Category Archives: judicial committees

Supreme People’s Court’s 2021 Year-End Accomplishments

Photo from the “look back meeting” described below

Apologies to readers for the long gap between posts–I have been focusing on yet another academic article and am finding that even so-called “short articles” take much longer than anticipated, especially when the topic reveals more and more complexities than were apparent when I submitted the abstract to the journal months ago.

So instead of any involved analysis, I’ll list some of the year-end (from December) accomplishments of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) with some brief notes. Another aspect of the SPC being a cross between a Party-state organ and a court is that it needs to meet year-end goals and submit year-end reports. The SPC’s judicial reform leading group recently discussed and approved its year-end report (最高人民法院司法改革领导小组2021年工作总结报告).  The judicial reform leading group is headed by President Zhou Qiang. Other members include Justices He Rong, Ma Shizhong (head of the Political Department), He Xiaorong, and Shen Liang. The Judicial Reform Office presumably drafted by the report. It is likely a constituent part of the SPC’s year-end report to go to the Party leadership, before the annual Central Political-Legal Work Conference.

Another aspect of the SPC being a cross between a Party-state organ and a court is that it is inspected by Party inspection groups and is a focal point of campaigns on the education and rectification of political-legal organs.

Among the SPC’s year-end accomplishments are the following.  For the avoidance of doubt, judicial interpretations, judicial documents, and typical cases are all means by which the SPC guides the lower courts. I will have more to say about this topic in the unfinished academic article mentioned above.

Judicial interpretations

  1. Online Mediation Rules of the People’s Courts (人民法院在线调解规则).  Online mediation is an important focus of the SPC, as could be seen from this white paper on Diversified Dispute Resolution from early 2021 and from other efforts of the SPC to promote resolving disputes at their source, as consistent with the deployment of the Party Center (党中央关于“将非诉讼纠纷解决机制挺在前面”的重大部署要求.  The responsible person of the SPC’s Case Filing Division (presumably the head) pointed out that these rules “had created an online diversified dispute resolution model with Chinese characteristics hat differed from ADR or ODR” )形成了有别于ADR和ODR的中国特色在线多元纠纷解决模式). His statement appears designed to be more politically correct than accurate. It is clear that the SPC follows government policy in using “diversified dispute resolution” rather than “alternative dispute resolution,” (ADR)  but the English language abbreviation”ODR,” according to my research, is intended to be a general term to capture all sorts of online dispute resolution and not meant to promote one particular model of online dispute resolution. The underlying implication is that “ODR” reflects a “Western” approach. However other (mainland) Chinese government departments use “ODR” without issue.  Additionally, the Hong Kong government uses the term “ODR” to refer to its online dispute resolution platform, eBRAM.
  2. Interpretation of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) on Several Issues Concerning the Application of Law in Handling Criminal Cases Endangering Food Safety (最高人民法院 最高人民检察院关于办理危害食品安全刑事案件适用法律若干问题的解释). As a joint judicial interpretation, it was approved by the judicial (adjudication) committee of the SPC first and next by the Procuratorial Committee of the SPP.
  3. Several Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court on the Application of Prohibition Order Preservation Measures in Eco-environmental Infringement Cases(最高人民法院关于生态环境侵权案件适用禁止令保全措施的若干规定) –relating to injunctions to stop environmental pollution, either before or after a party has filed suit.  We can expect more and more SPC interpretations and documents related to environmental pollution.
  4. Relevant Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court on Issues concerning Applications for Verification of Arbitration Cases under Judicial Review 最高人民法院关于仲裁司法审查案件报核问题的有关规定. This decision by the SPC updates the 2017 provisions of the same name, adding one article and a clause in another. The new Article 3  requires higher people’s courts to submit draft rulings in judicial review of arbitration matters in domestic arbitration (non-foreign, Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan-related) if the higher court intends to concur with a lower court ruling that the arbitral award violated social public interest.   The new second clause of Article 4 requires the higher people’s court to submit the matter to the SPC within 15 days.
  5. Several Provisions on the Compulsory Enforcement by People’s Court of Company Shareholding (最高人民法院关于人民法院强制执行股权若干问题的规定). This appeared on the 2019 judicial interpretation agenda, so it has slipped by two years. The provisions apply to enforcing judgments or rulings against shareholder equity in either limited liability companies or companies limited by shares, but not including companies limited by shares that are listed.
  6. Interpretation of the Supreme People’s Court on Several Issues Concerning the Application of Law in the Trial of Disputes over Compensation for Personal Injury in Railway Transport
    最高人民法院关于审理铁路运输人身损害赔偿纠纷案件适用法律若干问题的解释  This interpretation concerns persons injured in railway transport accidents, excluding accidents on passenger trains.

On the “coming attractions” discussed in some earlier blogposts, the SPC’s judicial committee (adjudication committee) spent many hours on 30 December 2021 discussing the draft judicial interpretation of the General Part of the Civil Code.  When I wrote last about the draft of the General Part, I noted that Judge Guo Feng, deputy head of the Research Office,  mentioned that the General Part (1) interpretation is scheduled to be submitted to the SPC’s judicial (adjudication) committee before year-end.  That means that Judge Guo (and likely one or more of the principal drafters) were in the room to discuss the draft article by article.  The judicial committee finally decided to approve the draft “in principle.”  Approval in principle” (原则通过), as discussed here, is not mentioned by the SPC’s 2007 regulations on judicial interpretations but is one of the SPC’s long-established practices. It means that the judicial committee has approved it, subject to some “minor” amendments. Minor amendments are more than typographical errors and relate to specific substantive matters.  So it is likely that after the SPC amends the provisions that the judicial committee  considered needed more work, a quasi-final draft will go back to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC LAC)’s Legislative Affairs Commission  because SPC guidance provides that “liaison with the NPCSC LAC must be timely, and after major revisions to the judicial interpretation draft after consulting with the NPC LAC, the view of the NPCSC LAC  should be solicited again.”  I expect that the draft of the General Part judicial interpretation will be finalized before the National People’s Congress meeting, so that the report can mention this accomplishment.

As I have mentioned many times in the course of 2021, we do not know what was on the SPC’s 2021 judicial interpretation agenda. Those of us outside the System can only hope that the 2022 agenda will be released and that the judicial reform agenda will continue to be released.

Judicial documents (incomplete list)

  1. Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court and the Ministry of Justice on Providing Legal Aid for Defendants in Death Penalty Review Cases 最高人民法院 司法部关于为死刑复核案件被告人依法提供法律援助的规定.  These are joint regulations issued by the two institutions and for therefore are classified as “judicial documents,” as discussed here.  These provisions establish a mechanism for the Ministry of Justice to appoint legal aid lawyers to defendants whose cases are being submitted to the SPC for death penalty review.  If a defendant appoints his or her own lawyer), then the legal aid lawyer stops providing services.
  2. Provisions on Judges’ Disciplinary Work Procedures (for Trial Implementation)《法官惩戒工作程序规定(试行).  I will follow up with analysis at some point as I published a book chapter on judicial discipline at the beginning of 2021.  These provisions do not change the conclusion in my chapter.
  3. Opinions on Strengthening the Substantive Trial of Sentence Reduction and Parole Cases (关于加强减刑、假释案件实质化审理的意见).  This is another multiple institution document, intended to tighten up procedures for sentence reduction and parole cases.  They are in part a response to a 2020 tragedy in Beijing, in which a prisoner whose sentence was commuted killed one man and injured two more.  The incident further revealed that the corruption discussed in this 2015 blogpost continues to exist.
  4. Notice of the Supreme People’s Court on Studying and Implementing the “Decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Amending the Civil Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China.”最高人民法院关于认真学习贯彻《全国人民代表大会常务委员会关于修改〈中华人民共和国民事诉讼法〉的决定》的通知.  This notice and the amended Civil Procedure Law are of practical importance to tens of thousands of Chinese judges and litigants in the Chinese courts, individuals and entities, domestic and foreign.  The notice signals that the SPC is working on amendments to the Civil Procedure Law judicial interpretation (the previous version plus commentary was published in two volumes). This reform relates to the reorienting of four levels of the courts, will increase the number of cases heard with one judge, promotes mediation and smart courts.
  5. and  6. Two Judicial Services and Safeguards Opinions, one on  Providing Judicial Services and Safeguards for Promoting the Development of the West in the New Era and Forming a New Pattern and  Opinions on Providing Judicial Services and Safeguards for Promoting the High-quality Development of the Central Region in the New Era(最高人民法院关于为新时代推进西部大开发形成新格局提供司法服务和保障的意见( and 关于为新时代推动中部地区高质量发展提供司法服务和保障的意见.  Related to these two is a document from November 2021– Conference Summary of the Work Promotion Meeting Serving and Safeguarding Ecological Protection and High-quality Development of the Yellow River Basin.最高人民法院服务保障黄河流域生态保护和高质量发展工作推进会会议纪要.  That document in turn relates to a  2020Judicial Services and Safeguards Opinion. These are part of a large number of documents providing judicial services and safeguards for Party Center strategies and initiatives, particularly related to regional integration.  The article I have temporarily set aside to write this blogpost discusses the purposes and impacts of these documents.  I have previously written about these documents often, such as these quick analyses of their structure and purposes.  Both  Opinions link to Party Center-State Council documents. More analysis to come when I am able to finish the last five pages of the “short academic article” mentioned above.

Reshaping the judiciary

In the fall of 2021, the Party Center launched the second round of the rectification and education of national political-legal organs, with a leading group leading and an office assisting in implementing the campaign. The SPC was one of the focal points (along with other central organs). Just before Christmas, the SPC held a “looking back” meeting to discuss what was revealed and progress made in response.  The SPC established a leading small group and office to handle matters properly.  (For those interested in further details, please see this webpage.) President Zhou Qiang noted in his work report that the SPC has effectively rectified a batch of stubborn diseases (one of the targets of this inspection) and resolutely eliminated a batch of black sheep (literally, a group of horses that harm the masses) (一批害群之马).  The same phrasing is reported from the Ministry of Justice and other political-legal institutions at both the central and local levels. Related to  the rectification and education campaign are several new SPC opinions. Those include one strengthening the judicial responsibility system, and creating a new court team  关于在加快推进司法责任体系改革和建设中进一步加强人民法院队伍建设的意见 and another on enforcement.  The SPC has issued another related opinion found here, on the “four types of cases.”   Perhaps unrelated to stubborn diseases and black sheep is decisions by some SPC judges to continue their careers elsewhere.

Finally

I wish all readers a happy and healthy new year, both “Western” and Chinese.  I also hope that this year brings us, located in and out of mainland China, opportunities to gather together to discuss legal developments in China from different perspectives quietly, without rancor or blame, but with mutual respect.

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I would like to express my appreciation to anonymous two peer reviewers of a previous draft of this blogpost. Special thanks to the person who caught a significant error in the draft.

 

Reorienting the Four Levels of China’s Court System–Part 1

At the end of September, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued Implementing Measures for the Pilot Reform of Improving the Positioning of Four Levels of Courts in Terms of Adjudication Levels and Functions  (Four Level Court Reform Pilot Measures). The only translation available seems to be behind Westlaw China’s paywall.  A quick summary of its backstory, provisions, and implications as related to the SPC follows below. The impact on the lower courts will be significant, but this reform needs to be analyzed together with other current reform documents to see the larger picture.

Backstory

As the NPC Observer previously wrote, this reform was included in both the 2019 SPC’s fifth five-year court reform plan and the recent Plan for Building the Rule of Law in China (2020–2025).  The National People’s Congress Standing Committee granted the authorization for this Pilot Reform in the summer.  SPC President Zhou Qiang highlighted the principal reforms in his explanation to the NPC Standing Committee. The Party leadership (the Central Deepening Reform Commission) approved the reform in June, based on submission documents from the SPC. The drafters of the reform stated the proposal (改革方案稿) was based on research and specialist discussions  (调研论证, although neither the approval document nor the submissions are available).  I surmise that the research draws on earlier work by predecessors of the drafters. The roots of this reform can be seen in the SPC’s fourth five-year court reform plan, for which the SPC issued extended commentary (thankfully for the researcher).  SPC research on this issue dates back to the spring of 2012, if not earlier.

This reform is one of many court (and other political-legal system) reforms that the Party leadership approved in January 2019, as part of its Implementing Opinion On the Comprehensive Deepening Reforms of the Political-Legal Sector《关于政法领域全面深化改革的实施意见. That meant that the measures approved in that document became important reform responsibilities (tasks) for the institutions involved (确定的重要改革任务).

The outside analyst of this and another court (and other Chinese legal) reforms is at a disadvantage in seeking to be thorough as might be possible in more transparent jurisdictions. It is not possible to know, for example, what the Party leadership reviews when it considers these submissions (my guess is a detailed executive summary, while responsible aides read more extended reports) and whether the SPC’s submission was approved unchanged.

What It Means for the SPC

The Four Level Court Reform Pilot Measures cover civil, administrative, and criminal cases, with the focus on civil and administrative cases. Among the objectives of the Four Level Court Reform Pilot Measures is to make the SPC a supreme court (with Chinese characteristics), rather than just China’s highest court.

As I wrote in my short article on the U .S.-Asia Law’s website and earlier on this blog, the SPC considers large numbers of retrial applications, primarily in the circuit courts.  This document narrows considerably the flow of retrial applications that can be submitted to the SPC, although the new standards incorporate necessary flexibility.   (Ironically, I have just written an article on this process).

The intent is for the SPC to focus on a smaller number of more important cases. As stated in Article 1: “the Supreme People’s Court shall focus on supervising and guiding adjudication work at the national level and ensuring the correct and uniform application of the law.”

According to the drafters’ commentary, the intent is for the SPC to focus on (judicial/legal) policy formulation (政策制定) and social governance (社会治理), about which I spoke recently, and is a subject of another forthcoming article. This has been the thinking of the SPC leadership for over five years, if not longer–Judge He Xiaorong, current head of the #2 Circuit Court (and former head of the SPC’s judicial reform office) stated six years ago–when writing about the circuit courts:”

…the center of the work of SPC headquarters will shift to supervision and guidance, primarily trying cases that have a major guiding function in unifying the application of law, that can become guiding cases.”

The drafters of the Four Level Court Reform Pilot Measures state that the intent is to establish a working mechanism in which the Supreme People’s Court judgments are directly transformed into guiding cases and promote relevant judgments to become an important source for optimizing the formulation and content of judicial interpretations, as well as modifying and abolishing judicial interpretations.  We will need to wait for further measures from the SPC on this.

Narrowing the Flow of Retrial Cases

The 2021 reforms change the standard of review for civil and administrative cases. The reforms set out a two-branch test: compulsory and permissive jurisdiction. Under Article 14, compulsory jurisdiction includes cases in which:

  1.  the higher court’s ruling or judgment was erroneous and the case has guiding significance in the application of law; or
  2. in the past three years, higher people’s courts have unresolved major differences in the application of the law in similar cases for which binding judgments or rulings have been rendered by the SPC or different high people’s courts; or
  3. any other circumstances where the SPC considers it should here the cases.

The language of #3 is familiar language to anyone who spends time reading Chinese legislation.

Article 11 sets forth conditions under which applicants can apply to the SPC for retrial, but the SPC has flexibility in accepting the cases:

  1. applicants consider that the higher people’s court applied the law erroneously, but do not object to the facts determined, principal evidence, and procedures of the higher people’s court, or
  2. if the court’s judicial (adjudication) committee considered the case.

Article 13 authorizes the SPC to remand a case back to the higher people’s court if it considers that there are unclear facts or procedural errors, or alternatively, the higher people’s court erred in applying the law, but the issue does not merit SPC consideration.

Applicants must make an undertaking when applying for reconsideration that they undertake not to object to the above matters, and are directed to focus their application on the disputed issues and the grounds for their argument. At this point, detailed implementing measures have not yet been issued.

Inconsistent Decisions

One issue that the drafters mentioned in their commentary is inconsistent judgments or rulings made by different divisions of the SPC.  In practice, that issues relating to the same body of law may be determined by different divisions of the SPC or different teams of SPC judges in the circuit courts and headquarters. They arise either through litigation or court administrative-type procedures. While SPC judges  (as I understand it) search for similar cases, it is inevitable that different people have different views on legal issues.  An example of this arose recently in the area of arbitration law, in which the SPC’s Intellectual Property Court ruled that the arbitration agreement in a software contract providing for foreign arbitration was invalid, because the dispute lacked a “foreign element,” while the SPC’s #4 Civil Division has upheld arbitration agreements providing for foreign arbitration between two Chinese parties.

In that earlier blogpost  I wrote that, unlike some other legal systems, the SPC has not evolved an en banc or enlarged panel of judges, but the Four Level Court Reform Pilot Measures illustrates that someone involved with court reform has looked to other jurisdictions and borrowed but not transplanted the concept. For the avoidance of doubt, borrowing legal concepts from abroad is consistent with Xi Jinping Legal Thought.  The Plan for Building the Rule of Law in China (2020–2025) includes among its main principles: “learn from the useful experience of foreign rule of law (借鉴国外法治有益经验).”

Articles 18  and 19 set forth two options for resolving cross-division differences in views on legal issues.  Article 18 involves the creation of an enlarged collegial panel with five or more members from different divisions.  Consistent with the SPC’s administrative nature, the divisions (circuit courts, or intellectual property court) must apply to the SPC’s Trial Administration Office, which in turn must seek the approval of the SPC President.  The  President may designate a Justice (SPC Vice President) to sit as the presiding judge.  The alternative set out in Article 19 is to apply to the Trial Administration Office to establish a cross-division specialized judges committee (its functions discussed here). I surmise that the second alternative will be used more frequently.

What to expect?

I surmise that there will be a transition period, as the cases accepted under the old retrial system are processed by SPC headquarters and circuit courts.  So my guess is that 2022 will see fewer cases than 2021 and 2020, and 2023 will see even fewer cases.  I expect that the SPC’s Intellectual Property Court to continue to have a large number of cases (over 3000 in 2020).  In 2020, the greatest proportion of their cases were civil and administrative appeals. My uninformed guess is this trend will continue.

It is possible that as a consequence of this reform, the China International Commercial Court will hear more cases than before.  But as I said and wrote earlier this year, I surmise that they will continue to pick their cases carefully, focusing on those which raise issues in which existing law and judicial interpretations are unclear and involve issues that frequently arise in practice. These CICC principles are consistent with those in the Four Level Court Reform Pilot Measures.

As for the other divisions of the SPC, my guess is that they will be able to find enough major cases to keep themselves busy while also spending more time on judicial policy and judicial interpretations, not to mention other matters.  The principles in this reform do not affect long-standing mechanisms of the SPC, such as death penalty review or the prior review of arbitration-related decisions by the #4 Civil Division. As I hinted in a recent blogpost, I believe that in the next year or two, a great deal of time will be invested in issuing judicial interpretations to fill out the broad principles of the Civil Code, but the interpretations will themselves be issued in a codified fashion.

Update on judicial interpretations

One of the most important functions (职能) of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) is issuing judicial interpretations (司法解释), which it issues for the most part unconnected with a specific “case or controversy” but rather drawing on many cases that have previously arisen in the lower courts. They are a critically important way that the SPC unifies the application of law. The extent to which SPC judicial interpretations are binding is one of several fundamental uncertainties attaching to this function, as the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee is authorized to review them and may require amendments to them or more, and it is unclear how much they bind institutions outside the court system.  But what can be said is that they are critically important to the operation of the Chinese legal system, The SPC, particularly its headquarters in Beijing,  focuses on judicial interpretation work for reasons connected with the slow pace and abstract language of Chinese legislation, although Chinese (and foreign) scholars, lawyers and other commentators sometimes criticize the SPC’s expansive reading of laws. 

About one month ago (in June 2021), the SPC updated its 2007 Judicial Interpretation Work Provisions (JI Work Provisions) in this decision  关于修改《最高人民法院关于司法解释工作的规定》的决定).  [See a refresher on the legislative basis of judicial interpretations, if needed.] The JI Work Provisions describe the types of judicial interpretations the SPC can issue, which institutions can propose drafting judicial interpretations, the drafting process, the promulgation process, the filing process, etc. The update was a minimally invasive one, adding to Article 6  a new category of documents, now classified as judicial interpretations–rules (规则). Rules are defined in a new paragraph of Article 6, as follows: “The judicial interpretations regulating the trial practices of people’s courts shall adopt the format of “Rules”–the intention being that when the SPC issues court rules, they should be in the form of 规则. That means that from now on there are five types of judicial interpretations:

The amendments underwhelm this observer, who had read many SPC documents signaling that many changes were needed. Two of those are Article 26 of the 2019 Fifth Five-Year Judicial Reform Plan Outline and Article 2 (3) of the  2020 Opinions of the Supreme People’s Court on Improving the Work Mechanism for Unifying the Standards for Application of Law (Opinion on Improving the Work Mechanism) :

#26 Improve mechanisms for the uniform application of law. Strengthen and regulate work on judicial interpretations, complete mechanisms for researching, initiating, drafting, debating, reviewing, publishing, cleaning up, and canceling judicial interpretations, to improve centralized management and report review mechanisms….

Article 2 (3) of the Opinion on Improving the Work Mechanism:

Judicial interpretation is an important part of the socialist judicial system with the Chinese characteristics and an important duty of the Supreme People’s Court. For special issues of application of laws in judicial work, especially the unspecific and unclear provisions of the laws which result in difficulty in understanding and enforcement, changes in circumstances which result in different understanding of the basis for handling cases, different standards used for rulings of specific cases in same type and other relevant issues, the Supreme People ’s Court shall strengthen investigation and study and formulate judicial interpretations in a timely manner strictly in accordance with the law. In respect of the judicial interpretations involving the interests of the people or major and complicated issues, public comments shall be solicited openly. It is imperative to further standardize the procedures for formulation of judicial interpretations, improve the mechanism for research, project initiation, draft, argumentation, review, promulgation, clearing and repeal and improve centralized management and record-filing review mechanism.

The question is, why after all this language about providing more details about judicial interpretation procedures, did the SPC leave the rules unchanged, except for adding one new category of judicial interpretations? The SPC’s press conference announcing the 2020 Opinion on Improving the Work Mechanism does not shed any light on this question.   

I surmise that the SPC leadership decided that it was most prudent to leave the regulations unchanged because it is best to leave maximum flexibility in the drafting process. The language in the documents above on improving judicial interpretation procedures remains significant as reminders to the SPC Research Office and others involved in the judicial interpretation drafting process. The Research Office is the gatekeeper for reviewing proposals, examining and coordinating the drafting of judicial interpretations. It also acts as the liaison when other central institutions forward their draft legislation and judicial interpretations to the SPC for comments, coordinating the SPC’s response with other divisions and offices, with a knowledgeable person noting that “the view of the Research Office prevails.”

The SPC liaises with the NPC Legislative Affairs Commission during the judicial interpretation drafting process to harmonize the views of the institutions. In an article published on 21 July by China University of Political Science and Law Professor Luo Xiang on appraisals by administrative institutions in criminal cases, he compared an article in the Criminal Procedure Law judicial interpretation issued for comment with the final version, noting that “the Office for Criminal Law of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress clearly held a negative attitude [to the language of the article in the original draft] “(全国人大法工委刑法室则明确持否定态度).

As I understand the language in the two documents quoted above, they serve as further reminders that the Research Office staff should review the package of documents that come before them before the documents are forwarded to the SPC Judicial Committee (Adjudication Committee) for consideration with these factors in mind (among others):

  • does it clear that the divisions (tribunals) involved have done sufficient research and investigation about the issues that arise in practice;
  • is it sufficiently comprehensive, with the right amount of discretion given to the lower courts and accommodate varying judicial competence, economic and social development; and
  • does it incorporate the views of relevant internal and external stakeholders?

On the topic of flexibility in procedures, take the example of public consultation. As I mentioned in January,  the Regulations on JI Work Provisons do not specify a minimum (or maximum) time period for soliciting opinions from the public. 

Reviewing the comment periods for some of the other judicial interpretations and other judicial documents for which comments were solicited in 2020, the deadlines appear to vary significantly.  I surmise that the deadline is set by the team in charge of drafting the judicial interpretation. In November 2020, the SPC solicited public comments on proposed amendments to its judicial interpretations related to the taking of security for 18 days, while comment periods for other judicial interpretations and judicial documents seem to be often one month and sometimes two months

It appears many judicial interpretations do not involve public consultation. Consulting the public is optional, unlike consulting internal and other official stakeholders. Article 17 of the JI Work Provisions requires approval by two SPC leaders–the vice president in charge of that type of issue, plus either the court president or the executive vice president (currently Justice He Rong). As I wrote in my recently published book chapter, a review of SPC judicial interpretation public consultations reveals that few, if any, have been in the area of criminal law or criminal procedure law. One experienced SPC judge gave his view of why that was so:

It’s the SPC’s bureaucratic nature! It thinks that the power to draft interpretations is with it and it is completely within its ability to draft good judicial interpretations. So therefore no democratic procedure has been formed to broadly consult different parts of society during the drafting process. The practice always has been internal consultation, generally consulting gongjianfasi [公检法司] [public security, procuratorate, courts, and administration of justice], and experts, the various divisions and offices of the SPC, and then it is submitted and approved. If timing is rushed, one or two experts will be consulted.

My book chapter, describing what I called “gated community” procedures,  explores other reasons as well.

Another topic mentioned by the documents cited above is project approval or initiation, also discussed in further detail in my book chapter. Since 2018, the SPC has provided the domestic and international professional world with more transparency about its judicial interpretation agenda by making public the document by which the SPC leadership gave project approval (立项) to proposals for drafting judicial interpretations. The SPC has a yearly plan for drafting judicial interpretations, as set out in the JI Work Provisions, analogous to the National People’s Congress (NPC)’s legislative plans. It should be noted that the JI Work Provisions do not require the project approval document to be made public. This year, the judicial interpretation agenda has not [yet] been released. It is unclear whether it is a matter that was overlooked in the flood of other documents issued or for some other reason.

 

New Supreme People’s Court guidance on how Chinese judges consider cases

photo of professional judges’ meeting in a Qingdao area court

Among the many reforms set out in mentioned in the February, 2019  Supreme People’s Court ‘s (SPC’s) fifth judicial reform plan outline is improving the mechanism of the Professional Judges Meeting, about which I have previously written.   Earlier this month (January, 2021), the SPC issued guidance on professional/specialized judges meetings (I have also translated it previously as specialized judges meetings) , entitled Guiding Opinion on Improving the Work System of Professional Judges Meetings (Professional Judges Meetings Guiding Opinion or Guiding Opinion),  (关于完善人民法院专业法官会议工作机制的指导意见), superseding 2018 guidance on the same topic. The earlier guidance had the title of Guiding Opinions on Improving the Working Mechanism for Presiding Judges’ Meetings of People’s Court (For Trial Implementation).  The meetings are intended to give single judges or a collegial panel considering a case additional thoughts from colleagues, when a case is “complicated,” “difficult,”, or the collegial panel cannot agree among themselves.  

This blogpost will provide some background to the Guiding Opinion, a summary of the Guiding Opinions, a summary of a non-scientific survey of judges, and some initial thoughts. 

Background to the Guiding Opinion

The Guiding Opinion is a type of soft law that enables the SPC to say that it has achieved on of the targets set out in the current judicial reform plan. According to a recent article by the drafters, they researched and consulted widely among courts, but that does not mean that a survey went out to all judges.  It is further evidence that the SPC is operating as Justice He Xiaorong stated five years ago–” after the circuit courts  are established, the center of the work of SPC headquarters will shift to supervision and guidance…” 

Judicial reform and the Guiding Opinion

The Professional Judges Meeting Guiding Opinion is linked to #26 of the current judicial reform plan outline, discussed in part in this June, 2019 blogpost.  I have bold-italicked the relevant phrases:

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

Uniform Application of Law

As for why the uniform application of law is an issue, a quick explanation is the drafting of Chinese legislation often leaves important issues unresolved and  leaves broad discretion to those authorities issuing more specific rules.  To the casual observer, it appear that the Chinese legislature (NPC) “outsources” to the SPC (and Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) for some issues) the hard job of drafting more detailed provisions. (see Chinalawtranslate.com for many examples and NPC_observer.com for insights about the legislative drafting process).  Although the Communist Party’s plan for building rule of law in China calls for legislatures to be more active in legislating (see NPC Observer’s comments), in my view the SPC (and SPP) will continue to issue judicial interpretations, as the NPC and its standing committee are unlikely to be able to supply the detailed rules needed by the judiciary, procuratorate and legal community.  Although the general impression both inside and outside of China is that the SPC often “legislates,” exceeding its authority as a court, as I have mentioned several times in recent blogposts, the SPC issues judicial interpretations after close coordination and harmonization with the NPC Standing Committee’s Legislative Affairs Commission.

Professional Judges Meeting Guiding Opinion

The Guiding Opinion is linked to the judicial responsibility system, about which my forthcoming book chapter will have more discussion.  Professor He Xin addresses that system, among other topics in his recently published academic article.

The Guiding Opinion authorizes certain senior members of a court (court president, vice president, head of division, as part of their supervisory authority (under the Organic Law of the People’s Courts) to chair meetings of judges (who exactly will attend depends on the court- to discuss certain types of cases and provide advice to the single judge or three judge panel hearing a case. (In my informal inquiries, I have found that interns are sometimes permitted to attend, but sometimes not). The types of cases mentioned in Article 4 of the guiding opinions and listed below are not complete, but raise both legal and politically sensitive issues:

  • ones in which the panel cannot come to a consensus,
  • a senior judge believes approaches need to be harmonized;
  • involving a mass (group) dispute which could influence social stability;
  • difficult or complicated cases that have a major impact on society;
  • may involving a conflict with a judgment in a similar case decided by the same court or its superior;
  • certain entities or individuals have made a claim that the judges have violated hearing procedure. 

Before the discussion, the judge or judges involved in the case are required to prepare a report with relevant materials, possibly including a search for similar cases, which may or may not be the same as the trial report described in my July, 2020 blogpost, 

The guiding opinions sets out guidance on how the meeting is to be run and the order in which persons speak.

Depending on the type of case involved, a case may be further referred to the judicial committee or the matter may be resolved by the meeting providing their views to the collegial panel. 

Article 15 of the guiding opinions provides that participating in these meetings is part of a judge’s workload. The guiding opinions provide that a judge’s expression of views at these meetings should be an important part of his or her performance appraisal, evaluation, and provision, and the materials can be edited into meeting summaries, typical cases, and other forms of guidance materials,   which can be used for additional points in performance evaluation.  One of the operational divisions of the SPC and at least one circuit court has published edited collections of their professional judges meetings, with identifying information about the parties removed.

Comments

From my non-scientific survey of judges at different levels of court and in different areas of law, my provisional conclusion is as follows. Judges hearing civil or commercial cases seem to hold these meetings more often, particularly at a higher level of court.  Criminal division judges seem to hold such meetings less often (at least based on my small sample), but the meetings are considered to be useful. 

 Frequency seems to depend on the court and the division, with one judge mentioning weekly meetings, while others mentioned that they were held occasionally. Most judges that I surveyed considered the meetings useful, because they provided collective wisdom and enabled judges to consider the cases better. One judge noted that it may also result in otherwise unknown relevant facts coming to light. 

I would also add my perception that it also gives the judges dealing with a “difficult or complicated case” (substantively or politically) in a particular case the reassurance that their colleagues support their approach, even if the judges involved remain responsible under the responsibility system. This is important when judges are faced with deciding cases in a dynamic area of law with few detailed rules to guide them, or where the policy has changed significantly within a brief time. My perception is that this mechanism provides a more collegial environment and better results that the old system of having heads of divisions signing off on judgments. I would welcome comments from those who have been there.

The Guiding Opinions provide yet another illustration of how Chinese courts operate as a cross between a bureaucracy and a court, from the rationale for holding the meeting to the use of meeting participation as an important part of performance evaluation. 

Although the slogan (of several years ago) is that judges should be treated more like judges,  the Guiding Opinion appears to treat lower court judges analogous to secondary or university students, to be given grades for their class participation.  

What are the implications of this mechanism?

Litigants and their offshore counsel (Chinese counsel would know this) need to know that the result in their case in a Chinese court may be influenced by judges who are not in the courtroom when their counsel advocates orally. Written advocacy should still have an impact on professional judge committee discussions.  It appears that counsel is not informed that the case has been referred to a professional judges committee for discussion and it is not possible for counsel to know who is part of the committee and apply for judges to be recused in case of a concern that there has been a conflict of interest. 

Would it result in more commercial parties deciding that arbitration is a better option, as they have better control over dispute resolution in their particular case?  My perception is that the decision concerning appropriate dispute resolution is based on other factors, and the existence of the professional judges meeting as a mechanism to provide views to judges hearing a case has little impact on that decision.  I welcome comments on that question.

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Many thanks to those who participated in the survey and also to those who commented on an earlier draft of this blogpost.  

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.