).
5. Product liability cases are up 44%, but the base or total number for 2014 is not set out.
6.  Cases involving rights of rural residents (219,00)(rights to rural residential land, transfer of contracted land) migrant laborers seeking unpaid wages).
7.  Construction disputes are up almost 18% (base or total number for 2014 not set out).
These numbers speak to:
1. changes to the Chinese family;
2. a large number of loans that are under the radar of the financial authorities;
3. employees who are increasingly rights conscious;
4. continued litigation risk for foreign companies doing business in China (including through subsidiaries), because as perceived “deep pockets”, Chinese litigants often target them in product liability cases.

Administrative cases

 First instance administrative cases (companies or individuals suing the government) (131,000) continue to be a tiny number, although up 8.3%, and it remains to be seen whether the amended Administrative Litigation Law (Administrative Procedure Law) will lead to an increase in cases.

 Enforcement cases

Enforcement cases (compulsory enforcement of court judgments or orders, arbitral awards, etc) account for 3,430,000, a 14% increase year on year.  This suggests that fewer people (companies) are complying with dispute resolution voluntarily.
10% increase in cases accepted (will be a challenge to the courts if this trend continues because the intent is to cut the number of judges), amount in dispute is up 15%.

Court reforms already in a “deep water area”

Zhou Qiang highlighted that court reforms are already in a “deep water area” (high risk area) and the courts:
  • need to penetrate interest group barriers;
  • have the courage to move their own “cheese”;
  • need to use “the knife” against itself (presumably to cut out corrupt, poorly or non-performing judges);
  • deal with many deep-seated problems;
  • make progress on a long list of reforms:
    • continue and expand pilot reforms on changing the financing and personnel appointments of the local courts to all provinces/directly administered cities;
    • implement hearing-centered litigation reforms;
    • make progress on case filing reforms (to resolve the long term problem of litigants facing obstacles when they file suit);
    • put in place a system with dealing with assets seized and confiscated by the courts (to avoid violation of property rights and further judicial corruption in this process);
    • implement the prohibition against defendants wearing prisoner’s garb in court;
    • further implement judicial reforms related to petitioning;
    • promote alternative dispute resolution, such as arbitration, people’s mediation, administrative mediation etc.
    • continue work on pilot projects on expedited criminal procedures (for minor matters);
    • improve the people’s assessors system.

All of these reforms create tremendous challenges for the courts.  The number of cases accepted by the courts in 2014 (15,651,000) was up about 10%.  The judicial reforms to petitioning and other reforms will channel more disputes into the court system. Planned personnel reforms are leading to an exodus of young judges.  Many of the planned judicial reforms are intended to the way the courts operate internally and interact with other institutions. The 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan sets out target dates for accomplishing certain major judicial reforms.  The salary gap between what an experienced lawyer in private practice in a major law firm and a counterpart in the judiciary is large, leading many talented people to prefer the greater financial benefits and professional flexibility that comes with being a lawyer.

The political leadership has approved the 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan.  Issuing it raises expectations among ordinary people as well as those in legal profession. The pressure is on for the Court leadership to deliver on the promised judicial reforms.

Supreme People’s Court’s 4th Five Year Reform Plan sees the light of day

IMG_0877

February, 2015 photograph of the SPC building

The Supreme People’s Court’s 4th Five Year Reform Plan has finally been released to the public (linked here). An English translation will be forthcoming here.  Some of the issues highlighted have been discussed in earlier blogposts (as linked) and it builds on the principles released in July, 2014 and in the 4th Plenum Decision. It is critical to the development of the Chinese legal system and has its international implications as well. Some of the highlights:

  • Basic principles (Party leadership is a given): independence of judicial power (审判权的独立性); neutrality (中立性), procedurality 程序性), finality(终局性) (all distinguished from “Western style” judicial independence).

Among the specific measures are:

  • Specific deadlines for reforms or structures for reforms to be put in place (some by end 2015, others by end 2016, 2017, 2018);
  • Greater transparency in a broad range of areas, ranging from the parole of prisoners, assignment of judges, to the handling of property seized or confiscated by the courts;
  • Measures to cut back on local protectionism, such as cross jurisdictional and circuit courts, focusing in particular on major administrative cases, environmental cases, bankruptcy cases, food safety cases and others, by changing jurisdictional provisions in administrative cases, environmental cases, and others);
  • Details on what the Court means about “hearing centered procedure,” and imposes a goal of end 2016 to establish a hearing centered system, as having evidence presented and reviewed at the hearing, both parties being given a chance to be heard, requiring witnesses and experts appear at hearings; assumption of innocence, exclusion of illegally obtained evidence (and establish systems for determining and excluding such evidence), all of which involves a greater role for lawyers;
  • In the area of criminal justice, provides better protection to defendants and their counsel, such as prohibiting criminal defendants from being forced to wear prison clothing, shackles, etc., idea that the prosecution and defense have equal status in the criminal process, better judicial review of individuals whose freedom is restricted;
  • In civil cases, requiring evidence to be reviewed at trial and major disputed evidence must be highlighted in the judgment or ruling and whether the court is relying upon it;
  • Improving the status of lawyers in both criminal and civil litigation;
  • Reforming jurisdiction in environmental cases;
  • Improving jurisdictional provisions in public interest cases (which at this time means environmental and consumer cases);
  • Changing the docketing process from a substantive review to a registration procedure (which in the past has meant that “inconvenient” cases were not accepted);
  • Reforming internal court procedures and roles, particularly that of the court president, members of the judicial committee, and heads of division, requiring documentation of communications with the judge or judges handling the cases, as well as focusing the judicial committee on legal questions (external pressure on these court leaders has been a significant factor in the miscarriages of justice now being revealed);
  • Distinguishes the functions of courts at first and second instance (as well as re-trial and judicial supervision) stages;
  • Changes the current performance indicator system, and gets rid of league tables for courts;
  • In appeal cases, the court should set out the issues in the case at first instance;
  • Changes the relationship between the higher and lower courts so that they operate independently;
  • Prevents judicial corruption in a variety of ways, such as improving the judicial auctioning process, confiscation of property, and much more transparency;
  • Calls for establishing a system of integrating Party disciplinary systems (in anti-corruption cases) with court punishment systems;
  • Highlights providing greater openness to the press and others to attend court hearings;
  • Calls for establishing a more professional personnel system for judges and a transitional system from the current one.
  •  a judicial selection system;
  • More details on having local judges appointed at the provincial level;
  • Setting up a system for preventing interference in court cases by requiring notes, etc. from leaders to be retained in the file and made available to parties and their counsel;
  • Improving the military courts.

In the spirit of greater openness, the document states that reforms by lower courts are to be reported to the Court before being launched and major reforms need to be reported to the Party central authorities before being launched [apparently to ensure Party leadership to prevent the political authorities from being unpleasantly surprised].

The changes relating to basic court institutions will affect all types of cases, whether they are environmental, intellectual property, or foreign-related ones.

The drafting of this document required countless hours of work and negotiations.  The real work is ahead, in implementing its principles, and in particular changing patterns of behavior as well as institutional and political culture formed over several decades.

Supreme People’s Court‘s sunshine cure for corruption in commutation and parole procedures

20140221112449_2571

Prisoner choosing commutation & parole options from corrupt jail official

 

Before Chinese new year, the Supreme People’s Court held a news conference  to highlight its accomplishments in reforming parole procedures. The previous procedures (or lack of them) (as described below) appeared to have been a money-spinner for prison officials. The reform in parole procedures highlights the value that current Chinese legal policy places on Justice Louis D. Brandeis’s wisdom (without citing him):

“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants…”

The change in parole procedures also are a good example of how results of investigations by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and Central Political and Legal Committee policy documents are eventually are translated into improvements in legal procedures.

The reforms to parole procedures include:

  • The Court’s August, 2014, Provisions On Commutations And Parole(最高人民法院关于减刑、假释案件审理程序的规定) (translation can be found here), requiring much more transparency;
  • November, 2014 procedures issued by the Court along with the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Public Security, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and National Health and Family Planning Commission on medical parole and related issues (暂予监外执行规定), establishing stricter guidelines.
  • Establishing an internet platform on the Court website to make public (provide sunlight) parole/commutation matters: acceptance of applications, notice of court hearings,and court rulings;
  • Establishing a filing system under which decisions relating to officials of county level (or section (处) need to filed with provincial high courts and provincial department (bureau level(局)) need to be filed with the Court;
  • Model cases on parole and commutation, to guide lower court judges in their work, and inform the public on these reforms.

    ________.x_large

    Axe labeled “power”, “money”

The background

With flexible provisions and limited transparency on medical parole, commuting sentences, and parole procedures, in recent years apparently underpaid Chinese prison officials caught the entrepreneurial spirit and (like the Monopoly game that many of us grew up playing), sold “get out of jail cards” to those who could afford to pay.  Those were generally made up the wealthy and (formerly) powerful, particularly those who had committed the following crimes:

  • duty crimes (including taking bribes and abusing authority);
  • organized crimes;
  • financial crimes.

An August, 2014 press report mentioned that over 700 prisoners  nationwide had improperly secured early release.  Other reports cited that prison officials in Guangdong were particularly entrepreneurial, arranging for the improper release of approximately 140 in Guangdong, primarily former officials, including:

  • Wang Ju, former vice mayor of Shenzhen;
  • Zhao Yuchun, former head of Shenzhen customs;
  • Huang Shaoxiong, former deputy head of the Guangdong United Front Work Department; and
  • Lin Chongzhong, former deputy mayor of Jiangmen.

CCDI investigations and Central Political Legal Committee policy document

It appears that these reforms can be traced back to CCDI investigations in 2013 (and possibly earlier), because in August, 2013, the CCDI website carried a summary of a speech by Xi Jinping at a CCDI conference in which he calls for reforms to parole procedures. At about the same time reports of  investigations into prison officials were released by CCDI, such as one of a Hunan Province Justice Department (the Justice departments run the prison) official who was found to have almost USD 2 million (12 million RMB) in assets disproportional to his income.  Many other prison officials in other provinces have also been investigated.

In January, 2014, the Central Political Legal Committee issued a policy document outlining the policy framework for the reforms, which began with the frank admission that society was incensed by the rich and powerful who had been sentenced to prison who often served relatively short sentences because they had their sentences commuted or were given parole, directing special restrictions prisoners convicted of the above three types of crimes. (The Supreme People’s Procuratorate has issued its own regulations to implement the policy document.)

Going forward

Reducing corruption in the justice system and giving Chinese people more confidence in it is a multi-faceted process, with greater transparency needed across many areas.  These reforms to parole and commutation procedures are likely to be one of the accomplishments that President Zhou Qiang will be able to point to when he gives his report to the National People’s Congress next month, particularly as the August, 2014 regulations are listed as one of one of the Court’s 10 major policy accomplishments of 2014.

Additionally, the internet platform also serves as a window into criminal activity in China, such as the recent application by a Han native of Xinjiang, convicted in Beijing of dealing in drugs, but who was permitted by the Chaoyang District Court to serve his sentence outside of jail for the next six months, because he has AIDs.

 

 

 

When will the Supreme People’s Court become a tourist destination?

800px-Supreme_peoples_court_chinaI had the good fortune to have a meeting with some judges of the Supreme People’s Court last week in the main building of the Supreme People’s Court.  The rules are now such that photographs of the gate (and nameplate of the Supreme People’s Court) are forbidden, a contrast to 20+ years ago, when I was able to ride my bicycle along the road fronting the Court.  As the Supreme People’s Court guides the courts towards more transparency and public access, I look forward to the day when it can become a tourist destination and its hearings more  open to the Chinese and foreign public.

I wish all my readers all the best for the Year of the Sheep  祝大家新春快乐,身体健康,万事如意!

Supreme People’s Court interprets the Civil Procedure Law

2On 4 February the Supreme People’s Court (Court) issued a comprehensive interpretation of the 2012 Civil Procedure Law, with 552 articles, longer than the 294 articles in the law itself.  It creates a much more sophisticated body of civil procedure law.  The Court has been working on this interpretation for over two years. As is usual, the Court held a press conference to explain its significance. The text of the press conference, in which the Court spokesman and Judges Du  Wanhua and Sun Youhai spoke, is also available on the Court’s website. A few of the highlights of the interpretation:

  • More detailed section on evidence, including recordings, reflecting the longer term work underway to draft an evidence code.
  • A new section on public interest litigation, in relation to environmental, consumer cases and other such cases.  The organization must show prima facie evidence of harm to the public interest. Other organizations and administrative agencies can apply to be joint plaintiffs.
  • Much longer section on foreign related issues, including provisions concerning foreign language evidence (translations should be provided), and if the parties disagree on the translation, they should agree on a third party translation agency.
  • Permission of the court is required to tape, video, or provide live posting on social media.
  • Many provisions relating to divorce of [former] Chinese citizens who have settled outside of China.
  • Section on small claims procedure.

More analysis to follow.

Supreme People’s Court: new regulations on legal representation in death penalty review cases

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complex where death penalty review undertaken

On 29 January, the Supreme People’s Court issued regulations on legal representation in death penalty cases, Measures for Considering the Views of Defense Lawyers in Death Penalty Review Cases (最高人民法院关于办理死刑复核案件听取辩护律师意见的办法) (translation available here).  This blog previously flagged that the Court was drafting them and that they were meant to be issued by the end of the year.  They will become effective on February 1.  They  were accompanied by a brief question and answer session with a “responsible person” from the Court’s #1 Criminal Division. presumably the head or deputy head.  These brief regulations provide important protections to those sentenced to death, and are part of the Court’s efforts to minimize mistaken cases.

The regulations permit defense lawyers to review the defendant’s file, provide additional evidence and have a hearing with the judges handling the case, although not a formal court hearing. The Court has created a room for lawyers to use to review death penalty review materials. The transcript of the hearing (as signed off by the defense lawyer) is to be included in the case file.  However, defense counsel has only two weeks to submit its additional opinion in the case.  Presumably this deadline can be extended if counsel provides justification.

The regulations set out the telephone numbers of the Court’s criminal divisions, which review death penalty cases.  This blogpost translated a chart drafted by the Chinese magazine Southern Weekend setting out jurisdiction of the various divisions.

This is an important step forward in protecting the rights of criminal defendants and is the product of many years of law reform efforts.

 

A new audience for US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts’ 2014 Year-end Report

imgresChief Justice John Roberts of the US Supreme Court may be surprised to learn that (an edited and translated version of ) his year-end report (linked here), is being read by tens of thousands of Chinese judges and lawyers. The reason is a translation by the Institute for Applied Legal Studies, affiliated with the Supreme People’s Court (Court), was published on the Supreme People’s Court website and distributed through its social media channels (Wechat and Weibo), as well by the social media feeds of local Chinese courts.

What relevance does Justice Robert’s report have for the Chinese judiciary?  It reflects how the Court considers foreign legal models as it seeks to reform the Chinese courts. Some of the “take-aways” are highlighted below.

Borrowing foreign legal models

Referring to or “borrowing”  foreign legal models has been a important part of China’s legal modernization, particularly in technical areas of law, but it remains politically sensitive.

The official position on borrowing/referring to foreign legal models is set out in the 4th Plenum Decision: “Draw from the quintessence of Chinese legal culture, learn from beneficial experiences in rule of
law abroad, but we can absolutely not indiscriminately copy foreign rule of law concepts and models.”

Earlier this month, an official of the Communist Party’s Central Political-Legal Committee, writing in the Communist Party’s journal Qiushi (Seeking Truth)  warned:

We want to study and borrow from the world’s best achievements of legal civilization, but studying and borrowing does not mean simply “take-ism (grab-ism)” [this phrase is the title of a 1934 essay by the famous Chinese writer Lu Xun  to mean that China should learn what it needs from Western culture through a process of selection].

 What are the takeaways for the Chinese courts?

The following excerpts from Justice Roberts’ report clearly resonated with the Supreme People’s Court leadership, as they consider court reforms that can be successfully adopted in China’s current political, legal and cultural environment:

  • The courts understandably focus on those innovations that, first and foremost, advance their primary goal of fairly and efficiently adjudicating cases through the application of law.
  • Courts are simply different in important respects when it comes to adopting technology, including information technology. While courts routinely consider evidence and issue decisions concerning the latest technological advances, they have proceeded cautiously when it comes to adopting new technologies in certain aspects of their own operations.
  • For 225 years, since the enactment of the Judiciary Act of 1789, the federal courts in each state have exercised a fair degree of operational independence to ensure that they are responsive to local challenges, capabilities,and needs. The individual courts have had considerable latitude to experiment with new technologies, which has led to some courts initiating local innovations. When the Administrative Office plans a nationwide initiative, such as Next Generation CM/ECF [electronic case filing and case management], it must devote extensive resources to conferring with judges, court executives, and lawyers across the country, examining what has worked on a local basis, and identifying features that should be adopted nationally.
  • The federal courts, however, also face obstacles that arise from their distinct responsibilities and obligations. The judiciary has a special duty to ensure, as a fundamental matter of equal access to justice, that its case filing process is readily accessible to the entire population, from the most techsavvy to the most tech-intimidated. Procedural fairness begins in the clerk’s office.

 

Case law Chinese style–where is it going?

1343124282_12_dqgeOn 6 January 2015, case law Chinese style (案例指导制度) made the headlines of the People’s Court Daily and the Supreme People’s Court’s (the Court’s) websites, because the Supreme People’s Court president, Zhou Qiang provided an introduction to a book that the Court is publishing on guiding cases. Universities such as Yale, Stanford, and the City University of Hong Kong as well as institutions such as the European Union have held training programs with Court staff on the case method. Numerous academic conferences have been held on the topic in China.  The Communist Party leadership expressed its approval for case law in the 4th Plenum Decision in the following phrase:

  • Strengthen and standardize judicial interpretation and case guidance, and unify standards of applicable law (加强和规范司法解释和案例指导,统一法律适用标准).

As discussed in this blogpost, the Court’s October, 2013 judicial reform plan flagged the importance of case law in this phrase:

  •  “Expand fully the important role of guiding cases and cases for reference”.

This blogpost will look at how the Court leadership understands Chinese “case law” and how it sees case law to be useful to the judiciary.

Waving the flag for case law

President Zhou Qiang’s introduction incorporated both guiding cases, as designated by the Supreme People’s Court under its 2010 regulations, and model/typical cases.

He highlighted the following benefits of case law as:

  • summarizing trial experience;
  • strengthening supervision and guidance [of lower courts by higher courts]
  • unifying the application of law;
  • improving the quality of adjudication,
  • helping establish a judicial system with Chinese characteristics
  • assisting  in resolving the problem of similar cases decided differently;
  • controlling judges’ discretion.

Zhou Qiang did not go into the specifics of the case law system, which Hu Yunteng, the head of the Court’s Research Office,  set out in a January, 2014 article, addressing:

  • distinction between guiding cases and other cases issued by the Court or lower courts;
  • how judges should refer to guiding cases;
  • issues facing the guiding case system.

Judge Hu Yunteng clarifies the point that many other commentators and I have made, that cases selected as guiding or model cases are not the entire judgements, but have been curated and edited.

The distinction between guiding cases and other cases

Judge Hu distinguishes guiding cases (Stanford Law School’s Guiding Case Project translates and comments on them) from model cases published in the Supreme People’s Court Gazette, by the Court itself, and individual tribunals of the Court. (Examples of model cases can be found here and here.)

Judge Hu points out that the title, document number, method of selection and approval, and most importantly, the authority of guiding cases is different.  Guiding cases, unlike model or typical cases issued by the Court or lower courts, must be referred to by all courts in similar cases, and lower courts may refer to guiding cases in the reasoning section of their judgments.

How judges should refer to guiding cases

Chinese judges must focus on the important points of guiding cases, which have been approved by the judicial committee of the Supreme People’s Court, and secures their unifying role in the Chinese court system.They must only be used in similar cases.  Judge Hu distinguishes Chinese guiding cases from Anglo-American precedent, because guiding cases can only be issued by the Supreme People’s Court.  He says that judges may refer to guiding cases in their judgments and distinguish the case before them from a relevant guiding case.

Issues facing the guiding case system

Judge Hu identifies the following issues:

  • The relationship between judicial interpretations and guiding cases, and in which cases guiding cases rather than judicial interpretation should be relied upon is unresolved.
  • Second, the issues in the guiding cases generally are not breakthrough cases and are more “damp squibs.” Judge Hu suggests that the guiding case system address more controversial cases.
  • Third, it is unclear to the lower courts when guiding cases must be used, and the consequences if a lower court fails to use a guiding case on point.
  • Fourth, he admits that too few guiding cases have been issued and suggests that the Court issue a number of guiding cases equal to judicial interpretations.

Comments from the market

An opinion piece in Caixin, reporting on a late December conference at Renmin University on case law, set out comments from some Chinese legal professionals on the case system:

Renmin University Professor Huang Jingping–“very few judges refer to guiding cases”

Peking University Professor Liang Genlin–“the position of guiding cases in the legal system and how they can be distinguished from other cases is chaotic”–clearer rules are needed.

Li Guifang, partner, Deheng Law Office–guiding cases are needed.

Closing comments

It is likely that guiding cases and model/typical cases issued by the Supreme People’s Court will continue to be used to accomplish several goals:

  • Publicize the accomplishments of the lower courts.
  • Distributed as political education or have political purposes.
  •  Convey to the lower courts, lawyers, and the general public the correct position on a substantive issue but also have a political purpose;
  • Provide guidance for judges and lawyers on substantive legal issues;
  • Provide models of correctly decided cases.

Finally, it appears likely that the issue of the authority of guiding cases vs. other types of cases will be set out in regulations at some point.

Supreme People’s Court overhauls judicial performance indicators

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Jincheng Shanxi court evaluation meeting

The 27 December headline story in the People’s Court Daily and the national court website is the decision by the Party Committee of the Supreme People’s Court (the Court), issued to the entire court system, to:

  • cancel court performance rankings;
  • Except for those targets for resolving cases that according to law are compulsory, the remaining targets should become reference data for analyzing judicial operations.
  • oppose the practice of avoiding accepting cases at year end with the excuse that it would bring down the court’s case resolution index.

This is the result of its own fieldwork, as well as criticism from the lower courts, NPC delegates, academics, and lawyers. Chinese courts avoid accepting new cases close to year end if the case will not be resolved until the next year, because these cases will pull down a court’s performance indicators, even though the rights of litigants can be sacrificed.

Chinese and foreign academics have highlighted the negative consequences of judicial performance performance targets for many years.

He Fan, a Court judge on the staff of the research office, while applauding the change, pointed out in his blog that despite the change of policy by the Court, some lower court judges remain under pressure by local court leadership to work overtime to resolve cases.

What indicators will replace them?

The reports do not link to the underlying Court document and so it remains unclear what performance indicators will replace the ones that have been abolished, or which indicators fall into the second category.  The judicial reforms anticipate having a smaller number of judges handling an increasing number of cases.  If judges find the new performance evaluation system unacceptable, this may lead to an even greater outflow of judges than is already occurring.

New circuit courts opening soon in Shenzhen and Shenyang

Chinese press reports have revealed that the Supreme People’s Court (Court) will establish pilot circuit courts (巡回法庭) in Shenzhen and Shenyang by year’s end.  According to Chinese social media, Judge Liu Guixiang will head the Shenzhen circuit court, which has now been officially confirmed.  The vice presidents in Shenzhen will be Zhou Fan, formerly deputy head of the #4 civil division and Kong Xiangjun, formerly deputy head of the #3 civil division.  Hu Yunteng will head the Shenyang circuit court, while the vice presidents will be Zheng Xuelin, who now heads the environmental division and Yu Zhengping of the trial supervision tribunal.

The Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform approved their establishment in early December.  Although documents have not yet been released describing their location, jurisdiction or the personnel appointed, press reports pinpoint the former site of the Shenzhen Intermediate Court on Hongling Road as the location of the Shenzhen circuit court, with jurisdiction over administrative and major commercial trans-provincial cases arising in Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hainan. According to press reports, the Court issued a notice to judges inviting applications for the circuit courts.

On 30 December, the Court announced that the circuit courts will start taking cases from the beginning of 2015.

Where is the Supreme People’s Court headed with judicial committee reform?

55e15ba4755d55f74efa66a505224312Judicial (also called adjudication) committees are the unseen force behind the panel of three judges hearing a case in a Chinese court.  The decision a judicial committee makes binds the panel that heard the case.  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.

For this reason, judicial committees are important to anyone involved with or concerned with the Chinese courts, whether as a lawyer, litigant, or representative of a foreign or international organization, NGO, or government.

The Third and Fourth Plenum Decisions both mentioned judicial committee reform but without any details.  The Court has revealed the direction of its thinking on this topic in two recent articles published this month (December, 2014) on the national court website.

What are judicial committees?

Throughout the history of the PRC, court legislation has stated 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. They decide cases that are too difficult or important for an individual judge or judicial panel to decide, to ensure the optimal substantive result (as seen from the institutional perspective of the courts.  Judicial committees have long been criticized by the academic community both inside and outside of China, and some judges have written about their drawbacks as well.

Judicial committees operate under 2010 regulations that I analyzed in an earlier article (Reforming judicial committees).  (According to those rules, major cases such as death sentences must be approved by a court’s judicial committee, so judicial committees must have been involved in the mistaken cases mentioned above).  (For those interested learning more about  the operations of the judicial committee of a local court, I highly recommend the study linked here).

The state of judicial committee reform policy

For over a year, the Supreme People’s Court (which itself has a judicial committee) has apparently been exploring where it wants to go with its policies towards judicial committees.  Both the Third and Fourth Plenum Decisions signalled that some reform of the judicial committee system was on the agenda:

  • Reform the trial committee system, perfect case handling responsibility systems for presiding judges and collegiate benches, let those hearing the case judge, and those judging the case be responsible.
  • Clarify the duties of all levels within judicial organs and complete internal mechanisms for supervision and check. Internal personnel of judicial organs must not violate provisions to interfere with other personnel’s handling of cases, establish recording and accountability systems for internal personnel looking into cases. Improve case handling responsibility systems for presiding judges, collegial panels, … to implement a system where the person handling the cases bears responsibility.

Issues with judicial committees

Wang Bin, a judge on the Nanjing Intermediate Court commented on some of the issues she has observed with judicial committees in an article published in early December in the People’s Court Daily:

1. The judicial committee inserts a  “subjective filter” between the judges who try cases and the judicial committee that decides the case, “making it difficult to guarantee the objectivity and accuracy of the results of the judgment.”

2.Judicial committees decide cases in conference, which involves a wide range and large number of cases. Although the 2010 regulations require the judges that heard the case to prepare a written report, Judge Wang notes that judicial committee members have neither the opportunity nor the time and energy to learn more about the specific circumstances of each case.  The committee has a large number of members (court president, vice presidents,division heads and some specialist committee members, and the local procurator), which means each case receives limited discussion time and and the views of defense counsel are not properly considered.

3. The members of the judicial committee include heads of the criminal, civil, and administrative divisions of a court, but with the greater complexity of Chinese legislation and the cases coming before the courts, and the fact that each member of the committee receives one vote, it is difficult to ensure that the resulting decision will be fair and appropriate.

Judicial committee reform

The solutions that she suggests are in line with (and more pointed than) those suggested by  President Zhou Qiang, whose remarks need to be appropriate for the wide range of Chinese courts.

1. Judicial committees should provide a macro-level guidance to judges. Given the increase in a broad range of litigation, judicial committees should use their authority to select typical cases, summarize best practices, and issue normative documents.

2. Judicial committees should reduce the number of actual cases that they decide.  Judge Wang suggests (as have others), that the standard under which cases are submitted to the judicial committee are too vague, and more specific guidance should be drafted. Cases in which evidence is disputed should not be submitted to a judicial committee.

3. Judge Wang recommends that criminal cases that judicial committees discuss should be limited to ones in which the evidence is clear, and most cases should be decided by the panel that has heard the case. In death penalty cases, a vote of 2/3 of judicial committee members should be required (rather than a simple majority), because this is more consistent with national death penalty policy.

4. The members of the judicial committee should be selected for their professional competence rather than their administrative rank.

5. Judge Wang suggests the decision making process should be changed, so that members are required to state their view and rationale before voting.

6.  Judge Wang advocates that the procurator not be a member of the judicial committee.  In her view, this violates the principle of independence of the judiciary and interferes with justice.

President Zhou Qiang links judicial committee reforms to principles of judicial responsibility, suggesting that judicial committee meetings be recorded and judicial committee members assume responsibility for their decisions.

We can expect these judicial committee reforms to take firmer shape in the medium term.  While President Zhou Qiang mentioned that the Court will take the lead in implementing some of these judicial committee reforms, according to recent press reports, these will also be incorporated into some of the local pilot projects.

 

Supreme People’s Court, CSRC, SAIC, and PBOC tighten the regulatory net

e8fade90gw1ek1l57pt9jj2050050t8sOn 19 December 2014, the Supreme People’s Court (Court) and China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) announced that they were linking their blacklists and regulatory systems, following the arrangements the Court has made with other regulators since it established its judgment debtor database in October, 2013.  One of the major issues for the court system in having judgments enforced is interdepartmental regulatory silos that enable judgment debtors to avoid enforcement against their assets.

As of today, the Court’s database includes over 100,000 companies and almost 700,000 individuals. The goal is to tighten the net around non-compliant companies and individuals.  This initiative of the Court and CSRC is related to the State Council policy document issued in February, 2014,  on registered capital reform, in particular, the requirement that government departments improve interdepartmental sharing of information. Additionally, the Court names and shames one corporate and individual judgment debtor each day on social media.

The arrangement with the CSRC will involve the Court linking its system with the CSRC’s database of almost 700,000 entries concerning individuals and companies that have committed securities violations, and to prevent judgment debtors from accessing the capital markets.

Other arrangements the Court has made include:

  • an October, 2014, arrangement with the State Administration of Industry and Commerce (SAIC), which links  the SAIC’s credit information disclosure system (corporate disclosure system), described here, with the Court’s database (and requires SAIC cooperation in enforcing judgements);
  • a November, 2013  arrangement with the People’s Bank of China, directed at preventing judgment debtors from obtaining loans or financing through the banking system.

A search through the Court’s database is useful to a variety of users:

  • Lawyers, financiers and others engaged in due diligence on Chinese companies and individuals;
  • Companies, Chinese or foreign, contemplating doing business with a Chinese company or individual; and
  • Scholars and students researching the local operation of the Chinese economy and court system.

What you should know about foreign-related cases in the Chinese courts post 4th Plenum

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The integration of China with the outside world through investment, trading, shipping, and licensing, inevitably (in some cases) leads to litigation in a Chinese courtroom (even if a contract has an arbitration clause), as companies large and small have found out.  Some recent examples are listed below:

The Supreme People’s Court (Court) recently held its 4th National Work Conference on Foreign-Related Commercial and Maritime Adjudication (4th National Work Conference) in early November, shortly after the 4th Plenum. This is a conference that the Court organizes occasionally for judges hearing  commercial and maritime cases involving foreign parties. The Court uses work conferences to transmit the latest central legal policy, harmonize court practices consistent with those policies, and find out what the latest difficult legal issues are. (This is a practice similar to other Party/government agencies).

The 4th National Work Conference highlighted some of the provisions of the 4th Plenum:

  • Vigorously participate in the formulation of international norms;
  • Strengthen our country’s discourse power and influence in international legal affairs;
  • Strengthen law enforcement and judicial cooperation between the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan;
  • perfect our country’s judicial assistance systems;
  • ensure that the courtroom hearings play a decisive role.

Additionally, the Court emphasized other principles  such as —

  • vigorously asserting jurisdiction (which is also asserted vis a vis the Hong Kong courts–see this commentary on a Hong Kong divorce case), which deserves closer attention in Hong Kong;
  • Correctly applying international treaties and governing law principles.
  • Safeguarding national rights and interests.

Some background if you need it

“Foreign-related” is a concept of many years standing that means that a foreign element is involved, because of a party’s nationality, location of the property disputed, or other factors (as explained here).The concept of “foreign-related” further relates to other important questions, such as selecting arbitration outside of China and foreign governing law.

Following national work conferences, the Court  often issues follow-up “Conference Summaries” to guide the lower courts on the agreed upon approach to new or contentious issues. These do not have the status of a judicial interpretation but courts refer to them when deciding cases. According to Court rules, courts can cite judicial interpretations (but not Conference Summaries).  It doesn’t seem that the Conference Summary has yet been issued.

Status update on foreign-related cases in the Chinese courts

In China, 203 intermediate and 204 basic level courts have jurisdiction over first instance foreign-related cases.  In the period 2010-end June 2014, the Chinese courts heard 287,262 first and second instance cases foreign-related maritime and commercial cases, an increase of 41% over the previous period. The cases are mostly heard by courts in coastal areas, but as foreign investment goes inland, disputes inevitably follow.

Head’s up for the foreign legal community

Following the Work Conference, Judge Luo Dongchuan, head of the #4 Civil Tribunal of the Court, was interviewed by Legal Daily. Judge Luo mentioned many important future legal developments, highlighted below.

1. Reforms relating to four important practical issues

  • Establishing an electronic platform for service of legal process outside of the jurisdiction (intended to mean Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, as well as foreign countries);
  • Investigating and obtaining evidence (this is likely linked to current anti-corruption efforts by the Chinese government to pursue (and retrieve assets from) corrupt officials who have settled overseas)
  • Determining foreign law, through establishing a database of experts (Chinese and foreign).
  • Restricting parties to litigation from leaving China (Chinese legislation on these procedures is difficult to parse (see my earlier article on this subject and another related one).

2. Maritime court related reforms

  •  The Court is considering establishing maritime circuit courts, to deal with disputes arising inland arising from logistics cases in the maritime courts.
  • The Court intends to promote the maritime courts and a forum for hearing cases involving maritime pollution from on-shore sources (the largest source of maritime pollution China).
  • The Court is looking into reforming the maritime court’s jurisdiction, so that it will have jurisdiction over civil, criminal, and civil maritime cases.

3. Recognition of foreign court judgments

Judge Luo mentioned that the Court is researching the recognition and enforcement of foreign court judgments involving property.  (This appears to be at an early stage.)

3. Arbitration related reforms

Judge Luo emphasized that the Court supports arbitration.

Because arbitration is so important, the Chinese courts will try to uphold the validity of vague [poorly drafted!] arbitration clauses.

A new judicial interpretation on the judicial review of arbitration-related issues will go into the Court’s judicial interpretation drafting plan in 2015.

The Court intends to reform jurisdiction in judicial review of arbitration issues, to consolidate them in specialized courts, expanding the pilot projects underway in Guangdong, Inner Mongolia, and elsewhere (as designated by the Court.  Earlier this year, the Guangdong Higher People’s Court published a report on its experience so far.

4. Electronic platform

The Court is considering establishing an electronic platform for foreign-related cases.  This may relate to making litigation procedures for parties more transparent.

 Some unsolicited suggestions for the Supreme People’s Court

Consider the following:

  • Overhaul the Court’s English language platform, so that it provides useful official information for the foreign reader who does not know Chinese;
  • Issue more draft judicial opinions for public comment and give the public (foreign and Chinese) a more sensible time period to comment, particularly for draft regulations relating to any of the issues discussed above. The issues mentioned above are very important to the foreign business and legal community.  The current 30 day time period extremely short by international standards.  Given the opportunity, international and foreign organizations and law firms will comment, but it takes time for translation and busy lawyers and other legal professionals to make comments.
  • Consider what can be done to make the Chinese courts a more user-friendly forum for international commercial disputes.  For example, consider what is needed for China to become a party to the Hague Convention on the Legalization of Foreign Public Documents (which will involve reforms by multiple government departments) and other related conventions.  The current system of legalization of foreign evidence is difficult for foreign parties and puts the Chinese system behind the 107 countries in the world that are signatories).

Updated with further analysis: What does the 4th Plenum mean for death penalty reviews?

video interview in a death penalty review case

video interview in a death penalty review case

In a  press report in Southern Weekend last month (summarized in this report), the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) revealed that  an important legal reform related to death penalty reviews is forthcoming–institutionalizing legal representation in death penalty reviews.  This development, and others still in the works, are likely linked to the following provisions in the 4th Plenum Decision:

  • For appeals from dissatisfaction with effective judgments or decisions of judicial organs, gradually implement a system of lawyer representation. Bring appellants unable to hire a lawyer within the scope of legal aid.
  • Advance systemic reform in litigation with trial at the center;
  • complete effective guards against unjust, false and wrongfully decided cases.
  • bring about a system of lifetime responsibility for case quality and wrongful cases accountability system.

The Southern Weekend report has now been more fully summarized by the Duihua Foundation.

(This reform caught my attention because because I raised this issue when conducting an interview at the Supreme People’s Court in the early 1990’s, when researching my 1993 Supreme People’s Court article in the Journal of Chinese Law.)

Some background on death penalty review in the Court

As many others have described, death penalty review is carried out solely within the Court (in contrast to the period that I wrote my article) in an administrative procedure (my article describes the procedure at the time, and other articles describe the current process). The Southern Weekend article describes it as taking place in an unmarked office building away from  Court headquarters, guarded by a member of the Armed Police.

The Court has increased the number of criminal tribunals from two (when I wrote about this procedure 20 years ago in my article) to five tribunals, but the Court has not issued regulations setting out their jurisdiction.  According to the Southern Weekend reporters, four of the tribunals, which review cases based on geography and subject matter, have about 70 staff (both judges and support staff), while one has about 50 staff and reviews cases only on a subject matter basis. According to Southern Weekend, there is some flexibility in the jurisdiction of the criminal tribunals.(See this report for a translation of Southern Weekend’s chart.)

Institutionalizing legal representation in death penalty reviews

The Southern Weekend article reported that a senior member of the one of the criminal tribunals had revealed that the Court has drafted regulations on institutionalizing legal representation in death penalty review and it is hoped that they will be issued before year end.  According to the article, the draft regulations are entitled:

死刑复核案件听取辩护律师意见的若干规定 (Regulations on Considering the Views of Defense Lawyers in Death Penalty Review Cases).

This reform was flagged in Article 240 of the 2012 Criminal Procedure Law:

When the Supreme People’s Court reviews a death case, it should examine the defendant; if the defense attorney requests, it should hear the opinion of the defense attorney.

Article 42 of the 2012 Supreme People’s Court interpretation of the Criminal Procedure Law provides:

When the SPC performs final review of a death penalty case and the defendant has not retained a defender, the legal aid organization shall be notified to appoint a lawyer to provide him a defense.

A statement of principle in an a Court interpretation does not translate immediately into systemic reform.  It is apparent from the Southern Weekend article, a 2013 article on the Court’s website, and other sources that the mechanism for doing so is being considered within the Court and that local justice bureaus are implementing regulatory changes.

In the Southern Weekend article, a Court judge pointed out what the academics and defense lawyers have been saying, that many persons sentenced to death are from the bottom of society and do not have a lawyer defending them. (It appears from this interview with the President of the Zhejiang Higher People’s Court that Zhejiang has been taking the lead in working with the justice authorities to have legal aid provided to criminal defendants.)

In an article earlier this year in the Legal Daily (organ of the Communist Party Central Political Legal Committee), Professor Liu Wenren of the Law Institute, China Academy of Social Sciences emphasized the necessity of involving lawyers in the death penalty review process.  A Chinese lawyer has established a website for death penalty review lawyers, highlighting cases where legal representation has been effective.  Jiangsu province justice department has implemented  regulations on giving defense lawyers rights in death penalty review cases.

It is unclear what provisions will be contained in these regulations, but it is hoped that they include a provision for legal aid as well as rights for lawyers to review the case file.

Changing the form of death penalty review: when will the time come for this reform?

It appears that the Court is considering changing the form of death penalty review to a hearing-centered procedure.  (Dean Zhao Bingzhi of Beijing Normal University, College of Criminal Law Science, Professor Liu Wenren, and  others have been advocating this for some years (see this in this 2012 interview with Professor Zhao in Legal Daily).) Movement on this issue can be seen from the following:

  • In June, 2013, the Court held its first hearing in a death penalty review case, reported here. In July, 2013, Legal Daily published a follow-up article in which it was suggested that more hearings will take place.
  • In 2013, the Court website published an article (written by a Jiangxi judge) on deficiencies in the death penalty review procedure, suggesting that a hearing procedure be adopted.
  • In July, 2014, the China Law Society held a training session for defense lawyers in death penalty cases, at which four of the five criminal tribunal heads spoke.

The Supreme People’s Court Observer understands these developments to be linked to the goal in the 4th Plenum Decision of bringing about a system of lifetime responsibility for case quality and a wrongful cases accountability system. Going to a hearing procedure for death penalty review cases in which defendants have legal representation would go far to “complete effective guards against unjust, false and wrongfully decided cases” and at the same time would better protect the hundreds of Court judges who will bear lifetime responsibility for their decisions in death penalty cases.

If there are errors in the above analysis, please use the comment function.

Those further interested in this important topic can refer to one or more of the many articles, books, and reports in English (and Chinese).  In contrast to the early 90’s, death penalty review in China has now attracted the attention of major scholars and international organizations.

Supreme People’s Court’s new policy on protecting the rights of the military and military personnel

Conference on legal assistance to Zhejiang troops

Conference on legal assistance to Zhejiang troops

The details of how the 4th Plenum Decision is being implemented by the Supreme People’s Court are gradually being made known. This blogpost looks at one discrete (and specialized) area, relating to national defense and the military in the civilian courts.

On 31 October, the Supreme People’s Court issued its Opinion on Expanding Capacity in  Safeguarding the Interests of National Defense, Guaranteeing the Rights and Interests of Military Personnel, and Military Dependents (关于进一步发挥职能作用维护国防利益和军人军属合法权益的意见)(The Opinion) (linked here, with comments by a spokesman here).

The sixteen point policy is intended as a comprehensive statement of judicial policy on these issues to be implemented by the lower courts in furtherance of the goals set by the 4th Plenum Decision.

The Opinion draws on some of the documents and addresses some of the social and regulatory issues described in earlier blogposts.

It is intended to implement the following provisions in the 4th Plenum Decision (among others):

  • Safeguard the interests of national defense.
  • Guarantee the lawful rights and interests of soldiers.
  • Strengthen legal services in the area of the people’s livelihood. Perfect legal aid systems, broaden the scope of aid.

Several points from the Opinion are highlighted below,  as well as questions that the Opinion raises (and some of the underlying issues) .

Some Points in the Opinion

1. The Opinion directs the lower courts to improve case filing and jurisdiction in cases related to the military.  The Opinon cites  the three principal judicial interpretations on civil and criminal jurisdiction in military cases, and encourages lower courts to establish special case filing counters for the military.

Why special counters for the military rather than the handicapped, for example, or other disadvantaged groups?

2. The Opinion directs lower courts to provide judicial and legal assistance to military parties.  The Opinion explains that Judicial assistance means exempting or reducing court fees for poor military families in civil cases  known as as “involving the interests of ordinary people” (more about these in an earlier blogpost) such as:

  • support payments (to the elderly);
  • child support;
  • compensation payments (to the disabled or families of the deceased).

The Opinion directs lower courts to take the initiative to assist soldiers and military dependents who qualify in receiving legal aid.  What this means is that courts should reach out to  local justice bureaus.  In some provinces, such as Zhejiang, the provincial judicial bureau has worked with the local military district to establish legal aid centers for military personnel and their dependents, under which local law firms have concluded agreements to provide legal advice (see this report).

How does the provision of legal aid to military personnel and their dependents compare to legal aid provided to other persons in poverty?

3.  Do a better job of trying military cases.  This refers to both criminal and civil cases.

Most of the criminal cases mentioned were detailed in this earlier blogpost.

Among the new principles to be implemented in civil cases are:

  • supporting core military enterprises and military industrial companies. (依法为军队核心产业、军工企业的科学发展提供司法支持).

Government policy seeks to have more private sector involvement in military and military industrial companies.

What does this mean when commercial disputes arise– how will the interests of each party be weighed?

4.  Establish a “green channel” for military related cases (this was mocked earlier this year), by giving priority to military-related cases in docketing, trial and enforcement.  Part of this means directing lower courts to  gather evidence if military parties have difficulty obtaining evidence.

What if it is the non-military party that has that difficulty, either in a commercial or family law case?

5. The Opinion directs the lower courts to work under the united leadership and support of the Party committee and political-legal committee on these issues and to work with other related departments to deal with military related cases.

What does that mean if the approach adopted by the Party committee or political-legal committee favors one party over another?

Other points include:

  • Establishing mechanisms for resolving disputes involving the military.
  • Improving enforcement of military-related orders and decisions.
  • Improving judicial service related to the military
  • Courts should work closely with the military.
  • Explore capturing statistics on military related cases.
  • Incorporating work in military-related cases in judicial performance evaluation.
  • Working with the military courts on military-related cases.

Some of the underlying issues

As identified in earlier blogposts, some of the underlying problems causing an increase in military-related cases in the civilian courts appear to be :

  •  an increase in civil unrest involving civilians and military;
  • unresolved civil disputes involving the military and its personnel
  • criminal cases involving civilians and military that have not been prosecuted because of evidentiary issues.
  • separate operations of the military and civilian justice systems;
  • difficulties in coordinating across bureaucratic systems.
  • performance indicators for officials within the (civilian) legal system, relating to the  percentage of closed cases or other success rates.

The Opinion and the 4th Plenum

What does the Opinion mean for principles in the 4th Plenum such as:

guaranteeing judicial fairness, exercising judicial power independently according law, raising judicial credibility and striving to have the people feel that every judicial case is fair and just?

 

 

 

4th Plenum and the Supreme People’s Court

4th plenum voting

4th plenum voting

According to the Wechat postings of one of its members, the judicial reform office of the Supreme People’s Court has been working overtime for months to prepare for the 4th Plenum.  It appears, at least from the initial 4th Plenum communiqué, that the hard work has paid off.  We will know more about the leadership’s plans for legal reforms when the full decision is released.  Four quick questions about the communique are set out below (to be supplemented as time permits).

Some questions for the Supreme People’s Court and the judiciary:

1.The communique stressed the need for improving the quality of legislation, including incorporating more public consultation and experts.  Will this reduce the need for judicial interpretations? What will this mean for the drafting of judicial interpretations?  Will the Supreme People’s Court require public consultation for its own judicial interpretations?  The release this month of drafts for public comment of the environmental public interest litigation regulations and the trademark validity administrative case rules are a step in the right direction.

2. The communique called for greater judicial transparency, as was highlighted in the Court’s 4th Five Year Reform Plan.  In its press releases to the domestic audience, the Supreme People’s Court has mentioned the visits it has hosted of the foreign press, foreign diplomats, and ordinary citizens, and of analogous events at the local level.  When can we look forward to easier access by all (foreign or domestic) to proceedings in the Chinese courts (at least in non-sensitive cases)?

3.  The communique indicated approval by the leadership of the establishment of circuit courts that cross administrative lines, a concept mentioned in the 4th Five Year Reform Plan (see this earlier blogpost).  It also reflects the use in China of foreign legal concepts or frameworks (as is frequently stressed, a reference and not as a transplant).

4.  It also called for an end to “interference” by leading cadres in specific court cases.  How will this long-standing practice will be curbed?  In recent weeks, articles have appeared in the legal press on changes to the Party Political Legal Committees. Will those changes imply less involvement in actual cases? And what is the distinction between “interference” and “leadership”?

 

 

Supreme People’s Court’s prescription for the disease of judicial corruption

Basic level judges and flying money

Basic level judges and flying money

In a build up to the National Day holiday (and since), the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) has focused some of its attention on combating the disease of judicial corruption.  The prescription is in the form of three types of Communist Party documents. This blogpost highlights the prescription and speculates on the timing.

The herbs in this traditional prescription comes in the form of:

  •  Six model (typical) cases of violations of the Communist Party’s Eight Point Regulations by court officials ( “cadres and police”/干警)).  (An earlier blogpost analyzed seven earlier model cases that the Court issued.  The six (relatively minor) cases included:
    • a Guizhou county court spending over 500,000 RMB on a trip to Hainan at public expense, lavish banqueting, and abuse of bonuses;
    • leadership of a Shaoguan (Guangdong) court, that caused the death of their dinner guest, an official of a county court, from alcohol poisoning;
    • vice president of a Hunan county court, who used a court vehicle to take his daughter to school;
    • the head of the disciplinary department of a Hancheng (Shaanxi) court caught by a reporter playing video games during work hours;
  • Holiday rules on what not to do during the Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day holidays.  The Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (at various levels) issued notices distributed to the courts forbidding officials “gifting” moon cakes, shopping vouchers, “red packets”, and touring at public expense,
  • A document, linked here, providing policy guidance to the disciplinary departments of the courts in rooting corruption out of the courts. The head of these departments is Zhang Jiannan, who is the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection’s  (CCDI’s) chief representative in the Supreme People’s Court, and directs the disciplinary departments of the lower courts. The document is again focused on anti-corruption efforts within the courts.  It directs the disciplinary departments to focus on discipline, report to the local Party disciplinary authorities as well as the disciplinary department of the higher courts, participate in major court internal meetings,  improve the operation of disciplinary inspectors (described below). It directs disciplinary officials to participate in important meetings, drafting of important documents, and clear personnel appointments. The disciplinary officials are directed to implement the Party Constitution as well as 2008 regulations on supervision work in the courts.

Some background

The background for these documents is the Communist Party’s Central Committee’s five year anti-corruption plan (analyzed here).  Following that:

  • the Court’s Party Committee  issued a June, 2014 document on Party discipline:
  • the Court dispatched teams of its own disciplinary inspectors(最高人民法院司法巡查组) to Henan, Ningxia, Fujian and Anhui in May and September.  These disciplinary inspectors are the Court’s counterpart to  the CCDI’s  inspection teams, which at the central level called Central Inspection Groups (中央巡视组) (“CIG”).  These CIGs  uncover corruption and other abuses, under which semi-retired high ranking officials are dispatched to provinces, ministries and SOEs for disciplinary inspection. The political background for these inspection teams is analyzed in this article. These inspection teams have operated in the courts for a number of years and operate according to these rules.
  • The Communist Party Central Committee’s Political Legal Committee issued three batches of “typical cases” of violations of law and Party discipline among the “political legal departments,” (each linked here) which included a substantial number of judges, including Liu Yong of the Supreme People’s Court, removed for suspicion of having taken about 2 million yuan in bribes (about $330,000).

 The timing

The timing for the release of these recent documents appears to be linked to the upcoming Fourth Plenum of the 18th Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, on the rule of law. Part of the agenda, according to reports, is the role of the judiciary, curbing corruption and announcing forthcoming judicial reforms.

A traditional prescription

This prescription for curing the courts of corruption uses the traditional cure of Party discipline rather than judicial ethical models more commonly used in other jurisdictions. The Chinese judiciary has looked at approaches to judicial ethics in other jurisdictions, including Germany, the US, and Hong Kong.  Elements of this prescription, such as having disciplinary officials participate in important meetings and the drafting of important documents appear to be inconsistent with some of the goals in the judicial reform plan of having the judges who heard cases decide them.

Will the prescription be effective?

The current prescription is a variation of what has been prescribed before.  The Court needs to show the political leadership that it is it doing what it can to combat corruption in the courts and is implementing anti-corruption initiatives.  The anti-corruption drive is being led by the CCDI, using Party channels and methods.

Corruption prevents or at least complicates efforts to establish and operate a court system that meets the needs of ordinary people. It appears that the Court leadership is under no illusions about what goes on in the court system.  However, the Court leadership can only work within the current system and with current personnel.  Will the broader anti-corruption campaign lead to a change in China’s social and business culture, of which the judiciary is a part?  Or do these latest initiatives not go to the core of the problem?  换汤不换药?