Supreme People’s Court’s New Vision for the Chinese courts

Screenshot 2020-05-02 at 6.35.07 PM

Publicity related to the document analyzed below

The month of April saw the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issue many judicial policy documents, consistent with the commitment made in January 2020 to Party leadership to better serve the Party and state.

To the outside observer, a document issued on 1 April appears to signal the way that the Chinese judicial system will develop in the post-19th Chinese Communist Party (Party) Congress Fourth Plenum New Era.  The document is entitled Opinions of the Supreme People’s Court on Thoroughly Implementing the Spirit of the Fourth Plenum of the 19th Party Congress to Advance the Modernization of the Judicial System and Judicial Capacity (最高人民法院关于人民法院贯彻落实党的十九届四中全会精神推进审判体系和审判能力现代化的意见) (Implementing the 4th Plenum of 19th Party Congress Opinions). It implements “Implementing Opinions on Comprehensively Deepening Reform in the Political-Legal Field” (the text of this January 2019 document 关于政法领域全面深化改革的实施意见 has not been issued publicly) and “The Fifth Five-Year Reform Outline of the People’s Court (2019-2023) and obviously, the Decision of the 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Congress (4th Plenum Decision). The fact that the first document has not been issued publicly means that outside observers can identify its implications only through summaries in the press and implementing documents. The Party’s regulations on transparency (explained here) do not cover documents of this sort.

The Implementing the 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Congress Opinion is a framework document in which the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) identifies principles and goals for the Chinese judicial system and judicial capacity after the 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Congress. This blogpost will identify some of them and their link to the 4th Plenum, with related comments in italics. I expect that the SPC will issue specific judicial policy documents and judicial interpretations, as appropriate, to implement specific measures.

New Era Governance

The document needs to be seen as part of the larger picture for China’s governance set out in the 4th Plenum Decision.  Section 1 states that  “modernization of the judicial system and judicial capacity is an important part of the modernization of the national governance system and governance capability” and is needed, among other matters, to provide judicial services and guarantees for societal and economic development. One aspect of the importance of its judicial services is the fact that there were 28 million cases in the Chinese courts in 2018, most of them civil and commercial.

Political correctness

Several sections relate to political correctness.  This is linked to the clear requirement in the 4th Plenum Decision,  under the topic “perfecting the comprehensive leadership of the Party  (健全党的全面领导制度.)”  The 4th Plenum Decision also requires implementing the ideological responsibility system integrating socialist core values into law and social governance. This document, therefore, contains corresponding provisions.

Party leadership

Consistent with last year’s National People’s Congress report and other documents, this document states that the most important goal is to uphold and implement the Party’s absolute leadership of the courts and persist in putting the Party’s political construction first. It restates tasks for the courts, some of which were earlier flagged on this blog:

  • effectively implementing the Party’s leadership in all areas and aspects of the work of the people’s courts and ensuring the independent and fair exercise of judicial power under the leadership of the Party.  Related language is found in the 4th Plenum Decision. This requirement is found in the latest judicial reform plan and elsewhere, including judicial training (as discussed here);
  • Improve the system for implementing major decisions of the Party Center (完善党中央重大决策落实机制) (found in the 4th Plenum Decision and documents thereafter);
  • strictly implementing the [Party] system of reporting and seeking approval for major matters [also known as requests for instructions](严格落实重大事项请示报告制度)(the Party regulations on reporting and seeking approval for major matters) (mentioned here);
  • strengthening improvements from political inspection (see my blogpost on the inspection of the SPC) and judicial inspection (强化政治巡视和司法巡查整改) (discussed in my forthcoming article) (related content found in the 4th Plenum Decision. Judicial inspection is an old institution repurposed in the new era);
  • implementing the Party’s reporting and inspection system (督察落实情况报告制度, mentioned in the 4th Plenum report and thereafter).

As mentioned in a recent blogpost, this means implementing Party principles concerning the appointment of personnel, particularly those in a leadership position. These trends are linked to broader policies related to civil servants (this recent academic paper by Holly Snape has good insights).

Socialist Core Values and the Ideological Responsibility System

Section 5 focuses on socialist core values and the ideological responsibility system, both of which the 4th Plenum Decision stressed.

  • On the ideological responsibility system, this (authoritative) article (the author was then at the Party’s Central Compilation and Translation Bureau), unfortunately behind the publisher’s high paywall), sets forth an authoritative explanation of this concept in Xi Jinping New Era Governance that some of us need. The author defines the ideological responsibility system as follows:  it “is part of the political reforms and aimed at maintaining and improving the loyalty of the Bureaucracy, as well as maintaining their ideological unification…Under the current Xi administration, the CCP wants its cadres to be politically reliable, professional and competent, morally self-regulated, and preferably trusted by the people…
  • Resolutely prevent and oppose the eroding influence of Western mistaken thinking (坚决防范抵制西方错误思潮侵蚀影响).  This phrase has evolved from the one used several years ago and mentioned on this blog: “resolutely opposing erosion by the mistaken Western rule of law viewpoint” (坚决抵制西方错误法治观点侵蚀).  Related language appears in the 4th Plenum Decision: have a clear-cut stand opposing various types of erroneous views (旗帜鲜明反对和抵制各种错误观点 ). This observer surmises that this phrase appeared in the 2019 Party document mentioned above. This does not create obstacles to Chinese judges continuing to consider useful “Western” legal concepts and mechanisms and the SPC continuing to have exchanges and cooperation projects with major “Western” jurisdictions.
  • Implement socialist core values in the work of the courts. This has multiple aspects and continues an ongoing theme, including in judicial interpretations–see my 2018 blogpost). Some high-level conferences organized by the Case Research Institute of the National Judicial College have been on the subject of promoting socialist core values through cases.

Practically oriented

The more practically oriented sections (4, 6-8) reveal priority areas of SPC leadership concern. Those particularly relate to economic development, social stability, judicial reform, and technological upgrading, all topics found in the 4th Plenum Decision., while the section on public health emergency management relates to Party decisions and Xi Jinping speeches during the Covid pandemic.

These sections mention short, medium, and long-term areas of concern and development.

Section 4 of the document lists some of the priority matters relating to economic development facing the SPC and the lower courts, many of them mentioned in this year’s judicial interpretation list or recently announced judicial reforms. A curated version (translation is modified Google translate):

  •  Improve risk monitoring and the early warning mechanism in financial trials,  properly hearing financial disputes, and actively preventing and resolving financial risks (therefore we have seen the establishment of the Shanghai Financial Court and specialized financial tribunals in certain major cities. More detailed observations on this will come in the future);
  • fully implement the environmental public interest litigation system, improve the environmental remediation system, improve the environmental protection injunction system, improve the jurisdiction provisions in environmental cases. (The 4th Plenum Decision had a section on environmental protection and a July 2019 press conference linked to the fifth anniversary of SPC’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division mentioned these measures.)
  • Use evaluation indicators such as “enforcing contracts” and “handling bankruptcy”,  to improve trial management, mechanism, quality, and efficiency to create a stable, fair, transparent, and predictable legal business environment. (This is linked again to the 4th Plenum Decision and China’s ranking on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business scorecard).
  • Intensify the review of the legality of administrative actions, strengthen the substantive resolution of administrative disputes (also linked to the strengthening of administration by law in the 4th Plenum Decision, therefore also on the 2020 judicial interpretation agenda).
  • Strengthen the judicial protection of property rights. See earlier blogposts on this.
  • Formulate judicial interpretations for cases of infringement of trade secrets, and continuously improve the level of judicial protection of intellectual property rights (IPR). (Improving trade secrets protection is mentioned in the 4th Plenum Decision. Also see Mark Cohen’s recent blogpost on this).
  • Formulate judicial interpretations of punitive damages for intellectual property rights, promote the establishment of a tort damages compensation system that reflects the market value of IPR (IPR is stressed in the 4th Plenum Decision and punitive damages in IPR cases is mentioned. Also see Mark Cohen’s blog on this.  This also relates to evidentiary issues in IPR cases).
  • Mediation and diversified dispute resolution (including giving non-litigation methods of dispute resolution priority, improving the separation of disputes and the creation of one-stop dispute resolution and litigation service that is efficient and low cost) is mentioned in this document as well.  It is unclear what this means for the development of a commercial mediation system in China.  Local courts have been working on better cooperation with institutions that can mediate specialized disputes, such as the Shanghai Financial Court’s arrangements with the Shanghai Stock Exchange and other institutions. The provisions here derive from language in the 4th Plenum Decision on improving an effective system in the new situation for the correct handling of internal contradictions among the people (完善正确处理新形势下人民内部矛盾有效机制) as well as the Fengqiao Experience. Xi Jinping has mentioned the Fengqiao Experience since 2013, if not earlier. The phrase about internal contradictions appears to derive from the 1959 Mao essay, On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People.
  • Promote capacity building for foreign-related commercial and maritime trials, equally protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese and foreign parties in accordance with law, improve the diversified dispute resolution mechanism for international commercial disputes, serve the joint construction of the “Belt and Road” and the construction of free trade pilot zones and free trade ports ( The 4th Plenum Decision promotes a high-quality Belt & Road Initiative, so these measures implement the 4th Plenum Decision. Also, see my earlier blogpost on this.  To better improve diversified dispute resolution in cross-border cases, China needs to work on institutional arrangements enabling it to ratify the Singapore Mediation Convention. Those are many and complex, as I had a chance to learn in December, 2019. One matter that would assist foreign parties litigating in the Chinese courts (and Chinese parties litigating outside of China) would be for China to accede to the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents.  The SPC’s new evidence rules reduce the scope of documents that a foreign litigant (or domestic litigant providing foreign evidence) must notarize and legalize, but it is a troublesome and expensive process.
  • Improve the adjudication mechanism involving Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, build a centralized and professional trial system, explore and improve the diversified settlement mechanism for [civil/commercial] disputes involving Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. (The centralized system seems to be analogous to foreign-related cases. The intent is to have more competent judges consider these. Another issue is parallel proceedings in these cross-border cases. These issues deserve further analysis.)
  • Deepen the international judicial exchange and cooperation mechanism, participate in the reform of the global governance system and formulate rules of international law, and contribute more Chinese wisdom to the maintenance of the multilateral trading system and the international rule of law. (See my earlier blogpost on this).

Public health emergency management

Section 6 relates to the role of the courts in the public health emergency management system, in the short and long terms.  It mentions the courts providing judicial services to the joint prevention and control system, preventing mass events, and group prevention and control (群防群治工作机制, an old system to which Xi Jinping has given new meaning during the pandemic. That section mentions shorter-term issues, such as punishing the manufacturing and sale of fakes during the pandemic and longer-term issues, such as the courts being involved in improving the legal system in the area of public health.

Judicial Reform

Section 7 highlights some of the tasks in the current judicial reform plan. Those include:

  • Deepening the judicial responsibility system, for judges hearing cases solely or in a collegial panel, the members of a judicial committee, and the supervision of judicial power.  As mentioned on this blog several times, judges are concerned about the scope of the judicial responsibility system, and recent cases that have appeared in the Chinese press would only amplify those concerns. I have more on this in a forthcoming book chapter.
  • Improving the disciplinary mechanism for judges. The forthcoming book chapter is on this. The SPC is working on related regulations.
  • Promoting the improvement of the policies relating to the selection of judges level by level. The controls on the number of “quota judges,” judges with the title of “judge,” in many courts, means that some number of qualified personnel have become judges assistants. It has created a fair amount of frustration.  Another issue is that the new policies mean it takes longer for judges to be promoted, but at the moment, most judges need to retire at 60, so that the pool of judges eligible to be promoted eventually to the SPC will shrink. We can expect related policies issued in the medium term.
  • Improving the working mechanism of the circuit courts and promote the Supreme People’s Court’s Intellectual Property Court (SPCIPC) and the China International Commercial Court (CICC). Promote the strengthening of the organization system of intellectual property courts, and improve the specialized trial system so that it complies with the principles for the judicial protection of IPR. (It is understood that the circuit courts are hearing most SPC cases.  But it still leaves unanswered what the role of the SPC in hearing cases is.  Should it best focus on considering a smaller number of cases more thoroughly, as other supreme courts do? The SPCIPC and CICC both have captured SPC leadership attention (and the attention of the outside world). It is clear that the SPC has provided much more support to the SPCIPC than the CICC (most obviously the SPCIPC operates full time, while the CICC does not). China’s IPR enforcement system is a topic of worldwide concern (the Phase 1 Trade Agreement and the United States Trade Representative Office’s recent 301 Report both evidence this), so it is likely that this means the SPC leadership will focus more on intellectual property issues.
  • Deeply promote the reform of the trial-centered criminal justice system (this is a continuation of reforms initiated in the previous round of judicial reforms).  This topic requires a separate analysis, to consider the impact of the National Supervision Commission, among other issues.
  • Improve and deepen the judicial transparency mechanism including promoting the transparency of judgment documents, court hearings, trial process information, and execution information. See my earlier blogpost and Mark Cohen’s more recent one on his concerns in the area of intellectual property law.  Professor He Haibo has done important empirical work on judicial transparency.

Technology

Section 8 relates to technology and implementing the courts’ five-year plan on informatization (人民法院信息化建设五年发展规划).  It mentions promoting AI, big data, cloud computing, blockchain, and 5G. Litigants should know that the SPC is promoting online case filing, litigation, mediation, judicial blockchain, and the mobile micro-court.  A reality check is needed for China’s online litigation publicity.  One is provided by a popular Wechat article published last month “A month of online court hearings, judges and lawyers have all gone crazy” 云庭审上线一个月,法官律师都疯了Technology is an important area of SPC leadership concern, as it sees it as an area in which China can take the lead.

Take-aways?

What is the impact of this vision and program for the Chinese courts, for litigants (in China or elsewhere), and for others, including judiciaries in other countries and jurisdictions. Is this a “China model” for courts, as raised by some? It does not appear to be so, but rather an outline for the courts to be conveyed within China, rooted in the Chinese political, cultural, and social environment of 2020, which will change along with Party priorities and events.  Some aspects described above are common to judiciaries around the world, such as the trend towards greater online justice.  Will it deliver the results it promises?

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Many thanks to certain anonymous readers for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this blogpost. They are not responsible for any errors or “erroneous views.”

 

Lawsuits against foreign countries in the Chinese courts

In March 2020, three Chinese lawyers filed civil lawsuits against (variously) the United States (US) government, President Trump, and other US government departments, attracting a great deal of attention on Chinese social media. The case that has attracted the most attention is the one in Wuhan, but according to Wechat articles, two different Beijing lawyers have also filed cases. Reports of these lawsuits are now making their way into English language media.

These lawsuits involve the issue of sovereign or state immunity of foreign governments, foreign embassies/consulates in China and their diplomatic staff, international institutions, and certain other persons and entities.  China’s position is absolute sovereign or state immunity– which means that states, diplomatic institutions and staff, as well as international institutions) are immune from suit and enforcement (unless they waive immunity). These issues have been discussed by practitioners and academics for quite a few years. (There have been academic discussions about China changing its position on state immunity and China has signed, but not ratified the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Property, which adopts qualified immunity (not yet in force). I will not further discuss this issue as the law is quite clear.

What this blogpost will discuss is what others have not: the procedure (and the document in which the procedure is set out) by which a Chinese court decides whether to accept these cases.   This bureaucratic procedure gives greater insights into how the Chinese courts operate.

The procedure is set out in the 2007 Notice of the Supreme People’s Court on the Relevant Issues concerning the People’s Courts Acceptance of Civil Cases Involving Privileges and Immunities (the Notice) (最高人民法院关于人民法院受理涉及特权与豁免的民事案件有关问题的通知). The SPC issued the notice to the lower courts, including the military courts.

The Notice is intended to provide a clear standard to the lower courts when they encounter a case involving issues of state immunity. The system described below is one of the exceptions to the registration case filing system.

The notice itself (as I have written before about other types of judicial guidance documents) has an uncertain formal status under Chinese law, although as a practical matter it is binding on the lower courts. The core part of the notice follows:

To strictly enforce the provisions of the Civil Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China and the relevant international conventions that China has acceded to and ensure the correct acceptance of civil cases involving privileges and immunities, this court has decided to establish a reporting system for cases involving privilege and immunity accepted by the people’s courts, and a notice is hereby issued as follows:

For a civil case filed with the people’s court where the defendant or third party is any of the following subjects that enjoys privilege or immunity in China, before deciding to accept it, the people’s court shall submit it to the higher people’s court with jurisdiction for examination; the higher people’s court agreeing on the acceptance shall submit its examination opinions to the Supreme People’s Court. Before the Supreme People’s Court makes a reply, no acceptance shall be made.) 保障正确受理涉及特权与豁免的民事案件,我院决定对人民法院受理的涉及特权与豁免的案件建立报告制度,特做如下通知:人民法院应在决定受理之前,报请本辖区高级人民法院审查;高级人民法院同意受理的,应当将其审查意见报最高人民法院。在最高人民法院答复前,一律暂不受理。

The entities listed include:

  • foreign countries;
  • foreign embassies and consulates in China and their staffs;
  • offices of the United Nations (constituent organizations) in China and their staff;
  • analogous organizations.

Judging by the number of page views (12,500) of the Notice in a recent Wechat article, many legal professionals (likely including judges) were unaware that the Notice existed.

The number of cases filed in China against foreign countries, diplomatic entities or persons is unknown.  One database I checked contained a case (with an English translation, that will be discussed below), and a case database has a case involving the International Red Cross, but a more litigious Chinese public means that cases likely have been filed, but I am unable to determine how many.

Explanation:

  1.  Under the Notice, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) (most certainly with the concurrence of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), although it is not so stated), has established an approval system for accepting civil cases involving the privileges and immunities of foreign governments, international organizations, etc.  This is one of several types of cases (of which I am aware) for which the SPC has an approval system.  Other types include cases involving the refusal to enforce foreign (foreign-related, and Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau) arbitration awards (and related issues) and death penalty cases (the 死刑复核 system, although the nature of the review and approval are different in those cases).
  2. The court having jurisdiction over the case (generally an intermediate court), reports the case under consideration to its superior higher people’s court for review (request for instructions 请示).  If the higher people’s court concurs with the lower court’s decision to accept the case, it must report the matter to the SPC for review, and the lower court must not accept the case before the SPC has replied. According to other SPC guidance, the judicial committee of the higher court must discuss the issue before it is reported to the SPC.  This is illustrated in a reply by the SPC’s reply in a 2009 case, the Reply of the Supreme People’s Court to the Request for Instructions on Issues concerning Immunities in the Case of Disputes over a House Lease Contract between Li Xiaobo and the Regional Delegation for East Asia of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
  3.  The matter would be processed by the SPC’s Case Filing Division and then forwarded to the #4 Civil Division (the one considering cross-border civil and commercial cases). From the 2009 case, it is clear that the #4 Civil Division is the SPC division that replies to these requests for instructions. I would further surmise that in certain difficult cases, the SPC would consult with the MFA.
  4. I would surmise that in practice, the courts that may see these cases (Beijing’s Chaoyang District and one or more of the Shanghai courts) are familiar with these issues and reject them without seeking instructions.

What does this show about the Chinese courts?

First, the Chinese courts understand there to be a single correct view on certain issues.  This is seen more widely, with references in many documents to unifying judicial approaches to issues.

More importantly, it is one small illustration of the bureaucratic, hierarchical nature and operation (官本位) of the Chinese court system.  For important issues, such as those involving the death penalty, compliance with the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention), and issues involving state immunity and the immunity of international organizations, the SPC’s view is that a high degree of control is needed. It is clear that the SPC’s understanding is that lower court judges are unlikely to be familiar with this technical but important issue.

Why is this issue important? As I wrote last year (about the China International Commercial Court), there are no small matters in foreign affairs (外事无小事)( Zhou Enlai’s saying). Both domestically and internationally, foreign-related matters, because they involve relations with other countries and the prestige of the Chinese state, are sensitive and important.

 

SPC Updates its Guidance on Judicial (Adjudication) Committees

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

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

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

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

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

A quick list of what is new follows:

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

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