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 Peking 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?

 

 

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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

 

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petitioners outside the #2 Circuit Court (from CCTV)

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 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 that visited 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. 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.