China’s new judicial reforms on case law & other guidance

Gazette of the Jiangsu Higher People’s Court

As mentioned in my earlier blogpost, the Supreme People’s Court issued the fifth judicial reform plan outline in February, of this year (2019), harmonized with the current focus on Party leadership. For people with the fortitude to decode Chinese official documents, some real content can be found in the document. One of those provisions is #26 and relates to the ongoing efforts of the SPC to implement greater uniformity and consistency in the way that the law is applied in the courts (the translation below is from

#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)

As for why the uniform application of law is an issue, the quick explanation is the drafting of Chinese legislation often leaves important issues unresolved and outsources to the SPC (and SPP for some issues) the hard job of drafting more detailed provisions. (see for many examples and for insights about the legislative drafting process).  Comments about the role of case law are found below.

#26 mentions the following:

  • improving judicial interpretations;
  • improving the guiding case system;
  • establishing a system for higher people’s courts to record with the SPC their guiding-type documents and reference cases;
  • improving China’s case law system.

Judicial interpretations

The SPC regulations on judicial interpretation work date from 2007. Some later guidance on that topic was issued several years ago, but that guidance has not been made broadly available. So it appears that one signal that this provision is sending is that the 2007 regulations need to be updated. It appears likely that the SPC will harmonize the language in its rules with the 2015 Legislation Law. Other provisions are unclear. One guess (based on the SPC document on incorporating socialist core values into judicial interpretations) is that language about socialist core values will be incorporated into any amended rules on judicial interpretation work. The Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) revised its rules on judicial interpretation work earlier this year, and it is possible that the SPC will harmonize some of the language in its rules with those of the SPP.

Another guess is that those rules will codify existing practices on drafting, discussions, etc.. As my blogpost (and recently published article) on the SPC’s Pilot Free Trade Zone Opinion details, the drafting process for judicial interpretations (and similar types of guidance) operates on the basis of long-standing practices. (My forthcoming article stuck in the academic publishing process has many more details on the drafting process for criminal procedure law interpretations).

This provision appears to be aimed at the SPC’s Research Office, which takes the lead in managing the judicial interpretation process and deals with ongoing criticism that the SPC allows inconsistent judicial interpretations to be issued. It is unclear whether the improvements mentioned will involve more public consultation than previously.

Guiding cases

I will leave detailed comments on how the guiding case system will be improved to others, as research by others (see Jeremy Daum’s article) tends to show that guiding cases are rarely cited. I surmise that the intent of the provision is to speed up the selection and approval process for guiding cases, as well as the use rate.

Local High Court Guidance

This language codifies the long-standing practice of local high courts issuing guiding rules applicable within their jurisdictions. As discussed in my article on judicial transparency, published earlier this year, senior legal scholar Li Buyun raised questions about the validity of local court guidance in his letter to the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress last year (2018). Article 104 of the Legislation Law forbids adjudication and procuratorate organs other than the
Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate from making specific interpretations on the application of law. 2010 SPC guidance had normalized the long-term practice of higher people’s courts (and their equivalent in the specialized courts) in issuing documents, characterized as ‘”trial work documents” (审判业务文件) and issuing reference-type cases (参考性案例).

Evidence of the importance of the practice can be seen by the fact that leading law firms publish client alerts about important local court guidance. This provision calls for a filing for the record system (with the SPC) of higher court guidance and reference cases to be established. It is not clear whether this system (apparently intended to enable the SPC to monitor local guidance and reference cases better) will result in a system that provides greater transparency to these rules. I had noted varying transparency requirements for local court guidance in my article. The Gazette of the Jiangsu Higher People’s Court (pictured above) publishes its court guidance under the section “judicial documents” (司法文件). That Gazette also includes local reference cases, entitled reference cases (参考案例)。 Terminology for local reference cases is not consistent, with the Shanghai Higher People’s Court issuing cases with a referential nature (参考性案例).

Improving China’s Case Law System

I wrote about in greater length in this short academic article published in the Tsinghua China Law Review two years ago (and in this blogpost three years ago) on how non-guiding cases guide. This part of the #26 consolidates some of the provisions of previous judicial reform documents and signals that the SPC’s judicial reform office is focusing on how to provide better guidance to the lower courts on using non-guiding cases and other forms of guidance documents that are not judicial interpretations. One issue not specifically mentioned is the relative authority of guidance documents and judgments/rulings by courts. It is assumed that SPC decisions are more authoritative than lower court ones.

The first sentence addresses the use of other forms of case guidance and transforming this case guidance into written documents. The titles, authority, etc. of these guidance documents are likely to be settled over time. One type that I have observed is the specialized judges conference (专业法官会议)(mentioned in at least two 2017 SPC documents: Opinions on Putting a Judicial Responsibility System in Place and Improving Mechanisms for Trial Oversight and Management ;(Provisional) and the SPC’s Judicial Responsibility implementing opinion (最高人民法院司法责任制实施意见(试行)(Implementing Opinion), In these conferences, difficult issues are discussed and provided to the collegial panel involved, but the panel members are not bound by the views of the conferences. This academic study notes that it is a uniquely Chinese institution and has arisen because of judicial caution about deciding cases independently (可以说,专业法官会议是中国特色的法院内部向办案法官提供咨询意见的专门机构,是在走向审判独立的特殊过程中,对法官自由办案能力担心而产生的一种特殊组织), likely in the face of extensive and long term accountability for decisions.

Some portion of SPC specialized judges conference discussions has been consolidated in the form of documents, such as in the form of a conference/meeting summary (会议纪要).  The SPC’s #2 Civil Division (focusing on commercial issues) seems to be leading the way in publishing these meeting summaries–some of the summaries have been published in book form, also with updates published on the internet/Wechat–see this example.

The last sentence of #26 addresses the case law system. The increasing importance of non-guiding cases shows the strength of the case law system that the authorities rejected about 10 years ago. It is clear from Justice Hu Yunteng(currently president of the National Judicial College)’s recollections of the history of the case system with Chinese characteristics, that Judge Jiang Huiling, then his colleague at the China Institute for Applied Jurisprudence (and currently vice president of the National Judges College) had looked to jurisdictions outside of China to advocate that China establish a case law system (Justice Hu doesn’t specify whether Judge Jiang was looking to case law systems in civil or common law jurisdictions in the “West.”). Mark Jia (of Harvard Law School), in his 2016 article, cites Li Shichun of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to the effect that it was the NPC that opposed those seeking to establish a Chinese case law precedential system.
My understanding that the last sentence is intended requires judges handling a case to engage in similar case searches and to report on the results of those searches in certain circumstances (for example, to report on their search before the case is discussed in the specialized judges conference). My earlier blogpost discusses the 2018 document requiring prior case search.–the specific rules for prior case search are not yet in place. What should be searched is not entirely clear.  One knowledgeable person described prior case search as a tool for “catching valuable cases in the sea of cases.” My own understanding is that it will depend on the area of law.  It can be seen from the last blogpost the type of cases considered authoritive in criminal law, but the types of persuasive cases will differ in other areas of law. Prior case search is meant as a tool for the courts to apply the law more consistently (and consistent with the views of the SPC) (an ongoing goal of the SPC). It is also likely that new legal rules evolved in cases will eventually be crystalized in other forms of documentary guidance, be it local court guidance, an SPC policy document, or an SPC judicial interpretation.

On the topic of precedent, as I noted in my 2017 blogpost on the SPC’s implementing opinion on its judicial responsibility system, special approval within the SPC is required if a ruling in a case will be inconsistent with prior SPC rulings on the issue. It means that the SPC is seeking to improve the consistency of its judgments internally.

So it appears that we will be seeing further evolution over the next few years in the tools used by the Chinese courts to provide legal rules: judicial interpretations, guiding cases, local high court guidance and reference cases, other guiding documents, and prior cases, with many of these intended to strengthen the firm guiding hand of the SPC.


How the Supreme People’s Court guides the court system through judicial documents (1)

Screenshot 2019-05-19 at 10.46.26 AM

collection of post 18th Party congress judicial policy documents, edited by the SPC’s General Office

I recently participated in an academic conference in which one speaker discussed Chinese judicial documents (other than judicial interpretations).  The speaker’s view was very critical of them, a view shared by a good number of academics in China. A recent law review article published in a US law journal mischaracterized at least some of these documents.  I have my own views and understanding of what these documents mean, based on many years reviewing these documents and long discussions with knowledgeable people “who cannot be named” and whose help can only be indirectly acknowledged. I have discussed SPC judicial documents in an earlier blogpost. I also discuss them in my book chapter on judicial transparency, and book chapter on the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC) policy document on free trade zones, the Opinions on Providing Judicial Guarantee for the Building of Pilot Free Trade Zones (最高人民法院關于為自由貿易試驗區建設提供司法保障的意見 FTZ Opinion). This blogpost melds excerpts from those book chapters.

It is a fact that the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issues a broad range of documents that guide the lower courts in addition to its judicial interpretations. The SPC creates and transmits to the lower courts new judicial policy in the form of an “opinion” (意见), which is also a type of Party/government document.  This same term is used for documents jointly issued by the SPC and institutions not authorized to issue judicial interpretations. This blogpost focuses solely on SPC policy documents.

The SPC classifies opinions as “judicial normative documents” (司法文件 or 司法规范性文件(the title of this Wechat public account) and sometimes judicial policy documents” (司法政策性文件).  As I’ve written before, this fuzzy use of terminology is not unusual. An (authoritative) follower has proposed using the English translation “judicial regulatory document” for 司法规范性文件.  An authoritative person (who cannot be named), concurred with the follower’s proposal. Those with views on the translation point should use the contact function or contact me by email.

These documents are issued with the identifier “法发” (fafa), indicating that they have been approved by the judicial committee of the SPC or one or more senior SPC leaders.  Transparency is better than before (and the SPC has issued documents encouraging greater transparency) but there is no strict publication requirement, unlike judicial interpretations.

 The FTZ Opinion is an example of how the SPC supports the Party and government by issuing documents to support important initiatives. This is a subject that I have written about on this blog before. These SPC policy documents signal an evolution of judicial policy, establish new legal rules and direct the lower courts. Lower courts implement these measures in various ways, including in their court judgments or rulings and to further implement SPC judicial policy documents.  Local courts may issue implementing guidance, as SPC policy is intended to be a framework under which local courts issue more specific measures to deal with specific local issues.

The FTZ Opinion signals evolving judicial policy to FTZ courts in a number of areas, including on civil and commercial law issues. For example, it states that courts should
support FTZ finance leasing companies and should respect the agreement of cross-border parties regarding jurisdiction and governing law. It states that a finance lease contract shall not be determined to be null and void because relevant procedures had not been performed.

The drafting of these judicial policy documents, such as the FTZ Opinion, follow a drafting process similar to judicial interpretations. The usual practice in drafting judicial interpretations is for the SPC to engage in extensive research and fieldwork, consult with related institutions within the SPC and external institutions when relevant (another academic article stuck in the production pipeline will describe the process in more detail).

The drafting team for the FTZ Opinion engaged in several years of field work, established an FTZ Research Base in Shanghai, held a Judicial Forum for the Pilot Free Trade Zones, solicited the views of experts and local courts, in the areas where FTZs are located. The SPC’s  #4 Civil Division, in charge of foreign and cross-border related civil and commercial cases and related issues, took primary responsibility for drafting the opinion. The reason that the #4 Civil Division took the lead was that much of the substantive parts of the FTZ Opinion relates to foreign trade, foreign investment, and cross-border arbitration issues. Earlier Shanghai local court guidance was incorporated into the FTZ Opinion. Once the draft was relatively advanced, it was circulated to other relevant areas of the SPC for comments. As the team of judges who led the drafting focus on cross-border civil and commercial issues, they sought comments on related issues from the Research Office, likely one of the criminal divisions and the administrative division. Consistent with general judicial practice (and SPC rules), the FTZ Opinion was not issued for public comment. The drafting of the FTZ Opinion is one small example of the quasi-administrative way in which the SPC operates.

Rules or policies included in SPC judicial policy documents may eventually be crystallized in SPC judicial interpretations and eventually codified in national law, but
that process is slow and cannot meet the needs of the lower courts. The lower courts need to deal properly (politically and legally) with outstanding legal issues pending a more permanent stabilization of legal rules.  This is true for judicial policy documents in all areas of the law, not only in commercial law.