What does the Supreme People’s Court’s new judicial transparency policy mean?

62bc75491cff95d15b4742e0c32268d9In late November (2018), the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued its latest transparency policy. The question is, after reading past the references to the 19th Party Congress and the ideology guiding this document, is what, if anything new does it require of the lower courts (and of itself)? And why? Decoding this document (Supreme People’s Court Opinion Concerning the Further Deepening of Judicial Transparency  (Judicial Transparency Opinion 最高人民法院关于进一步深化司法公开的意见)) requires some background.  The why is easier to answer (I have written about this in an academic article in the academic publication pipeline), but I will also explain the “what is new” and what it means.

Why?

As to the why, it appears to be linked to criticism from within the court system and by prestigious research institutes within China.  Some of the critics and their criticism:

In 2015, Justice Hu Yunteng wrote that judicial statistics needed to be made better and more transparent.  In 2016, He Fan, department head in the SPC’s judicial reform office, wrote “as long as it does not infringe the privacy of the parties, does not violate state security, the court’s data interface should be open to the community.” Local judges, too, are writing critically about judicial statistics, with at least one comparing unfavorably China’s practices with those of the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Judicial Statistics.

IMG_4136  The team of researchers at the Institute of Law, China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) evaluated court websites in this volume, advising the courts to “consider judicial openness from the viewpoint of public users,” and expand transparency of judicial statistics, devote manpower to updating court websites, and put some order into chaotic judicial transparency. On December 10, a team from the CASS Institute of Law announced the results of their third-party assessment of the SPC’s judicial transparency, the first time that the SPC had authorized an institution to do so, finding problems with compliance by some lower courts.

What does is the Judicial Transparency Opinion require?

The Judicial Transparency Opinion requires the courts to expand the scope of transparency while keeping secrets secret  It refers to two types of secrets, state secrets and trial secrets(审判秘密) (also called trial work secrets).

Expanding the scope of transparency while maintaining secrecy

The Judicial Transparency Opinion requires the lower courts to expanding the scope of information that they make public while keeping state and trial work secrets secret.  Although most people who a basic idea about Chinese law have heard about its broad definitions of state secrecy, that same cannot be said about the concept of “trial secrets”.  Although the general legislation on state secrecy has been updated in the past 10 years, it is unclear whether the same can be said of the specific regulations on state secrecy in the courts.  “Trial secrets” is a related concept but the relevant regulations appear to be almost 30 years old and do not define the scope of the secrets clearly. They include accounts of discussions of judicial committees, and “views from relevant units.”

What is required?

In addition to setting broad principles such as timely and substantial disclosure (research done at Tsinghua has found that some courts upload their decisions to the SPC’s judgment database months late, or not at all) and a team of leading scholars  based at several US universities that includes Columbia Law School Professor Benjamin Liebman found a “missingness problem” when looking court judgment databases), the Judicial Transparency Opinion sets out specific requirements on transparency. Those requirements are set out in seven broad areas in which the courts should voluntarily release information (except those where law, administrative regulations, judicial interpretations do not permit release information and other information that is unsuitable for being made public (其他不宜公开). The phrase “unsuitable for being made public,” is flexible enough to cover both the politically sensitive on a larger and minor scale. (For more on unsuitability, see the article that Professor Liebman and colleagues wrote).  The preliminary section also calls for the greater use of white papers and court gazettes.

The seven categories include:

  1. Basic information about the court
  2. Enforcement;
  3. Litigation Services;
  4. Judicial reform;
  5. Judicial administration;
  6. International judicial exchanges and cooperation; and
  7. “Team construction” (队伍建设)

I have selected some areas in each category where greater openness is anticipated (and included some comments in italics).

A.   Among the useful new items in “basic information”

  • institutional establishment (机构设置) (generally refers to internal structures–both the Chinese and English version of the SPC website have this);
  • Normative documents (规范性文件)–Chinese law does not require these documents, which are not legally binding to be made public, but they guide the operation of the courts–if the SPC makes more of these documents public it would be a service to all;
  • Work reports to the people’s congress at the same level (makes life easier for research seeking to access this information over time);
  • Other basic information that needs to be widely known in society (it should include information for the “litigant in person” (the person without a lawyer, but it doesn’t).

B.  On enforcement, the SPC direct the lower courts to gradually expand the scope of enforcement openness.  Matters on the 12-item list include:

  • judicial statistics (presumably to include greater consistency among jurisdictions, unclear the scope of the statistics that may be released);
  • enforcement procedures (unclear whether this is for parties only or the general public);
  • bankruptcy information (not much is being made public);
  • Annual reports on enforcement in different substantive areas;
  • Judicial big data reports.

C.  Litigation services

  • Litigation guides (see the Shenzhen intermediate court’s list–while a good start, they are not user-friendly (guide to criminal collateral appeals, for example): 
  • court notices and information about judicial auctions and other information relating to the disposal of judicial property (this could be interesting in corruption-related cases);
  • judicial services, experts, bankruptcy administrators, etc.
  • specially appointed mediators and mediation organizations; lawyers stationed at the courts, other volunteers assisting with litigation;
  • Channels for collateral appeals and petitioning;
  • other information relating to party’s rights in litigation and other information the public should know–again see the suggestion above (for Chinese litigants) and this blog has previously made for non-Chinese litigants and defendants as well (foreigners and others from outside of mainland China also need some easily understandable information about the Chinese court system).

D.  The SPC calls for greater transparency relating to Judicial reform so that the public will have greater confidence in it, including:

  • judicial reform documents (would make the life of researchers trying to assemble the judicial reform puzzle much easier);
  • Information on progress in judicial reform [unclear whether the drafters are referring to white papers]
  • Other information the public should know (that ideally should include statistics related to judicial reform, including resignations of personnel, but appears unlikely);

E. Judicial administration–The SPC calls for the courts to accept supervision by society.  The measures include:

  • Matters relating to societal interests and follow up from suggestions made by National People’s Congress/Consultative Congress members (it would be useful to know what percentage of court staff is “on the front-line” of hearing cases rather than being in an administrative role);
  • Technical standards.

F. International judicial exchanges and cooperation–increase exchanges and reference between legal cultures, create a good impression internationally of the Chinese courts, promote their international competitiveness, influence and credibility:

  • important international judicial exchanges
  • important international judicial conferences;
  • other matters that society should know about.
    No mention of lists of projects for which the Chinese courts would welcome international exchanges and interchange of legal concepts. No mention of how a foreigner would be able to attend a court hearing in China.
  1. “Team construction”–this term is a Party term (but the Party is in charge of cadres)–i.e. this section relates to judicial personnel
  • the situation relating to Party construction (listed first, understandable in the post 19th Party Congress era);
  • Personnel work (it would be useful to have a breakdown of the number of judges and other judicial support personnel as well as those in administrative roles, as well as resignations and appointments);
  • Disciplinary information (it would be useful to have full decisions published, as in other jurisdictions);
  • Training and education.

Other issues

The final paragraph of the Judicial Transparency Opinion calls for implementing measures and more detailed measures to be drafted and for measures to be put in place.  So it can be expected that specific departments of the SPC will be involved in drafting more specific guidelines (will that involve more specifics on the types of statistics on criminal convictions released)?  Once the national guidelines are in place, we can anticipate that provincial high courts (or their equivalents) will issue implementing documents.  It is only then that we will be able to comment on what the actual impact of this document is.

Asset recovery, Chinese style

unnamedThe Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and Procuratorate (SPP) issued their first judicial interpretation of 2017, Provisions on Several Questions Concerning the Application of the Procedure of Confiscating Illegal Gains in Cases Where the Criminal Suspects or Defendants Absconded or Died (Asset Recovery Interpretation). It went into effect on 5 January. It is possible that the timing is related to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection annual conference.

It is an important piece of quasi-legislation enabling the Chinese authorities to recover assets that are the proceeds of corruption and other crimes within China and internationally, where the criminal suspect or defendant has absconded, left the jurisdiction, or died.   If your jurisdiction is one that already has in place treaty arrangements with China that will enable the Chinese authorities to seek recovery of assets, the interpretation bears close review.   Canada, for example, has supplemented its criminal judicial assistance treaty with a specialized asset recovery agreement.

Background

The recovery and forfeiture of the proceeds of corruption and other crimes has become a priority issue because the anti-corruption campaign under Xi Jinping has made it so.  Although the Criminal Procedure Law was amended in 2012 to enable the authorities to confiscate assets of persons who had or were suspected of committing certain major crimes (see Articles 280-283), in the view of the SPP and SPC, the Asset Recovery Interpretation was needed because the law itself was inadequate. The drafters identified four issues:

  1. the range of crimes to which asset recovery could be applied was too narrow;
  2. major disagreements existed concerning procedures and standards of evidence;
  3. local authorities lacked experience with asset recovery;
  4. procedures and relative responsibilities of different authorities were unclear, making it difficult when negotiating with foreign governments.

The actual drafting of the Asset Recovery Interpretation began shortly after the 4th Plenum and before the Skynet operation was launched.The drafting of this interpretation was a high-profile project for the two institutions. The SPP and SPC worked with the CCDI,  the Central Political-Legal Committee, National People’s Congress Legislative Affairs Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of Justice, and other authorities to produce a draft a practicable system that could be used when negotiating with foreign countries, meet the policy targets of the Party, and contain legal standards specific enough for the procuratorate and courts.

The Asset Recovery Interpretation also draws on the interactions the SPP and SPC have had as part of multi-institutional dialogues on the recovery of the proceeds of corruption with a variety of multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, as well as bilateral interactions such as with the United States government, for example, through the US-China Joint Liaison Group on Law Enforcement Cooperation.

The drafting of the Asset Recovery Interpretation was flagged in the Fourth Plenum Decision:

Strengthen international cooperation on anti-corruption, expand strength to pursue stolen goods and fugitives overseas, as well as for repatriation and extradition.

Asset recovery through the courts was included in the SPC’s 4th Five Year Plan:

16. Standardize judicial procedures for disposing of assets involved in a case.Clarify the standards, scope, and procedures for people’s courts’ disposition of property involved in the case. Further standardize judicial procedures in criminal, civil and administrative cases for sealing, seizing, freezing and handling of assets involved in a case.

…expand the scope covered by regional and international judicial assistance. Promote the drafting of a Judicial Assistance Law in Criminal Matters.

The drafting of the interpretation was the responsibility of the #2 Criminal Division of the SPC and the Law and Policy Research Office of the SPP.

 Some important provisions

This blogpost cannot provide a comprehensive description of the interpretation which expands/further details the procedures set out in Articles 280-283 of the Criminal Procedure Law and related law, but notes the following provisions.

1. The Asset Recovery Interpretation expands the scope of the crimes to which asset recovery applies. Article 280 of the Criminal Procedure Law authorizes a people’s procuratorate to apply to a court  for confiscation of illegal gains and other property related to the case in serious crimes (重大犯罪案件) such as corruption, bribery or terrorist activities where the criminal suspects or defendants have absconded and have not been found one year after the public arrest warrants were issued, or where the criminal suspects or defendants have died.

Article 1 of the interpretation expands the term “such as” (等) by specifying that confiscation can be applied to the following crimes among others:

  1.  Corruption; embezzlement of public funds; possessing huge amounts of property from unknown sources; concealing overseas savings; privately dividing state-owned assets; privately dividing assets that had been confiscated;
  2. Bribe-taking; exploiting influence to take bribes; bribery by an individual or entity; giving bribes to persons with influence; introducing bribery;
  3. Organizing, leading, or participating in terrorist organizations; helping terrorist organizations, preparing to carry out terrorist activities; advocating terrorism or extremism, and incitement of carrying out of terrorist activities; using extremism to sabotage the enforcement of laws; forcing others to wear clothing and signs that advocate terrorism or extremism; illegally possessing articles that advocate terrorism or extremism;
  4. Endangering state security; smuggling; money laundering, financial fraud; mafia-type organizations, and drugs.
  5. Telecommunications and internet fraud.

As many others have written in other contexts, some of the crimes listed above have been over-broadly applied in China–some to persons who disagree with the government and others to private entrepreneurs.

Language in extradition treaties is flexible enough to enable foreign governments to refuse to extradite or assist in the recovery of assets from persons that the host government considers a political dissident rather than a criminal. However, those persons can anticipate that their domestic assets may be the subject of confiscation procedures.

2. The definition of assets of crime draws on relevant language in the UN Corruption Convention on proceeds of crime, and so include proceeds of crime that have been transformed or converted, in part or in full, into other property, as well of proceeds of crime have been intermingled with property acquired from legitimate sources.

3.The Asset Recovery Interpretation sets out needed details in the procedure by which assets can be confiscated, including detailing the evidence the procuratorate has to provide to a court in the application for confiscation, matters to be set out in the notice issued by a court that accepts the application; persons to whom the notice should be serviced and media outlets where the notice should be published.  (Under Article 281 of the Criminal Procedure Law, the notice concerning the application needs to be in effect for six months.)

Under Article 281, close relatives and interested parties (and their representatives) can apply to attend the court hearing at which the confiscation of assets application is reviewed, but “interested parties” had not been defined, nor had the details of how the first instance and appeal procedures were to be conducted.

4.  The Asset Recovery Interpretation details the procedures for seeking international cooperation in the recovery of assets, including the type of order the lower court should issue and documentation that the lower court must prepare.  The bundle of documentation must be reported up to the SPC and after the SPC reviews it, the SPC prepares a request letter, the contents of which are specified in the interpretation.  These request letters generally are transferred abroad via the Ministry of Justice, which is usually designated the competent national authority under treaty or convention arrangements.

Next steps

The SPC anticipates that the Asset Recovery Interpretation will lead to an increase in cases, but are aware these issues and procedures are new to the lower courts, so it is requiring lower courts to designate certain judges to hear these cases and for these judges to undergo training on the Asset Recovery Interpretation and related issues.

The SPC calls on cooperation with related departments on the recovery of proceeds of crime from abroad, saying that it cannot fight the battle alone. (不能依靠某一个部门单兵作战).

Foreign jurisdictions can anticipate an increase in requests from China and it is likely that the mainland will request that the Hong Kong authorities negotiate a related arrangement. It will raise further concerns for those former Chinese officials accused of the crimes described above living in jurisdictions with an extradition or mutual legal assistance in criminal matters treaty. For lawyers in China and abroad, it represents a new practice opportunity.

 

 

New regulations in China on classifying state secrets

I have published an article in the Diplomat concerning the State Secrecy Bureau’s March, 2014 Interim Provisions on Management of State Secrets Classification(国家秘密定密管理暂行规定) (and their implications), with a longer version to follow. The text of the regulations is linked here) and our English translation is linked here (Classification regulations translation).

Many thanks to those who commented on the draft article!