China’s #2 Circuit Court “Nine” & criminal petitions

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#2 Circuit Court’s “Nine”

The nine presiding judges of the #2 Circuit Court are whom Chief Judge Hu Yunteng calls “The Nine.” It could be: 1) Judge Hu is a fan of the Jeffrey Toobin book on the (US) Supreme Court, which has a Chinese translation thanks to Judge He Fan; or 2)he wants others to know that he has some basic knowledge about the US Supreme Court. (For the avoidance of any doubt, this does not mean Judge Hu is looking to transport the US judicial system to China).

The role and utility of China’s circuit courts have moved into public focus with the establishment of four additional circuit courts (discussed earlier).  Some have commented that they have been established just to divert petitioners from Beijing.An article published by a European think tank commented that the circuit courts weaken the power of local judges and courts in the provinces.

But when analyzing what Chinese courts do and how they operate, moving away from grand theory and into the specifics of what they do provides (to this foreign observer and I trust Chinese ones as well) more nuanced insights. It helps to understand better what the circuit courts are doing, how Chinese courts operate, how Chinese judges think, and what practical solutions Chinese judges evolve in the context of their political, legal and social environment. What exemplifies this is a report that the #2 Circuit Court did on petitioning appeals related to criminal cases (第二巡回法庭刑事申诉来访情况分析报告). The report concerns petitions for retrial made under the Criminal Procedure Law’s trial supervision procedure.

While the full report does not seem to be easily available, Chief Judge Hu Yunteng summarized some of what appear to be the main findings of the report in a June, 2016 interview with  中国审判 (China Trial), a SPC journal and Wechat account. The audience for China Trial is primarily his brother and sister judges, so his comments were relatively frank and the legal context about which he was speaking would be taken for granted. His comments, which I am summarizing below, reflect the insights of someone who lived through the Cultural Revolution, and has worked at the intersection of legal research and judicial practice for many years. (His Chinese profile is more complete than the English one).

He said that his remarks  were drawn from his experience in hearing nearly 200 cases at the #2 Circuit Court, the majority of which were criminal petition cases (刑事申诉)(cases retried under trial supervision procedures). The cases, he said, reflect issues with criminal cases both at first instance or on appeal, as well issues all courts face coping with criminal petitions.  Moreover, he said, the #2 Circuit Court (and SPC headquarters) have more and more petitioners seeking redress, plus an ever increasing backlog of cases.  People have been petitioning for a little as 3-5 years, long as 10-18 years, or even 20-30 years, clocking over a hundred visits.  Over 700 petitioners visited the #2 Circuit Court with grievances about the decisions of the Liaoning Higher People’s Court.

Judge Hu gave his views on why are there so many of these cases and what should be done.

Why so many cases?

(Graph tracking petitioner visits to the #2 Circuit Court (not from the interview):

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Graph of group petitioner visits (persons), Feb. 2015-Aug. 2016 ©中国审判

A summary of Judge Hu’s analysis follows below, with some comments in brackets.

Reasons for these cases

“The reasons are complicated.”  He believed that the number of mistaken/unjust cases were small in number, and 90% of the petitioning cases involved cases decided properly, with 9% with some errors, but only 1% with errors serious enough for the case to be re-tried.  The reasons, he believed, lay deeper.

  1.  Defects in the criminal procedure system.  It has a two instance system, with the second instance as final; time limits on hearing criminal cases; and criminal petitioning system.  With societal change and ordinary people have greater legal consciousness and demands for justice. This criminal procedure system is incompatible with current societal demands (这些制度已经不能适应新时期的需要).  In some areas of China, there are more petitions from second instance decisions than appeals.

Most jurisdictions, whether common law or continental (including Hong Kong and Macau) have a three-instance system, and if China does not change this and have a limited third instance system, the criminal case petitioning problem will not be solved. The strict time limits mean facts are not clarified, a good job is not done at trial, and case quality is not maintained, creating errors that causing petitioning. The lack of time limits on petitioning is a major reason that it exists. [Note: Judge Hu saying this does not mean the Chinese government will change its system immediately or in the near future. His voice is a powerful and persuasive voice identifying this as a core reason for so many petitions, but this must be understood within the context that he said it.  This is his analysis, not a signal that the Chinese government will change its criminal justice system immediately.  

Implementing a [limited] three-instance system is a major criminal justice policy change, with social stability, financial and personnel implications (as seen from the government’s perspective). Proposals to make such a fundamental change to criminal procedure law would come after a great deal of analysis and consultation with the authorities involved. Judge Hu does not elaborate on what he means by a limited third instance system, but research shows this concept is being explored by a variety of thinkers and scholarship on the topic dates back over 10 years. Those following Chinese criminal justice system reforms should be aware that the renown Professor Chen Guangzhong revealed (in an interview in June, 2016) that amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law are under consideration, although the details are not yet known. ]

2. Problems in judicial practice.  There aren’t enough staff to hear the cases carefully, and cases are no longer limited to traditional crimes, with cases more complicated and evidence harder to assemble.  More sophisticated defendants no longer passively accept the sloppy work being done by people handling these cases (办案人员)(referring to police/prosecutors/judges, as appropriate).  It causes errors in: collection of evidence; forensics; determinations; incomplete compliance with legal procedures; inappropriate legal explanations; cases handled inappropriately. Moreover,the cases reflect problems in the way a significant proportion of those handling cases think about law: failure to correctly understand basic legal relationships such as fighting crime and protecting defendant’s rights; the relationship between public security, procuratorate, and courts; the relationship between handling criminal cases and resolving social conflicts, etc. All these things cause an increase in the number of petitioners. [Again, this his analysis reflecting his many years of experience and observation.]

3.  Changes in the legal and social environment. These are another set of reasons for so many criminal petitioning cases.Judge Hu said, actually, the increase in criminal petitioning isn’t an entirely bad phenomenon. It is part of the process in improving the rule of law. The state respects human rights more and people are more aware of their rights and are increasingly daring to defend their rights.Moreover, societal public opinion has encouraged people after they have read in the media that mistaken/unjust cases have been corrected. Moreover, criminal punishment for the same offense has varied greatly, depending on whether it was during the “Strike Hard” or other campaigns, so when people look from today’s perspective at these cases, they feel it is unfair.

What to do about it?

Judges dealing with these cases need legal knowledge and political wisdom.

  1. Respect petitioners.  Petitioning is a basic human right. Judges should not think that petitioners are making trouble from nothing. In the #2 Circuit Court Judge Hu requires judges receiving petitioners to be patient in explaining the law.  So treating petitioners’ litigation rights seriously is a way to deal with them
  2. According to law, petitions should be submitted to the court that heard the case originally. The case filing or trial supervision departments of these courts should seriously review the cases, if there is an error, retry the case on the court’s own initiative.  If the case lacks errors, the facts and law should be explained to the petitioning party. This is assuming responsibility to the facts, law, parties, and people.
  3. The higher courts need to do a better job of supervising the lower courts. Courts need to balance respect for effective judgments with a party’s petitioning rights. Courts should determine whether the issue is procedural or substantive. Cases can’t be rushed–some can be dealt with quickly and others not. Higher courts should take on more difficult and complicated cases themselves.
  4. Petitioning cases should be heard by three judge collegial panels, by reviewing the file and questioning persons if needed, questioning the party and if he (she) is in custody, summoning him for questioning, hearing the views of the party’s lawyer if one has been appointed and making contact with the party and his lawyer an important way to deal with these cases. Moreover, the lower courts should appoint more qualified and experienced people to handle criminal petitions, as it is often not currently the case.
  5. As some of these cases relate to a specific time period, sometimes it is necessary to work with the higher or lower courts, or seek support from the government or Party to deal the matter.  For example, some cases were correctly decided at the time, but the decision is no longer appropriate under current circumstances. Retrial is not possible but coordination is possible through the implementing authorities [presumably the jail] or procuratorate.

Connection with judicial reform

Presumably Judge Hu’s report and analysis are part of a project connected with larger judicial reform issues. See Article 36 of the 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan:

36. Reform the system for petitioning involving litigation.Improve mechanisms for the separation of petitioning and litigation work, clarifying the standards, scope and procedures for separating litigation and petitioning. Create finality mechanisms for petitioning involving litigation, standardizing the sequence for petitioning involving litigation in accordance with law. Establish mechanisms for steering and receiving petitioners at their source, and innovation networks for handling petitioning. Promote the establishment of a system for lawyer representation of in complaint appeals cases. Explore the establishment of mechanisms for lawyers to participate as third-parties, increasing the diversity of joined forces for resolving conflicts in petitioning related to litigation.

Effect of these comments

Presumably Judge Hu has sought to implement some of his own recommendations, such as requiring his own judges to do a better job receiving petitioners, and expecting the lower courts to do the same.  It is likely that Judge Hu has made his views known in meetings with judges from Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang. So this appears to be one piece of evidence that the circuit courts are having an effect on the quality of justice delivered.

Since petitioners “vote with their feet,” it appears that one indicator would be a downturn in the number of petitioners with grievances about criminal cases in the Liaoning Courts.  How his report and recommendations will be considered nationwide remains to be seen.  As a member of the SPC’s judicial committee, his full report and more detailed recommendations are likely to have an impact on the thinking of SPC colleagues.  As to the larger issues Judge Hu has raised, we are unlikely to see any immediate or short term impact because of the complex politics linked to those reforms.

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.

How Zhejiang courts support its economy

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My apologies to blog followers for my absence.  I will address Zhou Qiang’s comments on judicial independence in a later blogpost, for which I want to do some more detailed research than is possible at this time.

This blogpost will look at a less contentious question–what does the profile of civil and commercial disputes in Zhejiang province mean for the Zhejiang/Chinese economy and the role of the courts (in civil/commercial disputes).

Judge Zhang Hengzhu, head of the #2 civil division of the Zhejiang Higher People’s Court (High Court), spoke in early January at a conference organized by Tiantong & Partners, the boutique litigation law firm on civil and commercial disputes in his province.

What is special about Zhejiang?

The Zhejiang economy is dominated by small and medium enterprises (SMEs), many integrated with the global economy.  These companies are private, family-owned companies. Judge Zhang noted that these companies tend to have irregular corporate governance, with vague lines between property ownership by the company founder, the company, and affiliates.

Civil & commercial litigation in Zhejiang

Zhejiang (and Jiangsu) are the two most litigious provinces in China. The Zhejiang courts accepted over a million cases (1,112,900) in the first nine months of 2016, up 11% over 2015, of which over half (572,300) were civil and commercial cases, up 7% year on year.  [Comment–year-end numbers will be even higher.]

A significant proportion of those cases during that period were bad debt-related. About 17% of those cases (136,500) were private (shadow) lending disputes, involving total amounts in disputes of RMB 78.366 billion (almost USD 11.4 billion).  Private/shadow lending in Zhejiang is a supplement or replacement for bank financing. During the same period, about half as many financial disputes were accepted (85,400), up almost 20%, but the total amounts in dispute were RMB 232 billion, or USD 33.79 billion).  [Comment–year-end numbers will be even higher.]

How Zhejiang courts support SME economy

Judge Zhang commented on what the Zhejiang courts have been doing to support the province’s SME-dependent economy.  Those actions, which appear unusual those unused to the Chinese judicial system, include:

  • Taking the lead to generate judicial guidance on private (shadow) lending.  In 2009,  the High Court was the first to issue provincial level guidance. which it updated in 2013.
  • In 2013, it issued a concurrence (in the form of a meeting summary) with the provincial procuratorate and public security department on criminal law issues relating to collective fundraising.
  • The High Court is working with the provincial financial institutions on the disposal of non-performing assets.
  • It was one of the first provincial courts to take steps to generate judicial guidance on bankruptcy law and to take steps to deal with zombie enterprises (after raising it with the provincial Party secretary and government, who issued written instructions (批示)。
  • In late 2016, establishing a joint mechanism with fourteen departments of the provincial government to advance the use of bankruptcy and related issues, such as re-employment of workers, use of land formerly used by bankrupt enterprises, generating bankruptcy-favorable tax policies (document on the mechanism found here).

 

 

 

Asset recovery, Chinese style

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

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

Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Some important provisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next steps

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

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

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

 

 

2016 Supreme People’s Court Monitor year-end report

ornate-1045572_1280In 2016, the Supreme People’s Court Monitor published 67 posts and had close to 30,000 page views, from 150 countries (regions), primarily from:

  • United States;
  • Hong Kong;
  • (mainland) China; and
  • Australia.

with the United Kingdom, Germany, and Singapore trailing. Unfortunately too many “Belt & Road” countries are at the bottom part of the list of 150 jurisdictions.

Over half of the Monitor followers use Twitter to follow the Monitor.Although Twitter is not accessible in mainland China without a VPN, 26% of the Monitor’s Twitter followers are based there.

I am often asked about the profile of my blog followers. Like my sister blog, China IPR, my followers include academics, students, journalists, government officials, judges (current or retired), staff of international organizations as well as practicing attorneys (in private practice, in-house, government service and with NGOs).  The Monitor has some email followers in (mainland) China but they generally keep a very low profile.

I am honored to have my blog listed as a Chinese law resource by law schools and other institutions around the world, including: Harvard and Yale Law Schools, and Oxford’s Bodleian Library.  Many thanks to those professors who have recommended the Monitor to students.  Thank you also to those journalists and scholars writing about the Chinese judiciary who have cited the Monitor.

Many thanks to those professors who have recommended the Monitor to students.  Thank you also to those journalists and scholars writing about the Chinese judiciary who have cited the Monitor.

I am honored to be a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the School of Transnational Law of Peking University (in Shenzhen).  We have outstanding students and I have excellent colleagues.

I am honored to have been invited to speak at quite a few conferences in 2016:

  • one in Xiamen, organized by the Xiamen Maritime Court, sponsored by the Supreme People’s Court and Fujian Higher People’s Court, with support from the British Consulate General Guangzhou. It was not only international (with the London Maritime Arbitration Association) but included judges, in-house counsel, lawyers and academics.
  • several conferences sponsored by the University of Hong Kong; one by the City University of Hong Kong; and one by the Chinese University of Hong Kong;
  • University of Southern California’s US-China Institute’s China Card Institute (I recommend host Clay Dube’s presentation and Robert Schrum’s presentation in particular, available on the USC website and Youtube, both looking at the demonization of China and Chinese people in the US;

I was very happy to a be a guest lecturer in classes at:

  • University of Hong Kong;
  • Chinese University of Hong Kong;
  • NYU Shanghai;
  • Shanghai Jiaotong University and
  • Fordham Law School.

Also it was a special honor to engage in dialogue with Professor Jerome Cohen at NYU Law School’s US-Asia Law Institute.

Finally, a particular thank you to certain members of the Chinese legal community:

  • administrators of the Wechat public accounts that have published my articles;
  • those who have translated those articles into Chinese;
  • those Chinese judges and lawyers who shared their insights with my classes and with me; and
  • those judges who arranged for me to visit their courts.

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Supreme People’s Court adds four more circuit courts

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Meng Jianzhu meeting circuit court judges

The latest National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) gave formal approval to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) to establish four more circuit courts, located in Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Chongqing and Xian.  The Leading Small Group on Comprehensive Reform had given the nod to the SPC and its preparations at the beginning of November, so approval by the NPCSC was a foregone conclusion. The four new circuit courts held ceremonies on 28 and 29 December to inaugurate their operations. This means that circuit courts now cover the entire country. As discussed in my earlier blogpost, these are actually subdivisions of the SPC rather than being separate courts.

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Map of new circuits (thanks to Chinalawtranslate)

This blogpost looks at:

  • What the official reports signal about the Chinese judiciary; and
  • What these circuit courts mean for the Chinese judiciary now and in the future.

Signalling in official reports

The official reports related to the circuit court celebrated the circuit court judges and the courts themselves as both “red and expert.”

In this report, on their meeting with Meng Jianzhu, secretary of the Central Political Legal Committee, a subheadline has him meeting with circuit court “cadres” (孟建柱在会见最高人民法院巡回法庭干部…), while the first line of the report uses the phrasing “judge and other staff”  (全体法官和工作人员).  Meng Jianzhu stressed that close [flesh and blood] ties between the Party and the people in the judicial field is the important mission of the Supreme People’s Court Circuit Courts the circuit courts are under the leadership of his committee], while at the same time saying that “we should adhere to the [policy] direction of the judicial system reform,..create a professionalized trial team…”

Other reports note that of the 54 judges, 41 have either master’s or doctorate degrees. An infographic with photos of the senior judges and a map of the jurisdictions of the circuit courts can be found here.

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3rd circuit court judges receiving petitioners

Are the circuit courts just reception offices for petitioners?

This blogpost will draw on the insights of Zhou Yibin, one of my students at the School of Transnational Law of Peking University, located in Shenzhen, where I am privileged to teach some of China’s best and brightest.

Analyzing the documents related to the establishment of the circuit courts, she comments the circuit courts’ function of “trying important cross-administrative civil, commercial and administrative cases to ensure justice is repeatedly emphasized, while  diverting petitioners’ visits away from Beijing [as reported in this blogpost], reducing the workload for SPC .

Although the SPC knows that the pressure of petitioners’ visits is the direct reason to establish circuit courts, the SPC still wishes that the circuit courts will function more as courts to deal with the judicial localization [local protectionism] problem rather than another petitioners’ reception office. She notes that the huge pressure of dealing with petitioners visits and complaints  with small elite teams, means that they are working very efficiently.

Statistics are available for 2015 for the #1 and #2 Circuit Courts, and in 2016 for the #2 Circuit.In 2015, the #1 Circuit Court accepted 898 cases and closed 843, while the #2 Circuit Court accepted 876 and closed 810.  For the #2 Circuit Court, about half were civil and commercial cases (of which about 20% were transprovincial), while the remaining half was split between criminal and administrative cases.  The #2 Circuit Court dealt with 33,000 petitioners, while the #1 Circuit Court dealt with fewer than 11,000.  Through end September, 2016, the #2 Circuit Court had accepted 907 cases, and the number of petitioners had dropped considerably in 2016 to an average of 70-80 persons per day, down from almost 180 per day, with fewer petitioners complaining about injustices in litigation. It is understood that the number of cases accepted by the #1 Circuit Court has also increased in 2016 in comparison to 2015, although statistics are not yet available.

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Petitioners visiting the #2 circuit court, per month

 

 

 

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opening of 3rd & 4th circuit courts

Zhou Yibin notes the following issues, among others:

  1. First, limited by territorial jurisdiction and subject amount in controversy, there aren’t enough cross-jurisdictional cases for the circuit courts to try. She found that the head of the #1 Circuit Court had said the same.
  2. Mid-career SPC judges may be reluctant to be assigned to the circuit courts, when they have family in Beijing.
  3. Having circuit courts may lead to more inconsistencies among SPC judgments.

She wrote: the circuit courts are not likely to be an effective barrier to judicial local localization/protectionism. That local protectionism happens when the local courts abuse their adjudication power to protect local litigants’ interests. Judicial localization is the caused by the administration of judicial system and unconstrained exercise of administrative and political power.When it comes to judicial activities, local Party/government officials  tend to unduly influence the judges by leaving notes or giving direct instructions when they want to protect local interests. That is exactly why in 2015, the general office of the Central Committee of the CCP and the general office of the State Council jointly issued a notice requiring judges and clerks keep a record if any officials interfere cases in any form [see this earlier blogpost].

From this aspect, when the real concern is abuse of power and lack of institutional design to rein power, judicial reform in any form, would only be a “back-end pain killer”, rather than real surgery that can directly solve the source.

Conclusion

She concludes: as to whether circuit courts should continue to exist, people who are pessimistic about circuit courts characterize it as window-dressing. They believe circuit courts would not be the real key to deal with judicial localization and there exist better alternatives to deal with petitioners’ visits than circuit courts; therefore, the circuit courts should be eliminated before it creates further inconsistency and chaos to judicial system.

Zhou Yibin thinks circuit courts should continue to exist for the following reasons.

First, in 2015, SPC altered the amount in controversy and lower the barrier for case acceptance. Therefore, we can expect circuit court to play a more important role in providing neutral venue so as to fight with judicial localization.

Second, there are other efforts to curb judicial localization collectively. At the same time with setting up circuit courts, SPC is also exploring to set up cross-administrative courts. Currently, this experiment is steadily progressing in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing. This wave of judicial reform has just started, and we need to allow a little bit more time for the circuit courts and cross-administrative courts to grow, to engage in trial and error and to mature.

Third,  aside from dealing with judicial localization, the circuit courts serve as pilot for SPC to improve the quality of its legal policy role by research into local legal issues and greater interaction with local legal communities. This is an important institutional function that is totally left out in the opponents’ objection. There are certainly institutional costs to maintain circuit courts, but we cannot ignore the institutional function of innovation that circuit courts serve.

I would also add to this that from the statistics provided above, the effect of the #2 Circuit Court’s work related to administrative cases can be seen in the reduction in the number of petitioners, particularly those complaining about injustices in the lower courts.

[For those who want to visit the circuit courts, detailed information about their location can be found here. As part of its efforts towards greater transparency and outreach to the foreign legal community, perhaps in the new year the SPC will publish clearer guidance on how foreigners can visit Chinese courts (although this is not likely to be a priority matter).]

 

Supreme People’s Court & big data

On 22 December, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) posted four big data reports drafted jointly by its Information Center and the Judicial Cases Research Center (affiliated with the National Judicial College).

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The bar chart above, from the divorce report, shows the number of divorce cases heard in the courts in 2014-September, 2016, stating that the 2016 cases have increased almost 11% over the same time the year before. A subsequent chart shows that domestic violence as the cause for divorce in 27.8% of cases.screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-7-11-32-am

The reports appear to be products of the recently established SPC big data company.  The analysis in the reports is restricted to bullet points, rather the more detailed analytical reports that are found on the websites/Wechat public accounts of courts and lawyers.  (Suggestion to (any) readers from the SPC–  translations of these reports would be a useful addition to the English version of the SPC’s website).

Anyone looking for more than current statistics and basic analysis is advised to search for more detailed analysis done by law firms, local courts, some of the legal media companies, and some of the other divisions of the SPC.  On the topic of divorce, for example, an SPC judge published this analysis earlier this year, generally considered to be the most authoritative summary of the issues in Chinese divorce law.

The 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan (Court Reform Plan) flagged the SPC’s big data company and the stress that the SPC is placing on big data:

22. Deepen reforms of judicial statistics.Reform mechanisms for judicial statistics with the idea of “big data, big picture, and big service” as a guide; make a system of standards for judicial statistics that has scientific classifications and complete information, gradually building a model for analysis of empirical evidence that complies with the reality of judicial practice and judicial rules, and establish a national archive of court judgment opinions and a national center for big data on judicial information. (translation from @Chinalawtranslate)

The Court Reform Plan signals that the stress is on judicial statistics and using big data for internal use rather than for public access, as “complete information” is not provided to the public, with death penalty statistics the best-known example. Although judicial transparency is greater before (especially for those of us with a historical perspective), from time to time SPC media sources reiterate that judicial personnel are required to keep state secrets (as the Judges Law and other legislation require).

At the moment, transparency of judicial statistics and analysis varies greatly across provinces. Jiangsu Province’s high court, for example, has judicial statistics on its homepage:screen-shot-2016-12-26-at-9-27-32-pm

Many law firms publish big data analysis of specific types of cases in their area of practice, such as this analysis of credit card fraud cases in Guangzhou (22% of the defendants were represented by counsel) and drug cases in Guangzhou (less than 15% represented by counsel). An analysis of drug cases in Guangdong (Jieyang, a center for the  methamphetamine business) by the local court, has important insights into the routinization of criminal justice, the inadequacy of court judgments, and the way that the trial itself and the role of defense counsel (if hired) is marginalized.

Big data analyses can be found in a range of substantive areas, ranging from finance disputes to construction disputes, some by law firms and others by local courts.  My fellow blogger, Mark Cohen, recently highlighted the data analysis provided by IPHouse, a firm started by a former SIPO Commissioner.  They are useful to the lawyer/in-house counsel planning or considering litigation strategy, as well as for policy-makers and academics. Each provides a glimpse of how (and sometimes why)  the Chinese legal system works as it does.