Signals in the 2019 Supreme People’s Court work report to the NPC

Screenshot 2019-04-19 at 8.49.37 AMI have spent some time decoding Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang’s March 2019 report to the National People’s Congress (NPC). As I explain below, it provides signals into how the Chinese courts are changing and may change in the post 19th Party Congress New Era.

This report is both different from and similar to previous reports. The major difference is linked to the 2019 Central Political-Legal Work Conference (at which Xi Jinping set out in his speech (重要讲话) his view of the New Era for political-legal work(新时代政法各项工作) and the accompanying Party regulations on Political-Legal Work.  As I explain below, the report is linked to other recent Party regulations, such as the Regulations on Requesting Instructions and Reporting on Major Matters (中国共产党重大事项请示报告条例)and Regulations on the Work of Selecting and Appointing Party and Government Cadres (党政领导干部选拔任用工作条例). Although the Regulations on Party Groups were only recently issued (15 April), Zhou Qiang must have been aware of their content when drafting his report. It is also likely that he was aware of the Regulations on the Evaluation of the Work of Party and Government Leading Cadres (党政领导干部考核工作条例), issued on 21 April. As I have written before on this blog, the SPC Court President’s work report must be harmonized with the latest stance on political-legal issues.

What is different?

What is different is greater emphasis on political study and Party leadership, although these are themes that found in many previous SPC court president reports.  The emphasis in this year’s report on political study is on Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想) and Party leadership is on implementing the spirit of the 19th Party Congress  (党的十九大精神) and the January, 2019 Central Political-Legal Work Conference (全面贯…中央政法工作会议精神).

This emphasis shown by the first numbered section of the report.  It is entitled  “Deeply study and implement Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and Uphold the Party’s Absolute Leadership [emphasis added] Over the Work of the People’s Courts (深入学习贯彻习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想坚持党对人民法院工作的绝对领导).”  The phrase “uphold the Party’s absolute leadership over the work of the people’s courts” has been used repeatedly since the 2019 Political-Legal Work Conference.  The Party Regulations on Political-Legal Work (mentioned above) use the phrase “Party’s absolute leadership.”  Li Ling (of the University of Vienna) sees this as indicating a complete and unambivalent severance from the judicial independence framework. The report identifies the primary political task for the courts to be studying Xi Jinping Thought and the 19th Party Congress decision (坚持把学习贯彻习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想和党的十九大精神作为首要政治任务), and it calls for related training for all  350,000 court personnel (深入开展大学习大研讨大培训,对全国法院35万名干警进行全员轮训).

This section also calls for the strict implementation of the [Party] system of reporting and seeking approval for major matters [also known as requests for instructions](严格落实重大事项请示报告制度)(the Party regulations on reporting and seeking approval for major matters(Chinese version here). Those regulations appear to be linked to the Political-Legal Work Conference but were not publicly issued until the end of February).  As mentioned in my recently published article, 1995 regulations on trial work secrets require requests for instructions and their responses in a case to be placed in the supplementary file. These supplementary files are classified as trial work secrets.  There has been significant criticism over many years of the system of requesting instructions/reporting and seeking approval (as I wrote 26 years ago!), and proposals even within the SPC for the system to be “proceduralized” or “judicialized.” Some  academics have called for abolishing it. For those who can read Chinese, I recommend Renmin University Professor Hou Meng’s 2011 article analyzing the system of seeking instructions. The second judicial reform plan (under the late SPC President Xiao Yang), called for reform to the system of reporting and seeking approval/request for instructions system. In a quick search I did of the SPC’s judgment database for the phrase “sought instructions from the higher court (请示上级法院), I found almost 350 that mentioned the phrase (although a certain proportion related to requesting the higher court to designate jurisdiction).

Another indication of the emphasis on Party leadership is found in the section of the report that relates to the courts’ tasks for 2019.  Section #5 of the court tasks refers to improving the quality of court personnel–“speed up the creation of a revolutionized, regularized, specialized, professionalized team, forge a high quality court team that the Party Center relies upon and the masses are satisfied with.”  As explained in an earlier blogpost, “revolutionized” signals absolute Party leadership  (五是加快推进队伍革命化、正规化、专业化、职业化建设,锻造党中央放心、人民群众满意的高素质法院队伍). This language is consistent with the 2019 Political-Legal Work Conference and President Zhou Qiang’s speech to implement the spirit of that Political-Legal Work Conference (note that similar language is found in Procurator-General  Zhang Jun’s report to the NPC).

As in previous years, most of Zhou Qiang’s report was devoted to the SPC’s and lower courts’ accomplishments in various substantive areas and providing selected statistics to support the narrative. Those statistics reveal that most of the cases heard in the Chinese courts are civil and commercial, not criminal.  My incomplete research on the caseload of the SPC comes to a similar conclusion.

What needs to be observed (for those of us focusing on Chinese court developments) is how these recent Party regulations will be integrated with court-related legislation–for example, how the Judges Law will be amended to reflect the latest political developments. [The Judges Law was promulgated on 23 April, a future blogpost will analyze its significance].

Other issues to be observed include the following questions.  What does increased emphasis on Party leadership and political study mean for the operation of the Chinese courts and the increasingly professional judges working within the Chinese court system? The 19th Party Congress report calls for strengthening and improving Party leadership over bodies of state power.  As described above, post 19th Party Congress it means implementing the system of seeking instructions from the Party organization and superior Party organizations and strengthening the leadership role of the Party group in operational (substantive) work and Party construction  (加强对本单位业务工作和党的建设的领导). So what does this mean, for example, for the China International Commercial Court and the SPC’s Intellectual Property Court (and their elite judges), as well as the other SPC judges together dealing with almost 35,000 cases, retaining and attracting high quality legal professionals, particularly at the lower court level (this year’s report recognized that the resignation rate in some local courts is “severe”)? Most of the 28 million cases heard in the Chinese courts were heard at the local level.  What does this mean for confidence in the Chinese court system, be it on the part of the Chinese public, the Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan public, and the international public?  President Zhou Qiang’s report reveals that most of the cases in the Chinese courts involve civil and commercial disputes that for the most part arise between individuals or corporate entities (in 2018 9,017,000 first instance cases involved people’s livelihood, including 1,111,000 first instance employment, medical, pension, and consumer cases), and the courts heard 1,814,000 marriage and family cases. Will integrating socialist core values into judicial interpretations promote the rights of women, not to mention other groups whose rights have traditionally not been fully protected?

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graphic from the SPC English language website

 

 

 

How the Supreme People’s Court borrows helping hands

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Book cover of the English children’s book The Borrowers, translated into Chinese as 地板下的小人

I recently visited the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC’s) new intellectual property court (SPCIPC) (intellectual property tribunal), currently sharing a building with the Beijing Internet Court, in the Fengtai district of Beijing.  But I will leave comments on the court’s operations to Mark Cohen and other intellectual property lawyers.   From the list of SPCIPC judges in Mark’s recent blogpost, it is clear that many of them have been borrowed from the lower courts.  The blogpost includes the line “..due to the rapid establishment and staffing of this new Court, many of the judges are likely on detail from their prior jobs to the new Court, pending permanent transfer.” It is unclear whether these judges will in fact be permanently transferred to the SPC, or in fact would prefer to do so. This blogpost will shed a bit of light on the phenomenon of the SPC borrowing/temporarily detailing 借调(jiediao)  staff from the lower courts.

As with the guazhi system in the SPC described in one of last year’s blogpost, it is one of the many aspects of the personnel system of the Chinese Party/state system that shapes how the Chinese courts operate.  Under this system, a person from a lower level institution is “borrowed” to assist with work at a higher level institution.  The borrowed person’s employment relationship remains with the lower level institution.  It appears to be a practical solution to the restrictions on SPC permanent headcount imposed by the Central Staff Commission, while being able to field sufficient personnel for the new institutions such as the Intellectual Property Tribunal and Circuit Courts.  Senior judges, such as division heads and vice presidents, have many administrative obligations and less time to hear cases. It is unclear how many borrowed staff the SPC has. Some knowledgeable persons suggest that they can be found in almost every operational department of the SPC.

In my experience, the circuit courts have borrowed judges from the lower courts to serve as judge’s assistants (法官助理).  While it is an imposition for judges to be away from their homes and family, it also an opportunity for them to make themselves known to SPC judges, a connection that may be useful in their later careers, whether or not they remain in the judiciary.

He Fan, head of the planning section of  the SPC’s judicial reform office, wrote about borrowed staff in a 2015 article on his Wechat account:

For lower court judges, being seconded to the higher court to help out is a mixed event. It means that you reach a higher level of experience, broaden your horizons, increase your knowledge, and your chances of being selected by a higher court will increase.  On the other hand, it means being away from loved ones, living for others, … sometimes the opportunity for the promotion in the original court is delayed, the superior court  may not extend an olive branch, and finally only it is only in exchange for a letter of praise from the higher court.

Generally speaking, the lower-level judges are seconded to the higher courts for three reasons. First, as an assistant judge, they are incorporated into the collegial panel to handle cases; second, as a judge’s assistant, assisting the judges of the higher courts in handling the case, such as the assistants of judges in the first and second Circuit Courts of the Supreme People’s Court, who are mostly excellent candidates from the lower courts. The third is to work in the “comprehensive” (supporting) departments, to work in the higher court’s research office, the audit office, the judicial reform and other departments engaged in judicial policy research, drafting judicial rules, etc.

Law-related Wechat public accounts, 2018 update (1)

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 10.13.48 AM Wechat, as most people with an interest in China know, has become the preferred form of social media in China.  The legal community in China has taken to it too.

For the observer, it enables us to learn about new issues (or aspects of issues) that we didn’t know existed, and (depending on the topic), hear viewpoints other than the official one, or at least read hints of dissenting views. Those with the Wechat app on their smartphone can subscribe to these public accounts but it is also possible to find some these articles through an internet search. Note that the “Mr. Yong” about whom I wrote in 2016 lurks on Wechat, so articles published may disappear, although they often reappear elsewhere.

Some are official accounts of government entities, including the courts and others are public accounts (公众账号) established by companies, law firms, universities, societies, other organizations, or individuals. In November, 2018 the Cyberspace Administration of China said that tightened management of internet content producers would be a “new norm,: and Tencent reduced the number of permitted corporate public accounts from five to two and individual accounts from two to one.  More information on this development elsewhere.

Below is the first part of a guide to some useful law-related Wechat public accounts focusing on accounts related to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) Please contact me through the comment function or email with additional suggestions.

The official Party and government accounts enable the user to keep current on the issues and latest Party and government position in that area of law–new policy, new legislation, and new reforms, or the official response to a current hot topic.  The Central Political-Legal Commission has one, the Central Supervision Commission, as do both the SPC and Supreme People’s Procuratorate, as well as their local counterparts. Academic journals have a different audience that requires more nuance.

As I’ve written before, Party/government authorities use Wechat public accounts to reach out to a public that is moving away from traditional media to smartphones. Party/government policy is encouraging courts to do so.  There is some but not complete overlap between articles that appear on an institution’s website and Wechat account. There is complete overlap when more political matters are involved, such as the latest important speech of a leader. Even some articles published in institutional public accounts may have a “netizen” tone and use netizen slang and images.

Institution Account name
National Supervision Commission 中央纪委监委网站
Central Political-Legal Commission 中央政法长安剑 (recently renamed, read here

Official accounts linked to the SPC

 linked to SPC and its affiliated institutions
Institution Account name Content
Supreme People’s Court 最高人民法院 Official view of SPC; also republishes Xinhua articles
People’s Court Daily 人民法院报 Official view of SPC; also republishes Xinhua articles
Institute for Applied Jurisprudence

 

(since July, 2018, under the new institute director, the account has published  fewer articles than previously)

中国应用法学研究所 Had previously carried accounts of conferences and academic talks, translations of foreign materials; other articles
China Applied Jurisprudence (academic journal)(from Sept., 2018) 中国应用法学 Publishes excerpts from journal articles (recent article included: article on people’s assessors pilot project; also republishes other articles of interest to editor; translations of foreign materials, including an excerpt from “Building a Diverse Bench” (NYU Brennan Center publication)
Journal of Law Application (academic journal affiliated with National Judges College 法律适用 Publishes excerpts from journal articles, some by judges, others by academics
Alternative Dispute Resolution Reform in China 多元化纠纷解决机制 Articles on alternative dispute resolution in China and foreign experience
Database Faxin (affiliated with the People’s Court Press) 法信 Case analysis, analysis of cases on specific issues
China Trial (journal) 中国审判 Excerpts from articles in the journal
People’s Judicature 人民司法 Excerpts from articles in the journal
Case Research Institute of National Judges College 司法案例研究院 Case analysis, excerpts from its academic journal (Journal of Law Application (Cases))
SPC Information Center 智慧法院进行时 Reports on informatization of courts
Administrative enforcement and administrative trial

 

行政执法与行政审判 Articles related to administrative litigation & enforcement

 

National Judges College 国家法官学院 Official account; articles reporting on the National Judges College &    its local branches
People’s Assessors 人民陪审 Articles related to the people’s assessor system & its reforms

Several SPC judges and SPC officials have Wechat public accounts.  They have obtained approval to have them.  Among them are:

Individual affiliated with SPC Account name Content
He Fan (何帆), head of the planning department of the SPC’s Judicial Reform Office 法影斑斓 Judicial reform
Yu Tongzhi (于同志), judge of SPC #2 Criminal Division, editor of 刑事审判参考 说刑品案 Excerpts from the journal, articles on criminal law and criminal procedure issues (some republished), including original articles by Judge Yu himself, generally on broader criminal law issues.
Wang Dongmin (王东敏), judge of the SPC #2 Civil Division 法律之树 Issues of civil and civil procedure law

As a general (but not directed comment), if judges on the SPC express views on issues that may come before them, it would appear to raise issues similar to those that arise in the rest of the world–the propriety of extrajudicial writing–a sample of writings on this issue from other jurisdictions found here. Persons who can provide relevant information concerning relevant SPC ethics provisions, and restrictions in civil law rather than common law jurisdictions, please contact me.

Judicial assistance between the mainland & Hong Kong at 20

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HK’s Secretary of Justice shaking hands with SPC Justice Shen Deyong

In all legal arrangements, the devil is in the details.  Important details concerning how the Hong Kong and mainland legal systems interact are found in a series of arrangements on mutual legal assistance between mainland China and Hong Kong.  An “arrangement,” for those not familiar with Hong Kong/mainland legal jargon, is a quasi-treaty document between Hong Kong and the mainland. The mainland is looking to conclude further arrangements, including in the area of criminal law.  According to 29 June report by Xinhua News:

Chinese mainland and Hong Kong are expected to confirm further judicial assistance arrangements, including those regarding criminal proceedings.

Shen [Deyong, Supreme People’s Court (SPC) executive vice president] said in an interview with Xinhua that the two sides will carry out further negotiations on judicial assistance in civil and commercial cases and will take effective measures to deal with the assistance issues in criminal cases, so the assistance arrangements cover all judicial realms between the two sides.

It appears that Justice Shen is repeating what he told Hong Kong’s Secretary of Justice Rimsky Yuen in April, 2017.

Justice Shen’s language can be traced back to the 4th Plenum Decision:

Strengthen law enforcement and judicial cooperation between the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan,jointly attack crossborder unlawful and criminal activities.

(I discussed this in a January, 2015 conference at the University of Hong Kong.)

Likely taking the lead in negotiating these arrangements is the Hong Kong Department of Justice (Hong Kong DOJ)’s International Law Division (and I assume others as well) and its mainland interlocutors.  I assume that a team from the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office is among the negotiators on the other side of the table (with a team from the Supreme People’s Procuratorate involved with negotiations on criminal matters.  The Hong Kong DOJ’s website lists five mutual legal assistance arrangements, with the most recent one, signed on 20 June 2017, on the Reciprocal Recognition and Enforcement of Civil Judgments in Matrimonial and Family Cases, not yet in force.  The paper that the Hong Kong DOJ filed with the Legislative Council sets out details of the arrangement, including its scope.

This latest arrangement relates to one of many pressing practical legal issues between Hong Kong and the mainland, the large percentage of “cross-boundary marriages.” According to the Hong Kong DOJ’s consultation paper on the arrangement (the SPC did not issue a similar paper), cross-boundary marriages increased from 32% to 37% during 2009-2014 and 20-30% of divorce cases filed in Hong Kong’s family court during 2010-14 related to marriages that took place on the mainland.

This arrangement involved creative lawyering on both sides, because it involves incorporating principles from several Hague Convention to which mainland China is not a party:

  • Recognition of Divorces and Legal Separations (1970), applicable to Hong Kong, but not the mainland;
  • The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (1980), applicable to Hong Kong, but not the mainland;
  • International Recovery of Child Support and Other Forms of Family Maintenance (2007), not applicable to either Hong Kong or the mainland.

Many of the previous arrangements reflected Hague Conventions to which the mainland was already a party.

Commercial lawyers should note that according to an April, 2017 statement by Hong Kong’s Secretary of Justice Rimsky Yuen, it was agreed in the form of 2016 meeting minutes to prioritize an arrangement for reciprocal judgment enforcement in civil and commercial matters involving situations other than the presence of choice of court agreements.  A consultation paper has not yet been issued for that arrangement. I surmise that the arrangement will reflect the draft Hague Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Judgments.  Hong Kong’s DOJ has at least one representative participating in China’s delegation.  Several senior SPC judges are also on the delegation. (The other two arrangements mentioned have already been concluded.)  It can be seen from this visual from a Chinese court’s Wechat public account, that the end of 2017 has been set as the deadline for concluding that arrangement.

Arrangements involving criminal matters are much more difficult to conclude, although several prominent commentators in Hong Kong this year have called for a rendition arrangement to be concluded. Among those include Grenville Cross, former director of public prosecutions in Hong Kong and Regina Ip, former Secretary for Security.  The issues have been discussed since the late 1990’s.  This 2005 paper submitted to the Legislative Council sets out some of the basic principles that could go into a future rendition arrangements:

  • double criminality;
  • issue of death penalty;
  • non-extradition for political offenses;
  • fair trial;
  • double jeopardy;
  • habeus corpus.

There have been academic articles on many of these topics.

It appears that the increased pressure on Hong Kong relating to the rendition arrangement is related to the drafting by the mainland’s Ministry of Justice of an International Criminal Justice Assistance Law.  (No drafts have yet been released.) Fellow blogger NPC Observer notes that although the law is intended as a comprehensive statute covering all areas of international criminal justice assistance, including the mutual recognition and enforcement of criminal judgments, official discourse labels it an anti-corruption law, likely designed specifically to hunt fugitive corrupt officials overseas.  So it appears also to be linked to Operation Skynet and the Central Anti-Corruption Coordination Group.

The status of negotiations on a rendition arrangement or other arrangements related to criminal justice are unknown.  What is known is that there have been instances, including earlier this year, in which certain mainland authorities have dispensed with the niceties of official liaison. Would having an arrangement improve matters, as Grenville Cross argues, or will “extraordinary” rendition continue to occur?

It appears that upholding an important part of Hong Kong’s rule of law, as evidenced by arrangements between Hong Kong and the mainland depends on the professionalism of Rimsky Yuen, the Secretary of Justice, his Department of Justice colleagues and their mainland interlocutors.  As he told Justice Shen and others at a meeting between the SPC and Department of Justice in April, 2017:

Cooperation [on criminal cases] is significant, but considering the difference of the two legal systems, we face challenges in civil, commercial and criminal ­cooperation. It will still take some time.

Finally, paraphrasing the Guardian, analyzing the Supreme People’s Court takes time and costs money. If you like the Monitor, please make a contribution (details here.)

 

 

Improving China’s criminal petitioning (collateral appeals) system

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Petitioners at SPC (used with permission of Natalie Behring)

In recent months, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has been issuing one policy document after another to put some substance into the vague language of a “trial-centered” criminal justice system.  One of those documents, which the SPC issued recently along with the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and Ministry of Justice, is directed at involving lawyers in the criminal case petitioning system: Opinions on Gradually Implementing Systems For Lawyers’ Representation in Collateral Appeals (Collateral Appeals Opinion).  (The document was copied to a surprising number of Party, state, and military institutions, according to this version).

The Collateral Appeals Opinion builds on a single line in item #36 of the SPC’s 4th Court Reform Plan outline:  “Promote the establishment of a system for lawyer representation in complaint appeals [collateral appeals] cases.”  As some readers may be aware, China has a collateral appeals or criminal case petitioning (刑事申诉) system, giving a convicted person and his or her family a right to petition a court to have the case re-opened and reconsidered under the Criminal Procedure Law’s trial supervision procedures.  Criminal defense lawyers are hopeful that this will lead to more involvement by the criminal defense bar, but there are many procedural and financial arrangements still to be worked out.

It seems likely that Judge Hu Yunteng, as a member of the SPC’s judicial committee (as well as others) were involved in the drafting of this policy document. As I discussed in a February, 2017, blogpost, Judge Hu Yunteng and other colleagues on the #2 Circuit Court wrote a research report analyzing criminal collateral appeals petitioners visiting the #2 Circuit Court (第二巡回法庭刑事申诉来访情况分析报告), (which does not seem to have been made public) and in the article summarized in that blogpost, advocated hearing the views of the party’s lawyer if one has been appointed and noted that making contact with the party and his lawyer was an important way to deal with these cases.

But establishing an effective collateral appeal system system involves further issues, as highlighted by one of my students in his class paper (edited).

  1. Criminal petitioning [collateral appeal] lawyers face a dilemma: they don’t have the right to investigate evidence, read case files, or even meet their clients if their clients are now prisoners and not defendants. [Comment–section 9 of the Collateral Appeals Opinion has broad language on improving this–this is a positive step, but will require more specific implementing procedures].
  2. Article 306 of the Chinese Criminal Law, which provides that criminal defense lawyers who encourage defendants or witnesses to change their testimony should be punished criminally. This  provision makes criminal defense lawyers extremely unwilling to investigate new evidence by themselves because of the high risk.
  3. According to Chinese Criminal Procedure Law, the petitioning process should be conducted in the court which makes the original judgment. [Comment–the Supreme Peoples Procuratorate and Court media outlets recently have published proposals to have these cases should be considered by procuratorates and courts in other jurisdictions.] However, this court will have strong incentive to have these cases not successfully petitioned because their bonus and assessment are based on correctness rate of effective judgments. [My comment–this is one of the many ways the judicial performance assessment system creates obstacles to justice. So to make this reform effective, this indicator must be abolished.] Combined with the fact that there is no clear rule that needy petitioners should be assigned lawyers, they may either ignore the need for lawyers, or just assign lawyers who have little interest to really petition for their clients in these cases. So in most cases in which petitioners are in poverty, they could only seek the help of private lawyers for free service.
  4. In China there is a saying that if you want to win in petitioning you have to make a big influence to make the government notice your case, and if you want the government to notice on you, you have to use some extreme rather than some “legal” ways to petition. If petitioners hire a lawyer, the lawyer has his/her own professional responsibility standard that he or she has to follow, which may sometimes conflict with the “best interest” of the client.
  5. There a gap between the economic difficulty for ordinary daily life and economic difficulty in seeking legal service. For example, a person may not meet the criteria of economic difficulty because he or she’s earning is above the living standard. However, this person can still not able to afford legal service from a law firm because ordinarily the cost for seeking criminal defense service is above a person’s salary in a whole year. Such gap and seemingly objective standard actually causes a problem and means many people in need cannot receive the aid.

Chinese criminal justice reform–as President Trump says “it’s complicated!”

Supreme People’s Court & foreign-related disputes

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Judge Zhang Yongjian, chief judge of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s #4 Civil Division (responsible for foreign, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan related commercial issues) previously featured on this blog, gave an interview to Legal Daily on the sidelines of the NPC meeting. This quick blogpost sets out some of the useful information from the interview:

He provided some data on the number of cross border cases:

  • Total number of foreign-related cases of all types (first, second instance, retrial, enforcement) heard and resolved: 25900, up 9.38%, among which 1061 were criminal,19200 civil and 3629 administrative, and about 2000 enforcement cases. The civil and commercial cases increased almost 11% compared to last year and accounted for about 75% of all foreign-related cases.
  • Total number of Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan related civil and commercial cases closed: 27053 civil and commercial cases, Judge Zhang said that they accounted for 85% of all cases involving “greater China.”

The cases coming before the Chinese courts differ from the old trading and joint venture disputes, with many more cases involving demand guarantees, international factoring, private equity funds, stock options in companies listed overseas listed companies, cross-border telecommunications (fraud?), bonded trade disputes.

(As this observer has previously predicted), the number of cases related to One Belt One Road (OBOR) is increasing relatively quickly, while the number involving the United States, Britain, Germany, are decline. Cross-border project contracting and international logistics related cases are on the increase, as well as foreign-related intellectual property cases and maritime cases. Although Judge Zhang did not say so, it appears that many of these disputes are related to Chinese companies going out as well as OBOR, and may reflect inadequate documentation of the projects. The increase in maritime cases is linked to the ongoing decline in the shipping industry.  Chinese maritime courts have heard cases related to the Hanjin bankruptcy as well as large numbers of cases involving ship crew.

Challenges for the Chinese courts in hearing cross border cases:  encountering many “blank spaces” in Chinese legislation; conflict of laws with neighboring countries.  Other ongoing bottlenecks for Chinese courts in hearing cross-border cases–service of process to overseas parties; obtaining evidence crossborder; determining facts that have occurred abroad; determining and applying foreign law.

Judge Zhang highlighted the solutions for the Chinese courts in dealing with the difficulties:

  • SPC issuing judicial interpretations and other judicial guidance;
  • establishing a case guidance and reference system for the lower courts, including model cases, guiding cases, and selected cases (i.e. as selected by the SPC), to guide and limit judges’ discretion.
  • The SPC selecting some commercial cases (relating to free trade zones, internet finance, cross border investment financing) with an international impact as a model.
  • To enable correct and just hearing of cases, the higher and lower courts should be in touch in a timely matter and establish a system for supervision before, during and after a case. [What this means for judicial autonomy in hearing cases and the appeal system is not said.]
  • On the goals for 2017, those include establishing an OBOR dispute resolution center (推进设立“一带一路”争端解决中心的建立,促进“一带一路”建设). This is likely linked to the May, 2017 OBOR Conference to be held in Beijing.  Judge Zhang did not further specify, but it seems unlikely to mean establishing China’s own investment dispute resolution center. Perhaps this means increasing the role of Chinese courts in hearing cross-border cases involving OBOR jurisdictions.

Judge Zhang mentioned that he and his colleagues in 2017 have a variety of difficult issues that will be the subject of judicial interpretations or policy documents. This observer hopes that they will find it appropriate to consult the international legal community when drafting the following judicial interpretations that are on their agenda:

  • Enforcement of foreign civil and commercial judgments (possibly related the the Judgments Convention being negotiated under the auspices of the Hague Conference on Private International Law, and in the near term, to the enforcement of judgments through mutual judicial assistance treaties;
  • cross-border guarantees;
  • labor issues for ship crew;
  • damages in marine environmental cases;
  • jurisdiction in foreign-related cases, particularly civil and commercial cases;
  • judicial review of arbitration (this has been signalled for at least two years).

Judge Zhang signalled that they want to establish an English language website on foreign-related civil and commercial matters.  It is hoped that this new website will post information in a more timely manner than the current SPC English language website. An (unsolicited) recommendation is to hire an expatriate editor (similar to Xinhua and other Chinese media outlets) to assist in delivering content that meets institutional requirements and interests the foreign user.

All these developments relate back to one sentence in the Fourth Plenum Decision:

Vigorously participate in the formulation of international norms, promote the handling of foreign-related economic and social affairs according to the law, strengthen our country’s discourse power and influence in international legal affairs, use legal methods to safeguard our country’s sovereignty, security, and development interests.

 

 

 

Supreme People’s Court releases 2016 bankruptcy data

7427ea09324917a26ee719The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued 2016 data on bankruptcy cases on 24 February: 5665 cases were accepted by the Chinese courts while 3602 were closed.  This is up substantially from 2015, when 3568 cases were accepted.  This is an increase of 53.8% over 2015.   Of these, 1041 were bankruptcy reorganization cases, up 85.2% over 2015. As this blog has previously reported,  long delays in filing bankruptcy cases have meant that practically all bankruptcy cases have been liquidation rather than reorganization cases. This is contrast to the downward trend in bankruptcy cases 2005-2014, shown in the graph published on this earlier blogpost. These numbers represent only a tiny proportion of what the Chinese government terms “zombie enterprises,” but it does show that the SPC has been doing its part to serve the nation’s major economic strategies.

What has the SPC done to support this important government strategy highlighted in the 5th Plenum?  In reverse chronological order, a quick list of some of the highlights:

  1. In February, 2017, the SPC issued guidance  to the lower courts on transferring cases that are in debt enforcement proceedings into bankruptcy, so that bankruptcy reorganization has a chance of working. Justice Du had flagged the importance of this a year ago. The Zhejiang Higher People’s Court piloted measures because the courts of that province are piloting bankruptcy reforms. As reported in a December, 2016 blogpost, close to half (40-50%) of the unsatisfied enforcement cases are ones that are wholly unsatisfied, with a goodly portion involving corporate judgment debtors. Judge Du pointed out that unsatisfied judgments because of local protectionism have led to conflicts between creditors and “fierce” conflicts between courts. He called for courts not to engage in “buck passing” on enforcement cases that are transferred to another court for bankruptcy procedures.
  2. In December, 2016, the SPC and lower court judges (as well as Chinese bankruptcy practitioners and scholars) were involved in dialogue with American bankruptcy judges and practitioners on bankruptcy issues, under the framework of US Department of Commerce initiative
  3. On 1 August 216, launched a bankruptcy electronic information platform  (it harmonizes with President Zhou Qiang’s promotion of information technology in the Chinese courts). According to the SPC’s press release, close to 9000 cases are in the database. The platform has assembled relevant documents on some high profile cases, such as Dongbei Special Steel. This platform has received a good market response with 9,760,000 page views as of early February, 2017 (likely to be primarily bankruptcy professionals).
  4. In June, 2016, as this blog has reported earlier, the SPC has required lower courts to establish specialized bankruptcy divisions (4 on the provincial level, 47 intermediate courts, and 22 basic level courts).  One of the aims of the SPC is to create a corps of more competent judges to handle bankruptcy cases. Given the link between the bankruptcy of large state owned enterprises and social stability highlighted by judges writing on this topic previously, serving as a bankruptcy judge in China requires a set of skills unneeded in other jurisdictions.
  5. As more and more companies go into bankruptcy, (as highlighted in this blogpost), more labor litigation can be expected. Senior SPC judges have highlighted that people are increasingly aware of their rights. Those with the means are going to court to try to protect them. The SPC is likely to work on technical issues highlighted in the report such as: how to characterize labor claims in bankruptcy, and whether they should be treated as labor disputes or claims against the bankruptcy estate; whether labor disputes needed to be submitted first to labor arbitration; how the courts can better obtain files from labor arbitration authorities and can ensure labor disputes are addressed and not avoided; and how to ensure that bankrupt enterprises pay social insurance payments for their employees.
  6. Expect to see the SPC focus on bankruptcies (or reorganization) in important areas of the Chinese economy, such as real estate.  This analysis published by a member of the Shanghai Bar Association highlighted some of the complex interests relating to the bankruptcy reorganization of real estate companies : is it practicable;  the workers; the lender, who are often private (shadow) lenders; the individual purchasers. These cases generally involve a string of companies.

Liaoning high court looks into labor issues in bankruptcy

While Zhou Qiang’s statements on  judicial independence, mistaken “Western” thinking, and separation of powers continue to be discussed inside and outside of China, others in the Chinese legal community face more prosaic and difficult issues of how to protect workers when companies go into bankruptcy.  This is a particular issue in the northeastern provinces, particularly in Liaoning.

According to statistics released in the past month (January, 2017), there were 345 other bankruptcy cases accepted by the Liaoning courts, aside from the bankruptcy of Dongbei Special Steel, which has received the lions share of attention outside of China. While strikes are regularly reported in the English language media , what is not known that in many of these bankruptcy cases, employees have gone to court.

A research report by the Liaoning Higher People’s Court (Liaoning High Court) recently released in the People’s Court Daily (the Supreme People’s Court’s )SPC) newspaper, giving the report the SPC’s semi-official imprimatur) drilled down on 79 labor cases related to enterprise bankruptcy that arose in 2015-16. The Liaoning High Court did not specify the overall number of bankruptcy-related labor cases the provincial courts accepted.  A quick search reveals several hundred, the exact number depending on how the search is framed.

The research report provides a glimpse into the concerns of the judiciary, involvement of counsel in these disputes (a more general report on representing workers was recently published, available here), inadequacies of related legislation, and chaotic record keeping of these companies.

Research report reveals several major issues

The report identified the top issue to be the re-employment of workers, citing two large scale bankruptcies, the Hongmei Group (MSG manufacturer) and Badaohao Coal Mine. (A 2014 social media posting criticized the Hongmei Group’s violation of labor law).

A second issue was that bankruptcy caused group labor litigation, particularly by senior staff, who were more highly paid, and older, but faced difficulties being reemployed (and likely had the funds to hire a lawyer).  The report noted that this group had overly high expectations from litigation and if their individual claims were not supported by the court, they would resort to group litigation or petitioning.The research report mentioned, with a positive spin, that labor lawyers were involved  to resolve disputes.

The litigants raised more varied claims rather than simply wages, including: damages; determination of a labor relationship; social insurance; work-related injury; wages and status; etc., as shown by the chart below.

screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-8-50-40-amUnlike ordinary labor cases, most cases were decided by court judgment, not mediated. In 66% of the cases, the plaintiff’s claim was upheld in whole or part, with a dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims in 28% of cases.

The report also illustrates the importance of social stability related procedures.  Although a Chinese law firm partner criticized as quite vague and incompatible with the existing labor law system  the requirement in a 2016 State Council policy document that a worker resettlement plan (for certain industries)  be approved by the workers’ congress or all workers, this is not new and is taken seriously by local judges.  The requirement is contained in Liaoning provincial level legislation (and other legislation) and compliance was noted by the research team. (The team noted that after the resettlement plan was approved (for Hong Mei Group and Badaohao Coal) was approved by the workers congress, it was reported to the local labor and union authorities authorities.

Compliance with labor law related formalities, by both  companies and employees created problems for judges hearing these claims, such as in work-related injury cases, where companies failed to pay legally required wages to employees and employees failed to submit needed documentation.  Some of the companies continued to pay employees under old “planned-economy” systems rather than comply with current labor law, requiring employees to work overtime without overtime pay, a particular issue in the Badahao Coal Mine bankruptcy.

Inadequacies of legislation highlighted by the team included: how to characterize labor claims in bankruptcy, and whether they should be treated as labor disputes or claims against the bankruptcy estate; whether labor disputes needed to be submitted first to labor arbitration; how the courts can better obtain files from labor arbitration authorities and can ensure labor disputes are addressed and not avoided; and how to ensure that bankrupt enterprises pay social insurance payments for their employees.

Comments

The research team (at least on the version publicly available) did not further explore the reasons for the failure of these bankrupt companies (likely many SOEs) to comply with basic labor law requirements, why local labor arbitration authorities avoided hearing cases, or why the Liaoning High Court needed to issue the recommendation that  “labor administrative departments should also strengthen the daily management and supervision of the enterprises before their bankruptcy.”

This report contains a disturbing signal about the disposal of assets of bankrupt companies.  This is significant because the government is promoting the use of bankruptcy. The report recommended that the liquidation group effectively dispose of tangible and intangible assets of the bankrupt companies such as coal mines and well-known trademarks, and implement better supervision and management, to ensure that the realization of bankruptcy assets to maximize the protection of the employees.

Liaoning bankruptcies may be an illustration of what an bankruptcy lawyer recently commented in Caixin:  “falsifying financial reports and asset transfers has often occurred in SOE bankruptcy cases to escape obligations. Meanwhile, local governments’ intervention has also often disrupted the fairness of such cases.”

It appears that employees of the bankrupt companies are the ones who suffer the most when these cases are not handled fairly.As the research team recognized, employees are the weaker party. The team recommended that local government provide a coordination mechanism and funding to secure the workers’ claims against the company, so that the company can withdraw from the market but overall societal interests are balanced.  Whether local Liaoning governments do so remains to be seen.

Big data on China’s case database

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 12.13.38 PMThe Supreme People’s Court (SPC) database, China Judgments Online, receives good marks from most commentators inside and outside of China and it is one of the successes of the judicial reforms that President Zhou Qiang often discusses with visiting foreign guests as well as domestic officials.  Only now has a team of researchers from Tsinghua University drilled down on the case database (but only through 2014, because the data was not complete for 2015) (short version found here and full version here). They found that there is room for improvement.

The researchers found that only about 50% of number of cases resolved in the Chinese courts (about 30.5 million during 2014-2015) have been uploaded to the case database (14.5 million).

Level and type of case

Almost 80% of the cases uploaded are from the basic level courts, with intermediate level courts accounting from almost 19%, and fewer than 1% from the SPC.

Approximately 63% of the cases are civil, with 20% criminal, enforcement 15%, and administrative cases less than 4%. 

Are courts uploading cases to the database consistently?

 

 

screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-11-47-39-pm

Geographic distribution of uploaded judgments

 

The map above is based on an analysis of 2014 data.  Shaanxi, Zhejiang, Shandong, Anhui, and Hebei provinces were the best performers, particularly Shaanxi; Henan, Fujian, Hunan, Hubei, Guangxi, and Ningxia were in the second tier, uploading at least half.  The less transparent courts include Tibet, Xinjiang, and Guizhou.

[I personally expected that Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Guangdong would be more transparent.]

Are cases uploaded consistently throughout the year?

At least in 2014, there was a half year and year end rush to upload cases.  It appears that the uploading of cases is one of the items for judges performance appraisal.

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Issues cited

  • More than half of judicial documents have not been uploaded to the database, including judgments in some of the more controversial cases.
  • Technical issues complicate the uploading process.  Because the courts are administered locally, the IT systems are local as well.
  • The regulations set out vague standards for taking down a judgment/ruling. When objections are made, the cases are taken down with little review. [As I have commented in relation to streaming of court cases, the absence of privacy legislation is an issue, because judges lack specific guidance on what information is regarded as private.]
  • Large gaps exist between the coastal and inland provinces in uploading judgments, with long delays an issue as well, although the regulations require judgments to be uploaded 7 business days after they take effect (this provision is unchanged from the 2013 version).
  • Monitoring of the database is an issue.  The SPC has been stressing the quantity of judgments uploaded, while insufficient attention is paid to quality.  [This may have something to do with tendency of some Chinese academics to focus on theory or comparisons among jurisdictions, rather than engage in a more focused study on what their own court system is actually doing.]

Comment

The Chinese government has allocated  USD $40 billion to the Silk Road Fund associated with the One Belt One Road strategic initiative, to improve infrastructure overseas.  China’s judiciary, an important part of the nation’s legal infrastructure, requires better funding as well.  Even a tiny percentage of that $40 billion would go far to contribute to improve courts’ IT infrastructure, not to mention improved salaries, and the retention of the research departments of local courts.

Investment in the courts is needed to bolster the Chinese (not to mention foreign) public’s confidence in the Chinese courts’ ability to provide a better quality of justice.

As my law school classmate, Justice John Roberts, said several years ago, when confronted by budget cuts to the US federal judiciary:

At the top of my list is a year-end report that must once again dwell on the need to
provide adequate funding for the Judiciary.I would like to choose a fresher topic, but duty calls. The budget remains the single most important issue facing the courts….

The Judiciary continues to depend on the vision and statesmanship of our colleagues in the Executive and Legislative Departments. It takes no imagination to see that
failing to meet the Judiciary’s essential requirements undermines the
public’s confidence in all three branches of government. Both A Christmas
Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life have happy endings. We are encouraged
that the story of funding for the Federal Judiciary—though perhaps not as
gripping a tale—will too.

 

 

 

Chinese companies on World Bank’s name & shame list

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-5-27-48-pmThe Supreme People’s Court and other Chinese government institutions have been making increasing use of name & shame lists to call attention to illegal behavior by institutions and individuals and to prevent them from benefiting from their illegal behavior (as I discussed in this blogpost). International institutions, such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, African Development Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, name and shame as well.  They list firms and individuals that have been disbarred (by their own or counterpart institution) from being awarded a multilateral development bank contract because they have been sanctioned for fraud or corruption violations (the World Bank list is here and a comprehensive introduction is found here). The World Bank cooperates with other international and national regulatory and enforcement organizations, such as the European Anti-Fraud Office and the UK’s Serious Fraud Office.

I recently published a brief blogpost on the website of the Wong MNC Center, calling attention to the significant number of Chinese companies, particularly state-owned companies, that are on the World Bank (and other multilateral development banks) blacklists. I noted that there do not seem to be clear repercussions for those companies and queried whether China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will follow the practice of the other multilateral development banks.AIIB has recently appointed Mr. Hamid Sharif, formerly of the Asian Development Bank, to be Director General of the AIIB’s Compliance, Effectiveness and Integrity Unit, and Gerard Sanders to be its general counsel. Sanders worked for many years in the legal department of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Both men would take the disbarment system as an accepted part of the international development bank regulatory system.  Some issues I didn’t have a chance to raise:

  • A significant number of Chinese companies did not participate in the sanctioning proceedings or make use of the appeal procedures. This attitude is analogous to the way some  Chinese companies view foreign arbitration and other foreign dispute resolution (the three nos–see my earlier blogpost on this).An experienced Chinese consultant that I contacted privately remarked that Chinese firms take the “Four No” approach—do not recognize, do not accept, do not commit themselves, and there are no consequences in China;
  • Some of the Chinese companies that have been or are currently being disbarred are party to major contracts (or memoranda of understanding) under various Chinese government initiatives.  According to a recent report in the Philippine press, China Road & Bridge and affiliated companies (blacklisted by the World Bank until 2017) are among the major beneficiaries of President Duterte’s recent trip to China.  Other blacklisted companies are doing projects in Africa and Central America.
  • Officials of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, as seen in this 2014 article, are advocating better international cooperation with anticorruption efforts in the business sector and mention the international development bank blacklists as a given part of the international anticorruption landscape.  They reveal that there are major compliance issues among Chinese SOEs operating abroad, with bribery as one of many problems and a generally prevailing indifferent attitude towards legal compliance.
  • It appears there will eventually be a better integration of the multilateral development bank blacklists with the Chinese system, but this will take time and many hours of quiet advocacy to put in place. It would be unfortunate if these efforts are accelerated because disbarment of Chinese companies under the World Bank system results in further investigations or sanctions in Europe, United Kingdom, or elsewhere in the world.

 

Supreme People’s Court’s new document protecting private enterprise

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The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) recently published a policy document on protecting private (民间) enterprise, although the document itself was approved almost two months previously.  It is linked to State Council and Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform policy documents of earlier this year.  The State Council policy document admitted that private companies have trouble receiving “national treatment (“难以享受同等“国民待遇”). The SPC policy document further relates to a 2014 SPC policy document on private (non-public (非公有制) enterprise.  It conveys the following messages:

  • Too many lower courts are invalidating contracts because contracts have not received government approval, instead of applying the Contract Law on this point properly;
  • Too many lower courts are causing private investors to lose ownership of their companies, particularly those that are affiliated (挂靠) with government (the affiliation system was a way for entrepreneurs to avoid restrictions on private business by affiliating their operations with government).
  • Courts are preventing private investors from transferring their shareholding;
  • Courts are not sufficiently protecting the rights of private investors  who take a minority stake with other investors (especially state-owned ones). As this blogpost pointed out, it is not unusual for majority/controlling investors to engage in illegal, unfair, and abusive acts, such as abusive related company translations, creating fraudulent or defective board resolutions, failing to distribute profits, failing to keep other shareholders informed (the SPC’s judicial interpretation on this issue has not yet been issued);
  • Courts are failing to distinguish between corporate and personal/family assets, requiring private investors to repay corporate debts with their personal assets;
  • Courts are failing to uphold lending contracts between companies, although a 2015 SPC judicial interpretation confirmed their validity (under certain conditions);
  •  Courts are failing to protect the ownership rights, intellectual property rights, and operational rights of private companies, and prevent the “illegal seizure” of private property.
  • Courts are failing to uphold the rights of private enterprises to invest abroad.
  • On labor issues, courts should seek to balance the interests of the workers with the continued survival of companies, and seek to reduce labor costs.  Especially for small and medium enterprises (this earlier blogpost highlighted how often private companies are sued in Guangdong in labor cases), courts should seek to resolve disputes through conciliation. For companies in trouble, courts should use measures such as taking security to prevent employers from maliciously harming worker’s interests.

Commentary in People’s Court Daily had this to say:

Private entrepreneurs face hidden obstacles and difficulties, both from the legal system and in practice.  There are hidden inequalities in their legal status, particularly when they are facing monopoly [duopoly] state owned enterprises (SOEs), given huge power of the SOEs. Second, the investment environment for private companies is unstable. Government policies and measures often change, such as when government signs basic infrastructure contracts with private companies, but then government changes the related urban plan.  Third, private entrepreneurs in the past have failed to receive equal legal protection, because of judicial local protectionism and inconsistencies in judicial decision-making.

A prominent legal blogger suggested that local courts frequently abuse their authority to seal up or freeze business assets of private companies, causing significant losses.

Comments

The Chinese government is promoting public private partnerships (PPP) but has not been able to attract substantial interest in the projects for a number of reasons, including regulatory risk. Private investors are also concerned that the local courts will not protect their rights in the event of a dispute.

Statistics released by the Chinese government earlier this fall reveal that overseas investment by Chinese private enterprise in 2015 surpassed investment by state-owned enterprises, accounting for 65% of outbound investment, with observers disagreeing on the extent to which it represents capital flight. The failure of private investors “to feel justice in every case” (linked to the lack of autonomy of Chinese courts hearing cases involving the rights of private entrepreneurs) will lead them to invest less in the Chinese economy, and diversify even more assets to jurisdictions more protective of private property interests.  Those other jurisdictions will benefit from an inflow of capital and entrepreneurial spirit.

On labor issues, the SPC has indicated what current government policy is and what the courts need to do to implement it. It is unclear whether these policies will be effective in reducing labor unrest.

 

 

 

 

Update on Judge Xi Xiaoming

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Judge Xi Xiaoming

In the run up to the Sixth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which will focus on “intra-Party political life in the new situation,” the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) released further information concerning former Supreme People’s Court (SPC) Vice President Xi Xiaoming.  As this blog noted over one year ago, his case was transferred from the Party disciplinary authorities to the SPP for further investigation.  According to a recent report, The SPP has finished its investigation and has transferred Judge Xi’s case to the Second Branch Procuratorate of the Tianjin People’s Procuratorate.  The procuratorate has filed its case in the #2 Tianjin Intermediate People’s Court. The authorities apparently considered these institutions reliable,  because they had dealt with other sensitive cases earlier this year. 

The charges against Xi include:  using his office and position to obtain benefits for others or using his authority and position to provide conditions [for obtaining benefits], and obtaining improper benefits through the acts of other state staff in the course of their work, illegally accepting huge amounts of money and assets.  The judgment to which the charges relate has been published.

The report repeated statements made about Judge Xi earlier by Meng Jianzhu, head of the Central Political Legal Committee, and SPC President Zhou Qiang.  In August, 2015, Meng said: “Xi Xiaoming has shamed the judiciary, as an experienced judge who has worked in the Supreme People’s Court for 33 years, who has colluded with certain  illegal lawyers, judicial brokers, and lawless business people by accepting huge bribes.” During his report to the NPC in March, 2016, Zhou Qiang said: “especially the effect of Xi Xiaoming’s case of violating law and discipline is terrible, has deep lessons” (尤其是奚晓明违纪违法案件影响恶劣、教训深刻). The report also mentioned that Judge Xi’s case has been used as a typical case by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Although the SPC and several other central criminal justice institutions have recently issued a policy document on making the criminal procedure system trial-centered, the first principle of which is “no person may be found guilty except by the lawful judgment of a people’s court,” Judge Xi’s case seems to be yet another instance in which the exigencies of the political system trump respect for the formalities of the operation of the criminal justice system.

 

 

China’s #2 circuit court investigates petitioning about administrative cases

 

https://www.hbogoasia.hk/

Annually thousands of petitioners visit China’s courts, particularly the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and its two circuit courts, to seek relief from injustices in the lower courts (and sometimes other injustices).

The #2 Circuit Court, located in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, has as one of its goals improving the way the courts in China’s northeast deal with cases in which ordinary people challenge government action, under the Administrative Litigation Law.  (Additionally, it hears a range of civil cases, as well.) The court is doing that through issuing a set of documents (to be analyzed in a future blogpost) and a research report.  (For those not familiar with what the SPC does, when the SPC looks into an issue, it often designates a research team to visit lower courts and review some of their files.) The chief judge of the #2 Circuit Court, Judge Hu Yunteng, and two colleagues looked into the question of why so many petitioners in Shenyang have grievances about administrative litigation in the lower courts.

According to the study, one-quarter of the 5000 petitioners whose visit was registered by the court in the first 11 months of 2015 complained about injustice in administrative cases, while those cases constituted only 2% of the overall caseload of the three northeastern provinces. According the study, most of the petitioners who visited the court were not registered.  From other statistics, a total of 33.000 visitors petitioned the court. In 2015, the #2 Circuit Court heard almost 200 administrative cases (accepted 193, closed 189, while in 2016, it accepted 691 administrative cases and closed 687). Who are these petitioners in these cases, why are they petitioning, and what should be done about it?

Who are the petitioners?

  • The petitioners are mostly older, uneducated men from Liaoning Province. The demographics:
  • 47%  are over 60, with 33% between the ages of 50 and 60;
  • 64% are men, 80% from Liaoning, with the remaining 20% from Jilin and Heilongjiang;
  • Most are from the countryside or unemployed, with very few represented by lawyers.

They often come repeatedly and in groups. They come in groups because of a group grievance, often relating back years and sometimes several decades. Why Liaoning? The court’s location in Shenyang means that it is more accessible to them, the province is more populous and has historically had more administrative cases. The peak of petitioning was in March, 2015 and is now has stabilized at a lower number.

Their grievances

The grievances are what the SPC (and the Communist Party) entitle “people’s livelihood,”–cases challenging government land requisition and compensation demolition of real property; administrative inaction, and release government information. Of those, 66% are related to land requisition, generally when the government requisitions land in old city and shantytowns.  The core reason, according to the judges’ analysis, is local government failure to comply with the law in the process, causing all sorts of administrative litigation and large numbers of petitioners.

Another reason for petitioning is that the rationale in court decisions in these administrative cases is inadequate or totally unclear, with overly simple descriptions of the facts.  The decisions often do not make sense; the result is sometimes correct but the reasoning entirely  wrong.

If court decisions do not make sense, naturally it will lead to the  litigant reasonably  suspecting their legality. In some cases the courts failed to review the legality of the administrative action, failing to mention obvious illegalities, simply saying the defendant had not infringed the litigant’s rights. .

Why administrative cases?

Judge Hu and colleagues identified a number of factors causing the ongoing large number of petitioners aggrieved by administrative cases, both external and internal to the courts. The report often refers to “some courts” acting in a certain way, without quantifying the percentage–leading the careful reader to wonder whether it really means “most,” but the judges are reluctant to say so. Their analysis is summarized below.

  1.  Status of the courts

The basic reason is that the constitutional status of the court has not been implemented. “Big government, small court” (大政府,小法院) is an undeniable fact. A court has the status of a department at the same level of government, so under this structure, it cannot be a countervailing force vis a vis the same level of government. When a court is hearing a case, the defendant county head, as deputy Party secretary  calls the court president in “for a chat.” If the status of the court in the political system is not changed, it cannot decide cases independently and the rate of petitioning about administrative cases will not go down.

2.  Structure of administrative trial divisions

Local courts have jurisdiction over most local administrative cases, but they are under the control of local government, which interferes in every aspect of the case.  The local courts make decisions that violate the law, ordinary people’s faith in the justice system declines, so many petitioning cases.

3.  Court problems

The ideal of justice for the people not implemented, because some courts, in the name of  “serving the greater situation,” stress protecting local stability but fail to protect people’s rights, issuing illegal decisions, harming the prestige of the judiciary, causing disputes between officials and ordinary people that could have been resolved through legal means to be pushed into petitioning.

Cases are bounced back and forth between courts, with no court undertaking a serious review of the case. Courts are seeking to close cases without resolving the underlying issues. With the courts as the place for resolving social disputes and amendment of the Administrative Litigation Law (expanding its jurisdiction), aggrieved litigants, holding sheafs of court decisions are petitioning higher courts, particularly the #2 Circuit Court. If the reasoning is not clear or transparent, ordinary people will just think it is “officials all protecting one another” and petition.

Compounding the problem is weakness in the administrative divisions in the courts and the reception office of the courts. The administrative divisions do not have many cases, so outstanding judges are reassigned, and the team of judges in these divisions is unstable.   In the reception office of the lower courts, staff often fails to explain the law to litigants, and are high-handed.

Litigants

Litigants often not educated, do not understand the law, and insist on their view, thinking that if they make a fuss, the issue will be solved.(My former student wrote an account of her experience dealing with petitioners in the #1 Circuit Court, linked here, while the issue of litigation-related petitioners (涉诉信访) receives attention in this long academic article.)

What to do?

The issues with the status of the courts in the political structure a are beyond the authority of the #2 Circuit Court,  so what Judge Hu had within his authority to do included:

  • doing a better job dealing with petitioners at the court;
  •  training lower courts to better handle administrative cases;
  • better communicating with Party/government, including arranging training for the courts and Party/government, so that officials better understand their obligations under the law;
  • doing a better job of public education (宣传教育) through publicizing cases.

Comments

The authors do not venture comments on whether the situation that they describe is typical for other areas of the country, but a quick search reveals courts in other areas of the country raising many of the same issues.

Will the current judicial reforms be able to deal with some of the issues raised by the authors of this study?  Only partially, it seems.  The future change in appointment and funding, better training for and treatment of local judges should be helpful. The 2015 regulations forbidding leading official interference in court cases should, in theory, reduce local government official interference in the local courts, but more needs to happen to educate local officials to comply with the law.  Regulations issued earlier this year mandating legal counsel for Party and state organs may be helpful in the long term. It may be helpful for the #2 Circuit Court to reach out to local lawyers to advise petitioners, as the #1 Circuit Court has done, but whether local lawyers are willing to do so (on a pro-bono basis, as is true in Shenzhen), or possibly that they are concerned that they may be accused of trouble-making under new Ministry of Justice regulations remains to be seen. It is clear from the report that deep-seated attitudes towards law and ordinary people held by government officials are changing only very slowly.

 

 

Further violence against Chinese judges

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-1-09-54-pmDuring the Mid-Autumn festival, several of the major legal Wechat accounts carried articles deploring the latest report of violence against judges in a Shandong bank (which occurred on 8 September) (and making caustic comments about the local authorities), attracting hundreds of thousands of page views.  An official statement about the incident has now been issued by the central authorities decrying “no matter what the reason, violent resistance to law in any country is very serious legal event, it has touched the base line of the rule of law, respect of the dignity of the individual, it is about the authority of the law, if even in a judge’s personal safety can not be guaranteed in the society, what is the rule of law?”

A video of the incident (from which the above photo was taken) has been circulating of the incident, which originally had been deleted from Tencent video but now has been restored.The video shows two judges from the enforcement division of a county court at a local bank being attacked by personnel from the defendant company. The video states that the judges were taken to “headquarters,” with one kept as a captive and the other taken back to the bank.  A subsequent local government statement said that the investigations were continuing and the two judges were safely escorted from the county.

The official statement, made first by the Supreme People’s Court on its Weibo account , was subsequently reprinted in other official media, including on the front page of the People’s Court Daily and the website of the Central Political Legal Commission.

Presumably social media was flooded with thousands of messages from local judges on the lack of respect for the judiciary by the public and officials.

Comments on public accounts include:

 Wang Dong, prosecutor, author of CU检说法: Today enforcement division judges were beat up, maybe tomorrow it will be the criminal, civil court, and administrative division judges.

Today  Shandong judges were beaten, maybe tomorrow it will be Anhui, Henan, or Zhejiang judges.

Today those who were beaten were judges executing their public duties, maybe tomorrow it will be public prosecutors (procurators), police, or lawyers.

Everyone will not always be just a spectator.

If we say that the safety of judges, prosecutors, and police officers in the execution of public duties is not guaranteed, how can we expect them to protect the safety of social justice yet.

And a last sentence to say: If the judge can not feel justice when he encounters violent resistance to law, how can he make people feel justice in every case?

From a retired intermediate court judge, published on Legal Readings (法律读品):

If there is no limit on public power, judicial power loses its authority (公权无抑遏,司法失权威).

Which Chinese cases are most persuasive?

23885878-1_x_2Chinese courts are paying more attention to the use of precedent in considering how to decide cases.  (Two of my fellow bloggers, Mark Cohen and Jeremy Daum, have recently published on this issue, as have I.)  One of the many issues remaining to be settled as China constructs its own case law system is a hierarchy of precedent, so that the Chinese legal community, in particular its overworked judges, have clear rules on this issue.  (This is one of the questions subsumed under #23 of the Fourth Five Year Court Reform Plan).

We know that the hierarchy of precedent is not settled because two recent authoritative Chinese publications take a similar but not identical approach:

  •   The first, as cited in an article by Judges Jiang Huiling and Yang Yi of the Supreme People’s Court Center for Applied Jurisprudence, highlight the list set out in “The Beijing IP Court Guiding Case Work Implementation Methods (Draft)” (summarized in Jeremy Daum’s article); and
  • The second, an article by Judge Wang Jing, a senior Nanjing Intermediate People’s Court judge, published (and re-published) in a number of prestigious Wechat public accounts, including the account of the Shandong Higher People’s Court.  (Wang Jing has frequently published in SPC publications and she published her views on the judicial quota system (on Judge He Fan’s public account).

(As helpfully translated in Jeremy Daum’s article, the Beijing IP court draft regulations list, from most to least persuasive:

  1. SPC guiding cases
  2. SPC annual cases
  3. other SPC cases
  4. High People’s Court model cases
  5. High People’s Court reference cases
  6. Other prior cases from High People’s Courts
  7. Intermediate People’s Court precedent,
  8. Basic-level Court precedent,
  9. Foreign (non-mainland) case precedent.

I’ll focus on Judge Wang Jing’s analysis.

Judge Wang Jing

1.SPC guiding cases

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2.Cases published in the monthly SPC Gazette.  Those are of two types: selected judgments (裁判文书选登) and cases  (案例), generally totalling 20-30.  The first type are cases decided by various trial divisions of the SPC and reflect their views on certain issues, while the second model cases submitted by the local courts (through the provincial high courts), which have been reviewed by the various trial divisions of the SPC.

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3.Other cases published by journals of the SPC such as Selection of People’s Court Cases(人民法院案例选),  (a quarterly publication of the SPC Center for Applied Jurisprudence), China Case Trial Highlights (中国审判案例要览) (an annual publication of the National Judicial College and the Law School of People’s University)、and People’s Justice–Cases (People’s Justice is a biweekly publication,but the Cases section is published monthly). She notes that these cases reflect issues considered difficult and disputed in practice.z4573143

 

4. Trial Guides edited and written by the trial divisions of the SPC (最高法院各审判业务庭编写的审判指导丛书).  The People’s Court Press publishes a series entitled China Trial Guide (审判指导丛书), with separate publications by various trial divisions of the SPC, including the case filing, civil, administrative, #2 civil and #4 civil divisions. These publications often contain cases from the lower courts, or in the case of the #4 civil division, cases that have been reported to that division for review under the Prior Reporting system.

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5. Case publications by various higher people’s courts (各地高级法院等编辑的案例刊物).

She notes that many provincial higher people’s courts (and some intermediate courts) publish cases, with cases published by the ones that have been in operation the longest and are more influential considered the more persuasive.  She mentions the Jiangsu Higher People’s Court Gazette as an example, which has cases decided by that court and model/typical cases from the lower courts.  (These are similar to categories 4-6 above).

Although her list does not specifically mention non-guiding (and non-model or typical cases) in her list of authoritative sources, she addresses them in her advice for lawyers providing precedent cases in litigation, with three common sense items of advice: when  you provide a case, it should be according to the court hierarchy, and date issued, provide the source, and use cases to provide a mind map for the judge to follow.  (A prestigious intermediate people’s court (the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court) recently also mentioned litigants (positively) using cases from the SPC’s case database, China Judgements Online, as a reference to judges.)

Some comments

This is another area in which Chinese law appears to lack firm guidelines about order and terminology (as I wrote about this theme in a series of articles for Practical Law China, ( note that they are behind the company paywall).The SPC and its divisions (and even one of its Circuit Courts) issue collections of model/typical cases (and summaries of such cases) under a variety of titles.  Terminology (aside from the guiding cases) is not entirely consistent.   The SPC issues notices and replies (generally of divisions of the SPC), acknowledged by Vice President Shen Deyong as a source of law, in an introduction to the book Collection of the Supreme People’s Court’s Judicial Rules (2nd edition)–how do these relate as sources of law vis a vis various types of cases or case summaries?  The legal community (domestic and foreign) awaits greater guidance.

 

 

 

SPC Judge Zhou Fan–another fallen tiger?

A report in Caixin on 8 September revealed that Judge Zhou Fan, vice president of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s First Circuit Court in Shenzhen (and member of its Party committee) has been cooperating with Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) investigators (i.e. taken into custody (according to Caixin’s English version)) for at least two mo10a1b5488422ac8b06c1c2cd0177d54cnths. [The original Caixin report has been taken down, but has been republished by Hong Kong’s Economic Journal.]  Judge Zhou has worked in the SPC for over 20 years, focusing on commercial matters, both domestic and cross-border, and would have been considered to be technically outstanding to be selected to be a senior judge for the First Circuit Court.

According to the Caixin report, he is one of the judges linked with former Vice President of the SPC, Xi Xiaoming (earlier posts on Xi found here and here).

The Caixin report mentions other allegations against Judge Zhou, such as cooperating with litigation brokers and interfering in major commercial disputes.The dates of the alleged conduct are not specified.

Over a year ago, this blog had the following comments on Xi Xiaoming’s case:

it is likely that the anti-corruption investigation into Judge Xi will touch on parties, including other judges, related to the case(s) in question.  It is also likely that the full extent of the investigation will not be made public.

So returning to the social context of 2011. A number of Chinese lawyers and academics have privately noted that at the time of the case in question, it would not be unusual for supplemental payments to be made to Court judges in connection with commercial disputes involving large amounts of money, and refusing payment could also have been awkward for those involved.

Although Judge Zhou’s photo remains on the First Circuit Court website, the publication of this report and allegations do not augur well for his tenure there.

 

 

Supreme People’s Court diversified dispute resolution policy (updated)

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Opening of court-annexed mediation center of Qianhai court

On 29 June 2016, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued a policy document on diversified dispute resolution (Opinion on the people’s courts more deeply reforming the diversified dispute resolution mechanism) (Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion)(关于人民法院进一步深化多元化纠纷解决机制改革的意见). The document uses the term “diversified dispute resolution” (consistent with Chinese practice) rather than “alternative dispute resolution” (more often used outside of China) to reflect the central place of mediation, arbitration, and conciliation in Chinese dispute resolution. (This updated version reflects comments by an authoritative person (and a very careful reader).

It was accompanied by regulations on court-appointed mediators.  For those interested in the way the SPC works, it is another example of an SPC policy document in the form of an “opinion” (discussed here) accompanied by regulations  (a type of judicial interpretation, discussed here).

The policy document sets out in a consolidated form the SPC’s latest policies on mediation, arbitration, and its relationship with litigation.  It provides a framework for further reforms. It is intended to inform the lower courts as well as related Party/government agencies of forthcoming reforms.  It signals to the central leadership that the SPC is on course to achieve one of the reform targets set out in the 4th Court Reform Plan. The current head of the SPC’s judicial reform office, Judge Hu Shihao, spoke at the press conference announcing the Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion, indicating that the office took the lead in drafting it.

A summary follows below, highlighting, based on a quick reading, focusing on its:

  • objectives and origin;
  • signals and practical implications.

A very useful academic article on diversified dispute resolution, with survey data and more on the political background, can be found (behind a paywall) here. (To the many academics and practitioners who have written on this topic, please feel free to use the comment function or email to expand/contradict, or correct this).

Objectives & origin

The SPC issued the Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion as a way to implement one of the targets in the 4th Judicial Reform Plan:

46. Complete diversified dispute resolutions mechanisms.Continue to promote mediation, arbitration, administrative rulings, administrative reconsideration or other dispute settlement mechanisms with an organic link to litigation, mutually coordinate and guide parties to choose an appropriate dispute resolution. Promote the establishment of dispute mechanisms that are industry-specific and specialized in the areas of land requisition and property condemnation, environmental protection, labor protection, health care, traffic accidents, property management, insurance and other areas of dispute, dispute resolution professional organizations, promote the improvement of the arbitration systems and administrative ruling systems. Establish an operating system that links people’s mediation, administrative mediation, industry mediation, commercial mediation, and judicial mediation. Promote the legislative process of a diversified dispute settlement mechanism, establish a system for a systematic and scientific diversified dispute settlement system.

The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion is a product of the 4th Plenum decision. Its underlying approach was approved by Xi Jinping and other top leaders. Judge Hu, who mentioned at the press conference that at a 2015 meeting, the Leading Small Group on Comprehensive Reform approved a framework policy document (not publicly available) on improving the diversified resolution of disputes (关于完善矛盾纠纷多元化解机制的意见) and the General Offices of the State Council and Central Committee followed with an implementing document. The principal reason that this topic merited top leadership time and involvement is because of its direct links to maintaining social stability and reducing social disputes.

Similar to other SPC policy documents discussed on this blog, comments on the draft were sought from the central authorities, lower courts, relevant State Council ministries and commissions, industry association, arbitration organizations, scholars, and the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion was approved by the SPC judicial committee.

Signals

The objective of the document is to promote a more sophisticated, efficient, and effective approach to dispute resolution that will reduce social tensions. Part of the objective is to reduce the number of cases filed, heard, and tried by courts. For commercial disputes, it is intended to push disputes to institutions that can more competently, efficiently and timely mediate cases.  These institutions include those affiliated with industry associations, arbitration commissions, or specialized mediation associations.  The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion also calls for better mediation of cases within the courts by involving court-annexed mediators, before or after the person or entity files suit. The implications of this document for the reform of labor and rural land contract dispute resolution remain to be seen.

The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion requires better linkages between other diversified dispute resolution institutions and the courts and particularly stresses the role of mediation.  Depending on the type of mediation, it may be done by mediation commissions affiliated with government, people’s mediation committees, arbitration commissions, or other institutions (further information here).  One particular issue that is addressed is easing procedures for enforcing mediation agreements  by courts.  (Because a mediation agreement is a type of contract, it cannot be enforced directly without further procedures, such as being notarized, issued as an arbitration award, or recognized by the courts (through a special procedure under civil procedure law). It emphasizes that the courts can leverage forces outside the judiciary to resolve disputes. The document calls for reasonable borrowing of dispute resolution concepts from abroad.

Practical implications to expect in the medium to long term

  • For the foreign investment community (and their lawyers), a signal that the SPC is working on a judicial interpretation concerning the judicial review of foreign and foreign-related arbitral awards (“standardize judicial review procedures for foreign-related and foreign commercial arbitration awards”) (规范涉外和外国商事仲裁裁决司法审查程序). As this blog has reported earlier, this was signaled at the November 2014 National Conference on Foreign-related Commercial and Maritime Adjudication and last year’s One Belt One Road Opinion. It is unclear whether the future interpretation will change the prior reporting procedure, for example, to give parties a chance to submit arguments orally or in writing, or whether it is intended to consolidate the principles the SPC sets out in its responses to lower courts (released to the public in one of the SPC’s publications), summarized in comprehensive overviews of Chinese arbitration law, such as this one.
  • Changes to labor dispute resolution, as highlighted by the 2015 Central Committee/State Council document mentioned earlier. This is important in light of the uncertain economy and increasing number of workers being made redundant. in recent years, judges in different areas of China have published devastating criticism of the current labor arbitration system and labor dispute resolution generally. The judges pointed out the current labor arbitration system is not independent of the government, fails to protect labor interests equally, and . The judges also criticize the brief statute of limitations in labor disputes and lack of a specialized labor tribunal. It appears from reports that Zhejiang Province is taking the lead in providing greater choices and professionalism in labor dispute resolution, but it unclear how far those reforms go.
  • Further attention to rural land arbitration.The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion mentions better linkages between the courts and rural land arbitration. This area is important, as the government seeks to encourage farmers to expand their landholdings and mortgage their land, but the merits of the system are not the SPC’s issue. A 2014 report highlights the lack of independence of these arbitration commissions, lack of arbitrators, and absence of qualified arbitrators. A 2016 paper by several China Banking Regulatory Commission staff on the mortgage of rural land notes that those arbitration commissions need improving.
  • Local courts to establish “court-annexed mediation centers” to encourage and give parties “one stop shopping” for choices in mediating some of the cases most often seen in the courts–family, conflicts between neighbors, consumer, small claims, consumer, traffic accident, medical disputes;
  • “Improving” criminal conciliation and mediation procedures. Reforms in this area bear close monitoring because, as discussed in earlier blogposts, criminal conciliation and mediation procedures are often used to avoid embarrassing more powerful institutions (such as schools) and people especially in cases involving claims of rape, sexual assault, and child molestation;
  • Recognizing the results of and encouraging litigants to use neutral valuation organizations, for civil and commercial disputes such as medical, real estate, construction, intellectual property, and environmental protection, the results of which could be used as the basis of mediation;
  • More small claims and expedited procedures for minor civil disputes;
  • more lawyers to be appointed as court-appointed mediators;
  • Improvements to administrative dispute resolution procedures.

 

Cameras in the Chinese courts

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Fraudulent fund-raising criminal trial

One of the less recognized aspects of China’s judicial reforms is the live streaming (and video archiving) of Chinese court hearings. other than the coverage of the Bo Xilai case.  (I put myself in the category of the persons who were formerly unaware of this development). This blogpost looks (briefly) at SPC policies, current developments, and some very thoughtful analysis of the issues by members of the Chinese judiciary. It follows from my previous blogpost  on online broadcasts of Supreme People’s Court (SPC) public hearings.

Several times this month (July, 2016), President Zhou Qiang has highlighted live streaming (and video libraries) of court hearings, most recently on 18 July, when he spoke about China’s “Smart Courts” and the SPC’s 3.0 Initiative, and reflects the information technology orientation of the Chinese courts (see this brief article on the topic).

In streaming court cases, the SPC and local judiciary are part of a worldwide trend. Even the US federal courts are experimenting with them, with the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit taking the lead.  The courts of Queensland (Australia) have recently issued a paper, looking at the issues from an Australian law perspective and very usefully providing a survey of the law worldwide on  major issues.

What are the Chinese courts doing?

The Chinese courts are implementing live broadcasting and video libraries of a selected, but increasing number of cases, with courts in more prosperous areas taking the lead. The Guangzhou courts were among the courts to broadcast court proceedings first. A minority of those cases are found on the SPC’s Court Tv website and most are found on local court websites, often on that of provincial high courts.  The cases tend to be primarily civil cases, with some criminal and a few administrative cases.

On the website of the Beijing courts for example, there are total of approximately 500 cases, of which 364 are civil cases, including an unfair dismissal case brought against Carrefour, 106 criminal cases, including one with an unrepresented defendant, and quite a few cases involving methamphetamine trafficking. The most popular one is a 2014 corruption case. There are 12 administrative cases, including a case against challenging a housing demolition decision by the Fangshan government.

The Zhejiang High Court seems to have video libraries of hearings in two places: this one has links to hearings for sentence commutation, such as this one, while another website has a broad range of cases, including this recent one from the Wenzhou courts, in which the defendant is being prosecuted for trafficking women into prostitution.

SPC’s 2015 report Judicial Transparency of Chinese Courts highlighted the broadcasting of Chinese court trials, noting that by the end of 2014, there were 519 live broadcasting of court trials through the SPC’s China Court’s Live Trial website (http://ts.chinacourt.org/). and that the local courts had streamed over 80,000 court trials. The numbers are much higher than that (close to 5000 on the SPC’s website) and certainly many more on local court websites.

Legal and Policy background

Streaming of Chinese court hearings is based on 2010 SPC regulations (Provisions on the Live Broadcasting and Rebroadcasting of Court Trials by the People’s Courts) and is linked to the 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan:

15. Establish mechanisms for audio and video recording the entire course of hearings.Strengthen the establishment of technical courtrooms, promoting the full audio-video recording of trial proceedings.

Streaming is also linked to the SPC’s five year plans related to information technology:including  a 2013-17 plan on the Informatization of the courts (人民法院信息化建设五年发展规划(2013-2017)) and two ongoing ones, the Five Year Plan on the Informatization of the People’s Courts, 2016-20(人民法院信息化建设五年发展规划(2016-2020)  and the SPC’s Five Year Informatization Plan (最高人民法院信息化建设五年发展规划(2016-2020)).

The 2010 Regulations do not provide specific protection for the rights of individuals, but focus on the type of cases to broadcast and approval procedures for broadcasts.

Article 2 The people’s court may choose the openly tried cases of higher public attention, greater social impact, and of legal publicity and education significance to make live broadcasts of and rebroadcast court trials. The live broadcasting and rebroadcasting of court trials are prohibited for the following cases:

(1) cases that are not openly tried in accordance with the law since any national secret, trade secret, individual privacy, or juvenile delinquency, among others, is involved;

(2) criminal cases on which procuratorial organs clearly require the non-live broadcasting and rebroadcasting of court trials for justifiable reasons;

(3) civil and administrative cases on which the parties clearly require the non-live broadcasting and rebroadcasting of court trials for justifiable reasons; and

(4) other cases of which the live broadcasting and rebroadcasting are inappropriate.[Translation from Chinalawinfo].

Comments from some local judges 

While the SPC leadership is highlighting the virtues of the streaming of trials, some local judges, likely writing from their personal experience, and comparing Chinese rules with counterparts worldwide, are more critical.

These judges from the  Guangzhou courts (judges with several years of experience with trial streaming) raised issues concerning privacy rights, the right to a fair trial, and the public’s right to know.

  • The privacy of litigants is not respected sufficiently; they are concerned that their private matters will be released online;
  • Open justice is necessary to consider the relationship between state power and individual private rights, but also the public’s right to know and the right to privacy of the parties must be balanced.
  • For criminal cases, for the defendant, the trial webcast is equivalent to a disguised form of a public rally– it could mean that the person has the label of  “criminal” for life .
  • In civil disputes, some statements in court may involve aspects of the private life that the parties or other related persons do not want publicized. Meanwhile, network videos and enormous destructive power of “human flesh searches” combined with public opinion on the parties and their families will have a significant impact, which are likely to lead to their privacy being violated.
  • Not all the information and all the facts of the case should be disclosed online. Some information  can be shielded, such as date of birth, place of work, home address, ID card number, bank account information, and the personal information of related parties, such as close relatives, witnesses and other participants.
  • Parties should have a veto over the trial webcast, and in criminal cases, the victim and his or her family should be consulted as well.  They also suggest shielding some information from broadcast.

As a staff member of theChengdu  courts noted, similar issues are raised by the database of court decisions, such as a case in which the plaintiff’s claim for damages from a traffic accident (including the loss of the ability to procreate) made him the laughingstock of his workplace.

Other local judges have commented that the cases selected for broadcast are not representative, too simple, and that they are sometimes selected for political reasons.

The underlying problem both for online streaming of cases and the court database is that there is not enough Chinese privacy law to protect individuals. Whether the SPC will issue more detailed regulations on privacy in internet broadcasts of court proceedings is unclear.

It does seem clear, that an important rationale for streaming cases is to educate the masses–杀鸡敬猴。Politically sensitive cases are not generally streamed.

For the observer of the Chinese courts, it is a fascinating resource in many ways, whether it is noting the number of cases with people’s assessors, women prosecutors, judges, demeanor of the legal professionals, parties, and bailiffs.

 

 

 

Do you need the Supreme People’s Court Monitor?

imgres-4The Supreme People’s Court Monitor is a free resource that many institutions and individuals use, from many parts of the world.  Part-time teaching and full-time scholarship does not go even come close to paying for the tuition for one, let alone two undergraduate students.  If you value the Supreme People’s Court Monitor, please consider the following:

  • making funding available for the Monitor from your foundation or other institution;
  • donating to the School of Transnational Law of Peking University and designating the funding for the Supreme People’s Court Monitor;
  • hiring Susan Finder (the Supreme People’s Court Monitor) for consulting and drafting of research reports related to Chinese law and legal policy, and to the Chinese court system; and
  • engaging Susan for teaching, professional training, writing and editing related to the Chinese legal system.

She is well placed to provide focused analysis of Chinese legislation on the horizon, and spot regulatory trends as well  as trends in Chinese court policy and litigation that neither law firms nor risk consultancies can provide to organizations, chambers of commerce, corporations, trade associations, universities, and national or international institutions. For the Chinese legal community, she can provide skills training and training in certain areas of U.S. substantive law.

Please contact Susan at supremepeoplescourtmonitor.com with proposed projects or for further information (e.g. a copy of her cv/resume).

 

 

Supreme People’s Court tweaks capital punishment review procedure

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 3.28.09 PMSeveral days ago, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued the brief judicial interpretation, translated below:

Supreme People’s Court

Reply Concerning issues related to the Application of Article 225 (para 2) of the Criminal Procedure Law

Approved by the 1686th meeting of the Judicial Committee of the Supreme People’s Court, in effect from 24 June 2016

Fa Yi(2016) #13

To the Henan Higher People’s Court:

We have received your request for instructions concerning the application of Article 225(2) of the Criminal Procedure. After consideration, we respond as follows:

I.  For cases remanded to the second instance people’s court for retrial by the Supreme People’s Court, on the basis of “People’s Republic of China Criminal Procedure Law” Article 239 (2) [if the Supreme People’ s Court disapproves the capital punishment sentence, it may remand the case for retrial or revise the sentence] and Article 353 of the Interpretation of the “Supreme People’s Court on the application of the People’s Republic of China Criminal Procedure Law [where the Supreme People’s Court issues a ruling on non-approval of the death penalty sentenced under a case, it may remand the case to the people’s court of second instance or the people’s court of first instance for retrial, depending on the actual circumstances of the case…], having ruled not to approve the death penalty,and  regardless of whether the people’s court of second instance had previously sent the case back to the first instance court on the grounds that original judgment’s facts were unclear or evidence was insufficient; in principle, it must not be sent back to the original first instance court for retrial; if there are special circumstances requiring the case to be sent back to the first instance court for a retrial, it must be submitted to the Supreme Court for approval.

II. in cases where the Supreme People’s Court had ruled to disapprove the death penalty and remanded the case to the second instance people’s court for retrial, and the second instance people’s court had remanded the case to the first instance court according to special circumstance, after the first instance court has issued its judgment and the defendant has appealed or the people’s procuratorate has made a protest, the second instance people’s court should issue a judgment or ruling according to law, and must not send the case back for re-trial, according to the specifics of the case, which had sent the case to the first instance court for retrial.

So replied.

_________________________________________________________

What is this and what does this mean?

This is a judicial interpretation by the SPC in the form of a reply, as explained here.  It is a reply (批复) to a “request for instructions” from a lower court relating to an issue of general application in a specific case.  The Henan Higher People’s Court had submitted a request for instructions, likely with two or more views on the issue, but the lower court’s request is not publicly available.  It is likely that practice among provincial courts had been inconsistent, and therefore the SPC is harmonizing judicial practice through this reply.  As required by the SPC’s  regulations on judicial interpretations, it must be approved by the SPC’s judicial committee as a judicial interpretation.

This gives further details to the SPC’s capital review procedures, requiring second instance (generally provincial level courts) to hear retrials of cases remanded by the SPC and not instructing those courts not send cases back to the first instance court for retrial.  It also requires the second instance court to rule on a defendant’s appeal or procuratorate’s protest and not remand the case back to the first instance court, expediting the final consideration of these cases and limiting the number of remands of these cases.

Is this a positive development for the protection of the rights of the defendants (the defendants in the typical drugs cases announced by the SPC recently were mostly peasants), by requiring the second instance court to hear these cases, away from the public pressure where the crime occurred?  In a 2013 article, criminal defense lawyer Sun Zhongwei described the pressure on a local first and second instance court is under from the victim’s family and the local Party committee and government, and how the institutions use delay and remanding the case to the procuratorate and public security for additional investigation to avoid making difficult decisions that will alienate local authorities.What has the role of defense counsel been in these cases?  Have most defendants been advised by counsel? Was the delay in final resolution in these cases an issue discussed by the Central Political Legal Committee?

What was the rationale for issuing this interpretation at this time?  Is it a measure to promote the efficiency of the courts, by expediting finality in criminal punishment, so that the courts can announce in a timely manner their crime fighting accomplishments and typical cases?A headline on one of the SPC’s websites  reporting on 30% increase in drugs crime convictions in the provincial level courts may indicate which is valued more–“People’s courts across the country cracked down hard on drug crime.”

Or is it linked to planned reforms to the criminal justice system and improvements to the legal aid system for criminal defendants approved by Xi Jinping and other top leaders on 27 June?