Category Archives: judicial documents

The Supreme People’s Court & the Development of Chinese International Commercial Law

I am very honored to have been the first keynote speaker of the webinar “Deals and Disputes: China, Hong Kong, and Commercial Law” held on May 18-21 (2021).   The webinar was organized by the University of Pittsburgh, with its School of Law’s Center for International Legal Education working together with its Asian Studies Center. Many thanks to Professors Ronald Brand and James Cook for the kind invitation.   For those who missed it, the recording of my presentation is now available on the Youtube channel of the Center for International Legal Education.

I spoke on the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and the Development of Chinese International Commercial Law (as I defined it).  My presentation synthesizes many points that I have made separately on this blog and should be useful to students or others seeking to understand several aspects of the work of the SPC.   Many thanks to Professor Pamela Bookman and Mary Buck Young for taking the time to make insightful comments on earlier drafts of my Powerpoint slides. Special thanks to (one of) my research assistants, Yuan Ye, for his work in transforming SPC statistics into a more understandable form and translating them into English.

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.

__________________________________________

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

The “Soft Law” of the Supreme People’s Court

Tiantong Litigation Logo

On 13 November, the TianTong Law Firm published a bilingual version of the article below in their TianTong Litigation Circle Wechat public account. (Follow the article link to read the Chinese version.) The Tian Tong Litigation’s public account has half a million subscribers. I am very appreciative of TianTong litigation partner David Gu’s (顾嘉) kind invitation and the careful editing of his colleagues.  The Chinese title of the article is: 最高人民法院对“软法”的适用:外国观察者的视角 | 跨境顾释 (with the English title of “A foreign observer comments on the ‘soft law’ of the Supreme People’s Court”).  The hard work of my research assistant Sun Dongyu, one of our Peking University School of Transnational Law graduates, and Fu Panfeng, assistant research fellow of the Institute of International Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences transformed my English article into readable Chinese. 

Much of the substantive content of the article has previously appeared in this blog, but with a different perspective and conclusion. 

_____________________

I am very honored to have this opportunity to publish some of my observations about the developments of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) with TianTong Litigation Circle. I have been observing developments of the SPC for almost 30 years, and am honored to have been included in the first batch of members of the international expert committee of the China International Commercial Court. The views expressed in this article are my own and should not be attributed to the committee, the China International Commercial Court, or the SPC.
One of the many special features of the SPC, as an important supreme court in the world, that it allocates a great deal of effort to different types of “soft law.” Soft law is a concept that the late Professor Luo Haocai, formerly vice president of the SPC, introduced and developed in China, so discussing the “soft law” of SPC is particularly appropriate. For those who are not aware of this academic concept, it means norms that affect the behavior of related stakeholders, even though the norms do not have the status of formal law.
This article gives my thoughts on two aspects of SPC soft law—its judicial policy documents and cases that it has specially selected.

I. Judicial documents

I have a special interest in judicial documents, because they drew me into researching the SPC in the early 1990s.
The seven categories of documents below are classified as judicial documents or “judicial normative documents” (“司法文件” or “司法规范性文件”) and sometimes judicial policy documents” (“司法政策性文件”). The SPC’s website lists some of them. An attentive reader can discover from reviewing the documents on the website that my description is not comprehensive. The SPC issues many other documents as well, covering personnel and administrative matters, but this article focuses on those with normative provisions.
SPC judicial documents are partially governed by 2012 regulations on the handling of SPC official documents (“人民法院公文处理办法”), which leave much unsaid and unexplained. It seems likely that additional guidance exists, whether in the form of bureaucratic custom or internal guidelines. Many, but not all, are the SPC’s special versions of Party/government documents.

1. Categories of judicial documents

1) Opinions (“意见”). According to my observations, the SPC issues several types of Opinions. I have not yet done detailed research into these different types of documents and have not seen detailed analysis in Chinese (or English). What I’m setting forth below is my tentative analysis.

i. Opinion Type 1

An Opinion issued solely by the SPC, that addresses a range of matters. The Services and Guarantees Opinions appear to fall into this category. These documents create and transmit to the lower courts new judicial policy, update previous judicial policy, establish new legal guidance that may be eventually crystallized in judicial interpretations and direct the lower courts, but cannot be cited in judicial judgments or rulings. They are generally linked to an important Party or state strategy or initiative. The ones labeled “Guiding Opinions” are intended to push policy forward, but others may do as well. Sometimes the SPC issues illustrative “model/exemplary/typical cases to clarify certain points to the lower courts (and the legal community), such as the Opinion providing Services and Guarantees [Safeguards] to the Yellow River Basin, for which the SPC issued illustrative cases.

ii. Opinion Type 2

An Opinion issued solely by the SPC, that consolidates rules or guidance found in disparate documents and adds some new rules, focuses on one particular topic, relating to litigants. The April, 2020 Opinions on Promoting Lawful and Efficient Trials of Bankruptcy Cases is a good example. It incorporates a provision from the Minutes of the National Court Work Conference on Bankruptcy Trials, for example, regarding consolidating bankruptcy cases of affiliated enterprises.

iii. Opinion Type 3

An Opinion also issued solely by the SPC, that sets out in normative form Party policy/judicial reforms, that may be the framework for further normative opinions, and eventually crystalized in law. An example is the 2015 Opinions on Improving the Judicial Responsibility System of the People’s Courts . The first line clearly links the document to Party decisions–“for the purpose of implementing the general deployment of the Party Center on deepening the reform of the judicial system….(“为贯彻中央关于深化司法体制改革的总体部署”). It is linked to several normative Opinions and the judicial responsibility system has been incorporated into the People’s Court Law.

iv. Opinion Type 4

An Opinion in which the SPC is one of several issuing institutions, that does not create new legal rules but harmonizes legal positions among institutions and for the courts, and clarifies how the law should be applied. This type of Opinion also cannot be cited as the basis for a judgment or ruling. This type of Opinion is particularly common in the area of criminal law, and is often related to the latest campaign or focus of the authorities. The 2019 Opinions on Several Issues Regarding the Handling of Criminal Cases of Illegal Lending , (“最高人民法院、最高人民检察院 公安部 司法部印发《关于办理非法放贷刑事案件若干问题的意见》的通知” ) part of the Special Campaign to Crack Down on Underworld Forces (“扫黑除恶专项斗争”) is a good example. One aspect of the ongoing campaign, which began in early 2018, is to use the criminal justice and regulatory authorities to crack down on “routing loans” (“套路贷”), an offense not defined by the Criminal Law. This 2019 Opinion harmonizes the understanding among the criminal justice authorities to punish those providing “routing loans.” Article 1 describes certain types of lending activity that can be punished under the crime of illegal business operations (Criminal Law article 225(4)).

2) Conference summary/meeting minutes (“会议纪要”). A conference summary arises from an SPC specialized court conference. A conference summary is used to transmit central legal policy, unify or harmonize court practices in accordance with that policy. Although conference summaries do not have the status of a judicial interpretation, the lower courts will generally decide cases according to its provisions. My understanding of the term “harmonizing court practice” means in Chinese judicial parlance that judges are applying the law similarly. A recent example is the 9th National Courts’ Civil and Commercial Trial Work Conference Summary. The document itself has a very useful explanation: “the Conference Minutes [Summary], which are not judicial interpretations, cannot be cited as a basis for adjudication. For first instance and second instance pending cases after the Conference Minutes have been issued, people’s courts may reason according to the relevant provisions of the Conference Minutes when specifically analyzing the reasons for the application of law in the “The court is of the view” section of adjudicative instruments.”

3) Professional judges meeting summary (“法官会议纪要”). I have not yet written in detail about these, but in my observation, they are a product of the judicial reforms. The SPC circuit courts appear to have led the way on publishing these as a way of “unifying judicial practice” but the #2 Civil Division (focusing on commercial issues) has published a collection as well.

4) Response or reply (“复函” or “答复”). These are responses or replies to requests for instructions or approvals. The SPC, like other Party and state organs, handles requests for instructions (“请示”). Although proposals have been published either to incorporate the practice into procedural law or abolish it, the practice lives on at all court levels, including the SPC. If the issue raised is considered important enough, the reply will be approved as a judicial interpretation. There are apparently fewer requests for instructions than ten or twenty years ago. I surmise more are submitted on the criminal issues than civil. One subcategory of these responses are the ones issued by the SPC’s #4 Civil Division, the division focusing on cross-border commercial and maritime issues. These are responses to request from instructions (“请示”) from provincial-level courts (including the higher courts of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing), as required by the SPC’s Prior Reporting system for arbitration matters.

5) Notice (通知). Documents transmitting one of the above types of judicial documents are often called notices, but this is meant to call attention to a document entitled “notice” (“通知”), such as the Notice concerning some questions regarding the centralized handling of judicial review of arbitration cases (“关于仲裁司法审件归口办理有关问题的通知”) .

6) Rules (“规则” and “条例”). One recent example of the use of rules (“规则” is the CICC’s Procedural Rules for the China International Commercial Court of the Supreme People’s Court (“最高人民法院办公厅关于印发《最高人民法院国际商事法庭程序规则(试行)》的通知” ), issued by the SPC’s General Office. The rules were discussed by the SPC judicial committee but not issued as a judicial interpretation. I have observed that “规则” is used for court rules–as the same term is used for the Working Rules of the SPC’s Compensation Committee (最高人民法院赔偿委员会工作规则) . The term “条例” is used to regulate internal court system matters, such as rules (using the term “条例”) on judicial training(“法官教育培训工作条例” ) and 2012 rules on especially appointed inspectors (最高人民法院特约监督员工作条例).

7) Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The most well-known example is the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding on Taking Joint Disciplinary Actions against Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement (“《对失信被执行人实施联合惩戒的合作备忘录》”). It appears to be the first time (or at least one of the first times) that a large group of central Party-state institutions has concluded an MOU. The SPC concludes many, only some of which have been made public. The lower courts do so as well. It shows that some “Western” legal concepts are useful in the Chinese context.

2. Comments

According to the SPC’s rules on judicial interpretation work , judicial interpretations must be published. The SPC Gazette and People’s Court Daily are required to publish the interpretations, but for the other documents published, it is hit or miss. As for the judicial documents listed above , not all are published, as there is no requirement to do so. As I have observed previously, the SPC is generally publishing more judicial documents than before. The contrast is clear, when compared to the early 1990’s, when I started to research the SPC. One positive and important example is the approved judicial interpretation agenda, issued in the form of a notice from the General Office of the SPC .
The SPC’s official website publishes some, but not all of the judicial documents that can be found in some other sources. A problem for those puzzling out these documents is that unfortunately the staff of the SPC’s website does not take the due care they should to ensure that documents are published in the correct classification, so the careful observer will find that misclassifications occur from time to time. Sources other than the SPC’s website may have more of these judicial documents. Some of these judicial documents, such as replies or responses by the #4 Civil Division under the Prior Reporting system for arbitration matters, are published in the division’s own publication, as discussed further below.
There are two additional comments on judicial documents worth mentioning, i.e. data (or lack thereof) and persuasiveness to the lower courts. It is difficult to determine how the number of judicial documents/judicial regulatory documents that the SPC issues compares to the number of judicial interpretations, as it is clear that it is inconvenient for some judicial documents to be made public (and some appear to be classified).
A second comment is on the persuasiveness of these judicial documents to the lower courts. I surmise that some of them are more important to local court leaders than to ordinary judges, but it depends on the nature of the judicial document. It is my understanding that judicial documents with normative provisions (conference summaries or Opinions with normative content) are cited in trial reports (“审理报告” or “审查报告”), but not in judgments or rulings.

II. SPC Selected cases and decisions

A second important area of SPC soft law is SPC selected cases and decisions, which are increasingly important as a form of guidance to lower court judges, especially with the formal implementation of the similar case guidance system . Since 2016, I have been writing about the development of case law with Chinese characteristics, because in my view, it is a very important development.

1. Guiding Opinions 

The 27 July 2020 Guiding Opinions Concerning Strengthening Search for Similar Cases to Unify the Application of Law (“Guiding Opinions”) (“《关于统一法律适用加强类案检索的指导意见(试行)》”) , is significant because it will make judicial decisions more consistent, an ongoing issue in the Chinese court system. The SPC is approving the practice of judges using principles derived from prior cases to fill in the gaps in legislation and judicial interpretations.
The Guiding Opinions codifies many of the practices of the Chinese courts and imposes some new requirements. I have written before that it does not mean that China has become a common law legal system. Although the Guiding Opinions do not address this question, comments by an SPC judge suggest that the special status of cases selected by the SPC by its operational divisions remains in place. It is cases with a special status that I will discuss further below, because it is something most readers in and out of China do not focus on.
The rules on case law in Article 4 of the Guiding Opinions are in line with what I have previously written:
1) SPC guiding cases;
2) SPC typical (model) cases (“典型案例”) and judgments or rulings of the SPC;
3) Reference cases issued by provincial-level higher people’s courts and decisions by those courts;
4) Higher-level courts in the jurisdiction in question and judgments of that court.

2. Specific types of SPC cases

My understanding is that these are general principles, but the specific scope of cases that need to be searched will depend on the specifics. Among the specific types of SPC cases not mentioned in the Guiding Opinions are the following:

1) The cases issued by the SPC Circuit Courts

The SPC Circuit Courts issue cases under different names that are intended to guide the lower courts within their circuits and also indirectly guide legal practitioners in that circuit. In 2016, for example, the #2 Circuit Court issued a set of 30 case summaries (literally important points, 案例要旨) on administrative cases, selected from the many administrative cases heard in the first year and a half of operation. It appears that all six Circuit courts issue reference or typical cases. Earlier this year, the #2 Circuit Court launched a “case a week” (每周一案) series. The Sixth Circuit issues cases entitled Sixth Circuit Case Guidance (“六巡案例参考”) , while the Third Circuit issues typical cases .

2) Cases selected by the operational divisions of the SPC

The SPC provides guidance to the lower courts in the form of cases published in “trial guides”(“审判指导丛书”) and other related specialized publications. The cases published in these trial guides, which have various titles, are for the most part not “guiding cases”(“指导性案例”) and therefore may not be cited in a court judgment. However, because they have been specially selected by the SPC, they are quite persuasive to the lower courts and therefore important to legal professionals. The SPC sees them as a supplement to legislation, judicial interpretations, various types of judicial normative documents/judicial documents/(“司法规范性文件”/ “司法文件”) and useful in providing a source for judicial interpretation drafting. I call these cases “stealth” guidance or “soft precedents”, as they are used without citation in judgments.
Examples of these trial guides include: Reference to Criminal Trial (“刑事审判参考”), edited by a team from the five SPC criminal divisions, the #4 Civil Division’s Guide to Foreign-related Commercial and Maritime Trial; and the Administrative Division’s Administrative Law Enforcement and Administrative Adjudication (“行政执法与行政审判”).
The editors of these publications select cases they consider significant. The editors describe them as “selected to provide specific guidance and reference for criminal justice officials in finding facts, admitting evidence, applying the law and determining sentences when handling similar cases.”(“选择在认定事实,采行证据,法律适用和裁量刑罚…为了刑事司法工作人员处理类似案件提供具体指导和参考”) The editors of the Guide to Foreign-related Commercial and Maritime Trial describe the cases as providing powerful guidance (“具有较强的指导意义”“为了…遇到类似问题提供了解决思路”). They describe their selected cases as being typical and of guiding significance (“具有典型和指导意义的审判案例”). Some of the cases in these trial guides are entitled replies (some called “答复” and others entitled “复函”), as discussed above. One very important type is required by the SPC’s Prior Reporting system for cross-border arbitration matters (for example, as when a lower court intends to refuse the enforcement of a foreign arbitral award). The #4 Civil Division publishes both the request for instructions as well as their response, while the SPC Administrative Division in their publication Administrative Law Enforcement and Administrative Adjudication (“行政执法与行政审判”) only publishes their responses to the lower courts.

These cases retain their special authority even after the Guiding Opinion was issued, as indicated by comments by Senior Judge Yu Tongzhi , an editor of Reference to Criminal Trial. He noted in an article published on 31 July that for criminal cases, the best source to search similar cases is the guidance cases published in Reference to Criminal Trial.”(“就刑事司法而言,可供检索的“类案”,首选无疑是最高人民法院五个刑事审判庭唯一、共同主办的《刑事审判参考》刊载的“指导案例”)。
In my view, this discrete, technical reform of the Guiding Opinion, including the SPC selected cases described above (a form of soft law), has implications greater than the drafters of the Guiding Opinions may have realized, including a possible impact on Chinese legal education. It has the potential to make litigation and assessment of a party’s legal position in non-contentious matters more predictable for parties.

III. Conclusion

Some final thoughts about why the SPC often uses “soft law” to guide the lower courts. In my understanding. SPC judicial interpretations (司法解释) are SPC “quasi-hard law”, as rules on judicial interpretation work state that they have the force of law. That means that they are intended to be in place for an extended period of time and as a consequence, the drafting process tends to be long and involved. Chinese courts, in my understanding, must serve the greater situation (服务大局). The greater situation is dynamic. Soft law enables the SPC to guide the lower courts timely in applying the law and judicial interpretations in specific cases, harmonized with current policy. In this way, the courts perform their important role in governance.

In sum, whether it is SPC policy documents or different types of case guidance or case decisions, SPC soft law is intended to strengthen the firm guiding hand of the SPC, as part of its authority to guide the lower courts.


I have replaced footnotes in the article with links.

Partial guide to Supreme People’s Court documents

The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issues a range of documents as part of its authority to supervise the lower courts. The significance and authority of these documents is confusing to many, both in and out of China, in the world of practice, in academia, and in government, and of course among Chinese law students and graduates.

They are an illustration of how documents continue to be an important tool for Chinese governance, a fact it appears is often forgotten outside of China. “In current Chinese political life, governing the country by documents objectively exists” ( “在现实中国政治生活中,文件治国是一种客观存在”), from this 2017 article by Zhang Xuebo of the Central Party School’s Politics and Law Department.

This blogpost provides an updated consolidated (partial) guide through the forest of SPC judicial documents, drawing on my past research and analysis, not including judicial interpretations (司法解释). I will return to this topic in the future and will discuss judicial interpretations in a separate blogpost.  I have a special interest in judicial documents, because they drew me into researching the SPC in the early 1990s.

The seven categories of documents below are classified as judicial documents  or “judicial normative documents” (司法文件 or 司法规范性文件 and sometimes judicial policy documents” (司法政策性文件). The SPC’s website lists some of them. 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 attentive reader can discover from reviewing the documents on the website that this blogpost is not comprehensive.I will have more to say about all of these documents in the fullness of time, when I have an opportunity to explore the forest. The SPC issues many other documents as well, covering personnel and administrative matters, but this blogpost focuses on those with normative provisions.

SPC judicial documents are partially governed by 2012 regulations on the handling of SPC official documents (人民法院公文处理办法), which leave much unsaid and unexplained. It seems likely that additional guidance exists, whether in the form of bureaucratic custom or internal guidelines. Many, but not all, are the SPC’s special versions of Party/government documents.

It is one of the special features of the SPC that so much time and effort is allocated to different types of “soft law,” likely linked to other features of the Chinese legal system.

Partial catalogue of SPC judicial documents

1.Opinions (意见)–In my view, the SPC issues several types of Opinions. I have not yet done detailed research into these different types of documents and have not seen detailed analysis in Chinese (or English).  What I’m setting forth below is my tentative analysis. I’m likely to discover more categories of Opinions as I do further research.

Opinion Type 1:  An Opinion issued solely by the SPC, that addresses a range of matters. The Services and Guarantees Opinions appear to fall into this category. These documents create and transmit to the lower courts new judicial policy, update previous judicial policy, establish new legal guidance that may be eventually crystallized in judicial interpretations and direct the lower courts, but cannot be cited in judicial judgments or rulings. They are generally linked to an important Party or state strategy or initiative. This post has a summary of what opinions are, while another one focuses on how they are structured.  I have often written about this type of Opinion. The ones labeled “Guiding Opinions” are intended to push policy forward, but others may do as well.  Sometimes the SPC issues illustrative “model/exemplary/typical cases to clarify certain points to the lower courts (and the legal community) , such as the Opinion providing Services and Guarantees [Safeguards] to the Yellow River Basin, for which the SPC issued illustrative cases.

Opinion Type 2: An Opinion issued solely by the SPC, that consolidates rules or guidance found in disparate documents and adds some new rules, focused on one particular topic, relating to litigants. The April, 2020,  Opinions on Promoting Lawful and Efficient Trials of Bankruptcy Cases is a good example.It incorporates a provision from the Minutes of the National Court Work Conference on Bankruptcy Trials, for example, regarding consolidating bankruptcy cases of affiliated enterprises.

Opinion Type 3: An Opinion also issued solely by the SPC, that sets out in normative form Party policy/judicial reforms, may be the framework for further normative opinions, and eventually crystalized in law.  An example is the 2015 Opinions on Improving the Judicial Responsibility System of People’s Courts.  The first line clearly links the document to Party decisions–“for the purpose of implementing the general deployment of the Party Center on deepening the reform of the judicial system….(为贯彻中央关于深化司法体制改革的总体部署). It is linked to several normative Opinions and the judicial responsibility system has been incorporated into the People’s Court Law.

Opinion Type 4: the SPC is one of several issuing institutions. They do not create new legal rules but harmonize legal positions among institutions and for the courts, and clarify how the law should be applied. They also cannot be cited as the basis for a judgment or ruling. These are particularly common in the area of criminal law, and are often related to the latest campaign or focus of the authorities. The 2019 Opinions on Several Issues Regarding the Handling of Criminal Cases of Illegal Lending, (最高人民法院 最高人民检察院 公安部 司法部印发《关于办理非法放贷刑事案件若干问题的意见》的通知) part of the  Special Campaign to Crack Down on Underworld Forces (扫黑除恶专项斗争) is a good example.  One aspect of the ongoing campaign, which began in early 2018, is to use the criminal justice and regulatory authorities to crack down on “routing loans” (套路贷), an offense not defined by the criminal law.  This 2019 Opinion harmonizes the understanding among the criminal justice authorities to punish those providing “routing loans.” Article 1 describes certain types of lending activity that can be punished under the crime of illegal business operations (Criminal Law article 225(4)). (See more here).

2.  Conference summary/meeting minutes(会议纪要): the SPC uses specialized court conferences as a way of transmitting central legal policy, unifying or harmonizing court practices in accordance with that policy, and obtaining an overview of court practices and problems. Although conference summaries do not have the status of a judicial interpretation, the lower courts will generally decide cases according to its provisions. “Harmonizing court practice” means in Chinese judicial parlance that judges are applying the law similarly.” A recent example is the 9th National Courts’ Civil and Commercial Trial Work Conference Summary.  The document itself has a very useful explanation: “the Conference Minutes [Summary], which are not judicial interpretations, cannot be cited as a basis for adjudication. For first instance and second instance pending cases after the Conference Minutes have been issued, people’s courts may reason according to the relevant provisions of the Conference Minutes when specifically analyzing the reasons for the application of law in the “The court is of the view” section of adjudicative instruments.” This post has a summary of what conference summaries are.

3. Professional judges meeting summary (法官会议纪要):  I have not yet written a blogpost focused on these. although I have mentioned them from time to time. I have several published collections of these in my library.  The SPC circuit courts appear to have led the way on publishing these as a way of “unifying judicial practice” but the #2 Civil Division (focusing on commercial issues) has published a collection as well.

4. Response or reply (复函 or 答复) These are responses or replies to requests for instructions or approvals. SPC, like other Party and state organs, handles requests for instructions (qingshi 请示). Although proposals have been published to either incorporate the practice into procedural law or abolish it, the practice lives on at all court levels, including the SPC.  If the issue raised is considered important enough, the reply will be approved as a judicial interpretation. There are apparently fewer requests for instructions than ten or twenty years ago. I surmise more are submitted on the criminal issues than civil.  One subcategory of these responses are the ones issued by the SPC’s #4 Civil Division, the division focusing on cross-border commercial and maritime issues. These are responses to request from instructions (请示) from provincial-level courts (including the higher courts of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing), as required by the SPC’s Prior Reporting system for arbitration matters. See more here.

5. Notice (通知).  Documents transmitting one of the above types of judicial documents are often called notices, but this is meant to call attention to a document entitled “notice” (通知), such as the Notice concerning some questions regarding the centralized handling of judicial review of arbitration cases (关于仲裁司法审件归口办理有关问题的通知), discussed here.

6. Rules (规则)and (条例 ) One recent example of the use of rules (规则 is the CICC’s Procedural Rules for the China International Commercial Court of the Supreme People’s Court (最高人民法院办公厅关于印发《最高人民法院国际商事法庭程序规则(试行)》的通知), issued by the SPC’s General Office.  The rules were discussed by the SPC judicial committee but not issued as a judicial interpretation. I have observed that 规则 is used for court rules–as the same term is used for the Working Rules of the SPC’s Compensation Committee  . The term  条例 is used to regulate internal court system matters, such as rules (using  the term 条例) on judicial training(法官教育培训工作条例) and 2012 rules on especially appointed inspectors.

7. Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)  The most well-known example is the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding on Taking Joint Disciplinary Actions against Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement (对失信被执行人实施联合惩戒的合作备忘录).  It appears to be the first time (or at least one of the first times) that a large group of central Party-state institutions has concluded an MOU. The SPC concludes many, only some of which have been made public. The lower courts do so as well.  It shows that despite ongoing criticism of “Western” law and legal concepts, the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese government finds it useful to borrow some of them for its own uses. (See more here.)

Transparency

According to the SPC’s rules on judicial interpretation work, judicial interpretations must be published.  As for the judicial documents listed above, not all are published, as there is no requirement to do so.  (I have more on this subject in an academic article on judicial transparency). As I have observed on this blog and in the article, the SPC is generally publishing more judicial documents than before. The contrast is clear, when compared to the early 1990’s, when I started to research the SPC.  One positive and important example is the the approved judicial interpretation agenda, issued in the form of a notice from the General Office of the SPC. The SPC Gazette and People’s Court Daily are required to publish the interpretations, but for the other documents published, it is hit or miss.  The SPC’s official website publishes some, but not all of the ones that can be found in some other sources  A problem for those puzzling out these documents is that unfortunately the staff of the SPC’s website does not take the due care they should to ensure that documents are published in the correct classification, so the careful observer will find that misclassifications occur from time to time. Sources other than the SPC’s website may have more of these judicial documents.  Some of these judicial documents, such as replies or responses by the #4 Civil Division under the Prior Reporting system for arbitration matters, are published in the division’s own publication, as discussed here.

Other comments

Two additional comments on data (or lack thereof) and persuasiveness to the lower courts.  It is difficult to determine how the  number of judicial documents/judicial regulatory documents that the SPC issues compares to the number of judicial interpretations, as it is clear that it is inconvenient for some judicial documents to be made public (and some appear to be classified).

A second comment is on the persuasiveness of these judicial documents to the lower courts.  I surmise that some of them are more important to local court leaders than to ordinary judges, but it depends on the nature of the judicial document. It is my understanding that judicial documents with normative provisions (conference summaries or Opinions with normative content) are cited in trial reports (审理报告 or 审查报告), but not in judgments or rulings.Finally, I surmise that SPC decisions are or will become increasingly important as a form of guidance to lower court judges, especially with the formal implementation of the similar case guidance system.

________________________________________________

Those with corrections or comments or additions, please use the comment function or email me at supremepeoplescourtmonitor@gmail.com.  Many thanks to certain knowledgeable persons for spending some of their valuable free time commenting on earlier drafts of this blogpost.

 

The National Civil Commercial Trial Work Conference Draft Conference Summary or how the SPC guides the lower courts through issuing conference summaries

 

Screenshot 2019-12-25 at 5.30.17 PM
Screenshot of the explanation accompanying the draft conference summary

In early August, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued the National Civil Commercial Trial Work Conference Conference Summary (Draft of the SPC #2 Civil Division for the Solicitation of Opinions from the Public) 全国法院民商事审判工作会议纪要 (最高人民法院民二庭向社会公开征求意见稿. The draft, which sets a comment deadline of 25 August and includes a brief (but useful) introduction, provides a summary of current critical legal issues in domestic commercial law. As explained below, this document provides an excellent example of one of the ways that the SPC guides the lower courts through issuing judicial normative documents 司法文件 or 司法规范性文件 (also called judicial regulatory documents and judicial guidance documents (司法指导性文件) and uses national court conferences to derive a consensus on critical legal issues. The 123-article draft document relates to legal issues, rather than the political issues discussed at length in Justice Liu Guixiang’s speech (as described in a recent blogpost). The fact that this draft was issued for public comment and so quickly shows that guidance from the SPC to the lower courts is needed quickly at a time where the domestic Chinese economy is facing downward economic pressure.  I  explain what this document is, why it was issued for public comment, and its implications. The planned summary of the issues will need to wait until time permits (perfect is the enemy of the good).

Collection of Guidance Documents of the SPC

Conference Summary

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.  Several recent posts on this blog (and two of my recent book chapters) have focused on several of those documents. One of the documents that the SPC issues is entitled “conference summary/meeting minutes” (会议纪要), which is also a type of Party/government document (as mentioned in earlier blogposts).

As I explained “earlier” (25 years ago) in my 1993 article, the SPC uses specialized court conferences as a way of transmitting central legal policy, unify or harmonize court practices in accordance with that policy, and obtain an overview of court practices and problems.  Although conference summaries do not have the status of a judicial interpretation, the lower courts will generally decide cases according to its provisions. “Harmonizing court practice” means in Chinese judicial parlance that judges are applying the law similarly.

The SPC entitles conference summaries “judicial normative documents”(司法文件) judicial guidance documents (司法指导性文件) 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. The book pictured above, edited by a group from the People’s Court Press (affiliated with the SPC),  includes a number of conference summaries (some with commentary by drafters). The editors commented that “although judicial guidance documents are not judicial interpretations and cannot be cited in a court judgment document as the basis of a judgment, it is generally recognized that they have an important guiding impact on the trial and enforcement work of the courts at every level.”

Public Consultation

This conference summary appears to be one of the few that has been issued for public consultation (the previous civil/commercial conference summary was also issued for public comment (see here).  My understanding is that the usual practice has been to solicit the views of certain experts outside the court system in the drafting process (as well of many in the court system).  As to why this draft has been issued for public comment, a knowledgeable person said it was to “hear views from all parts of society (听取社会各界的意见). I surmise that the #2 Civil Division (the division that took the lead in drafting the conference summary) took the view that it was useful to understand the views and comments that “the market” (the legal professional community) has relating the rules in the conference summary before finalizing it. This way the conference summary can be amended before it is finalized to account for any useful comments and the #2 Civil Division can anticipate issues that may arise when the conference summary becomes effective.

Purpose, Implications and Drafting Procedures

In the introduction to the draft, the SPC described its purpose in issuing this conference summary.  “The main purpose is in relation to various problems encountered in the process of trial practice, to provide some resolution methods that judges can use as a reference when discussing reasoning in the application of specific laws, to unify judicial thinking, and limit judicial discretion, work hard to have the masses feel justice in every case”   (主要目的是就审判实践中遇到的一些问题,提出解决方案,作为法官在具体法律适用、进行说理论证时的参考,统一全国法院的裁判思路,约束法官自由裁量空间,提高司法公信力,稳定当事人、法律工作者及社会的预期,努力让人民群众在每一个司法案件中感受到公平正义).  The conference summary has implications for the legal professional community as a whole (particularly lawyers and in-house counsel) because it signals what approach the lower courts are likely to take to current controversial issues.

According to the notice, the drafters of the conference summary combined the legal issues set out in Justice Liu’s report with issues raised by delegates at the conference and issues derived during the process of preparing for the conference.  As described in the book chapters mentioned above (and in great detail in a book chapter stuck in the production pipeline), this is representative of judicial interpretation and judicial document drafting.

Substantive Content

From the number of articles relating to specific issues, it is possible to see where the inadequacies in current legislation exist and where the courts lack consensus on important commercial law issues.  Since the draft was issued, Chinese law firms have published articles focusing on specific issues. Time does not permit me to explain its provisions now.

  1. Issues related to the application of the General Principles of Civil Law and its relationship with other legislation (5 articles)(《民法总则》适用的法律衔接问题(5条))
  2. Trial of company disputes (22 articles) (关于公司纠纷案件的审理(22条))
  3. Trial of contract disputes (26 articles) (关于合同纠纷案件的审理(26条)
  4. Trial of security disputes (18 articles)(关于担保纠纷案件的审理(18条)
  5. Financial consumer rights protection disputes (6 articles)(关于金融消费者权益保护纠纷案件的审理(6条)
  6. Trial of securities disputes (11 articles)关于证券纠纷案件的审理(11条)
  7. Trial of business trust dispute cases (7 articles)(关于营业信托纠纷案件的审理(7条))
  8. Property insurance disputes (6 articles)(关于金融消费者权益保护纠纷案件的审理(6条))
  9. Trial of commercial paper disputes (4 articles)(关于票据纠纷案件的审理(4条)
  10. Bankruptcy cases (13 articles) (关于破产纠纷案件的审理(13条)
  11. Trial of cases involving third party objection to enforcement and withdrawal of a case (5 articles) (关于案外人执行异议之诉和第三人撤销之诉纠纷案件的审理(5)
  12. Cases with both civil and criminal aspects (2 articles) 关于民刑交叉纠纷的处理(2条)
  13. Etc. (1 article)

How the Supreme People’s Court guides the court system through its judicial documents (2)

SPC collection of responses +explanations

 

The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) (and its constituent divisions, bureaus, and offices) guide the lower courts on substantive and procedural law in multiple ways.  It does this under its authority to supervise (监督) the lower courts under Article 10 of the Organic Law of the People’s Courts.  One of those ways is through issuing documents described in a recent blogpost as judicial normative (司法规范性文件) or regulatory documents. A recent blogpost looked at one category of them–opinions (意见).  My focus is on how these documents are used to give guidance on substantive or procedural legal issues, rather than matters of court administration. The SPC has long used these types of documents, as I discussed in my 1993 article. Observation reveals that these are sometimes issued in the name of the operational divisions and sometimes offices, rather than the SPC itself, but often with a document number indicating that it was issued by one of the operational divisions of the SPC.  

In late 2016, the SPC’s People’s Court Press published a collection of responses to requests for instructions in the book pictured above (some are entitled fuhan 复函 and others dafu 答复.  Some had been previously published (in publications edited by SPC functional divisions) and others were published for the first time, with the editors describing them as ‘usually called quasi-judicial interpretation documents’ (往往被称为准司法解释性文件) and ‘a necessary supplement to judicial interpretations’ (它是对司法解释一种必须的补充).  The editors further noted that later judicial interpretations will supersede the documents in the book.

These types of documents are used by the Communist Party and government as well. So using these forms of documents signals one of the many administrative aspects by which the SPC operates. In fact (as I have written before), the SPC has issued its own measures on official documents (人民法院公文处理办法), further implementing the Party and government’s regulations on official documents (党政机关公文处理工作条例). The SPC, like other Party and state organs, handles requests for instructions (qingshi 请示) (also translated as requests for advisory opinions). A request for instructions is a type of document submitted by a subordinate to a superior state or Party organ to request instructions or approval, and is therefore a typical Chinese administrative procedure. 

One subcategory of these responses are the ones issued by the SPC’s #4 Civil Division, the division focusing on cross-border commercial and maritime issues.  These are responses to request from instructions (请示) from provincial-level courts (including the higher courts of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing), as required by the SPC’s Prior Reporting system for arbitration matters. 

The procedure is for the most part more regulated by custom than by written guidelines, although several SPC documents address the Prior Reporting system (see this useful article, with a description of ongoing issues and recent reforms permitting counsel to be heard).   For those unfamiliar with the SPC’s Prior Reporting system, judgments/rulings in which a lower court intends to refuse the (recognition and) enforcement of a foreign-related, foreign arbitral award or agreement (see a further explanation here) or annul foreign-related awards. The response is binding on the lower court regarding the particular case. The #4 Civil Division regularly publishes these replies (some entitled 答复 and others entitled 复函) (and the reports from the lower courts) in its periodical China Trial Guide: Guide on Foreign-Related Commercial and Maritime Trial (中国审判指导丛书:涉外商事海事审判指导) (one issue pictured below).  On the matter of terminology, two knowledgeable persons said there is no substantive difference between the two documents.  There is no transparency obligation, but knowledgeable persons say that most are published.

These responses are connected with two aspects of the last blogpost–case law and judicial interpretations.  Arbitration lawyers discuss these responses as a particular form of case law in, for example, law firm client alerts or in other publications. It is understood that most of the replies in the area of foreign-related and foreign arbitral awards are published.  Some have been translated into English. The principles in these responses may eventually find their way into judicial interpretations or other SPC policy documents (such as opinions).

Discrete inquiries reveal that these are treated as a case for workload purposes and that a collegiate panel will decide on and draft the response.

 I had mentioned in an earlier blogpost that some persons on the SPC had earlier proposed that the procedure for seeking instructions (请示) be proceduralized, while others (academics) had proposed that the procedure be entirely abolished。  However, the procedure is mentioned in the 2017 SPC responsibility implementing opinion and certainly remains in operation even after the latest round of judicial reforms.  Sometime in the future I will address how the procedure for seeking instructions operates in other divisions of the SPC.

This illustrates that the vision for the reformed SPC remains a court with administrative characteristics(官本位), in this situation dealing with Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention) (and analogous) issues through a traditional administrative system.  

 

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 Chinalawtranslate.com):

#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 Chinalawtranslate.com for many examples and NPC_observer.com 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.