Supreme People’s Court’s new guidance on similar case search

Screenshot 2020-07-27 at 8.49.14 PMOn 27 July 2020,  the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)  issued Guiding Opinions Concerning Strengthening Search for Similar Cases to Unify the Application of Law (Guiding Opinions) (关于统一法律适用加强类案检索的指导意见(试行)),  effective on 31 July.  It is not a judicial interpretation, rather it is guidance intended to make judicial decisions more consistent, an ongoing issue in the Chinese court system.  The SPC is approving the practice of judges using principles derived from prior cases to fill in the gaps in legislation and judicial interpretations.  The Guiding Opinions codifies many of the practices of the Chinese courts and imposes some new requirements. It does not mean that China has become a common law legal system.  As explained further below, although the Guiding Opinions do not address this question, comments by an SPC judge suggest that the special status of cases selected by the SPC by its operational divisions remains in place.

It also illustrates two larger points–that discrete judicial reforms aimed at more consistent judgments continue to be implemented even as the role of Party leadership and oversight continues to be stressed. It is also an illustration of how long it can take judicial reforms to be implemented. in my view, this discrete, technical reform has implications greater than the drafters of the Guiding Opinions realized, including a possible impact on Chinese legal education. It has the potential to make litigation a more predictable process for parties.

Case Search Requirements

What are similar cases?

Article 1 defines that–the cases that are already effective and are similar in their basic facts, disputed points, issues of law, etc. (指与待决案件在基本事实、争议焦点、法律适用问题等方面具有相似性,且已经人民法院裁判生效的案件).

When is similar case search required? (Articles 2 and 7)

  1. When a case is proposed to be submitted to a professional or specialized  (presiding) judges meeting (generally all the judges in a division) or the judicial/adjudication committee for discussion;
  2. Relevant judicial principles are unclear or conflicting;
  3. A court president or division head requires it under his or her supervision authority;
  4. Other relevant situations.

That is, similar case search is not required in all cases, only when the relevant “law” is unclear.

Similar case search should be set out in the trial report for the case or in a separate precedent (similar case) report (类案检索报告) and included in the case file. As noted in my earlier blogpost, trial reports are confidential and not accessible to parties or their lawyers. Article 8 requires that the search report must include details on the platform, means of search, etc. and how the search was used.

Who searches and how?

The judge in charge of the case (承办法官) is in charge of undertaking the search and is responsible for doing it accurately and properly, using either the SPC’s database or other case databases, focusing on cases from the last three years, except for guiding cases.

Judges can use methods such as keyword search, legal provision (article of the relevant law), or related case search.

What must be searched?

These rules (in Article 4) are in line with what I have previously written:

  1.  SPC guiding cases;
  2. SPC typical (model) cases (典型案例) and judgments or rulings of the SPC;
  3.  Reference cases issued by provincial-level higher people’s courts  and decisions by those courts;
  4.  Higher-level courts in the jurisdiction in question and judgments of that court.

Except for the guiding cases, priority is given to the search of cases or cases in the past three years; if a similar case has been searched in the previous order, no search is required. Article 5 provides that judges can use methods such as keyword, legal article-linked, and case-based searches.

My understanding is that these are general principles, but the specific scope of cases that need to be searched will depend on the specifics. As I have previously written, the SPC Circuit Courts have issued cases that guide the lower courts in their circuits.  The special authority of those cases remains in place. Judges reviewing issues related to the enforcement of foreign arbitral awards in China will need to look to a special set of cases (described here), for example.

I had previously written about cases selected by the operational divisions of the SPC providing guidance to the lower courts.  Those retain their special authority, as indicated by comments by Senior Judge Yu Tongzhi, an editor of Reference to Criminal Trial (the joint publication of the SPC’s five criminal divisions). He noted in an article published on 31 July, that as far as criminal justice is concerned, without a doubt, the first choice for searching similar cases is to search the guidance cases contained in their publication, setting indices to the guidance cases for the convenience of readers.

Are precedents binding?

Precedents are not binding, but guiding cases should be 参照 “referred to” (the link is to SPC Research Office Deputy Director  Judge Guo Feng’s authoritative explanation) unless the case conflicts with subsequently issued law or judicial interpretations. Other types of cases are not binding, but for judges to consider(参考).

How judges must respond

Article 10 imposes a new requirement on courts, if procurators, parties, their representatives (their lawyers) submit guiding cases or other cases in support of their legal position (as I had previously written had been the practice).  For guiding cases, courts are required to state in the reasoning section of their judgments whether or not the guiding case was referred to and why.

For all other types of cases, the court can use its power of clarification/explanation and other means (释明等方式) to respond.  It is understood that this is meant to give judges flexibility in responding to (non-guiding) judgments provided by parties–so the court may respond in its court’s judgment or in other ways. Those other ways may include:  responding to the cases submitted pre-hearing, during a hearing, after a hearing, as the court considers most appropriate.  We will need to observe what is done in practice, for example, whether courts respond primarily in their judgments or orally.  This will be the way that a party can monitor whether the search accurately reflects prior cases, as neither a party or its counsel has access to the trial report. Other unknowns are how this system will influence administrative proceedings such as those at the Trademark Review and Adjudication Board.

Link to Inconsistent Decision Mechanism

Article 11 contains a link to the inconsistent decision mechanism discussed here, which I described as a microcosm of themes reflecting how the SPC operates, given its high bureaucratic nature.

Why case law reform?

As this blog has discussed, in the New Era, the role of Party leadership and oversight continues to be stressed (see this blogpost, for example).  This discrete judicial reform is aimed at more consistent judgments. It is a critical tool that judges are already using because Chinese legislation lags behind the needs of the courts, and judicial interpretations are insufficient as well. Party policy would have an indirect impact on those cases, as would foreign law principles (mentioned here).

“Slow-cooking” judicial reform

The issuance of these rules shows the strength of the case law system and how long it can take a single judicial reform to be implemented. As mentioned in the June, 2019 blogpost, when Professor Hu Yunteng(until recently Justice Hu Yunteng, formerly a full-time member of the SPC’s judicial committee, now retired) recollected the history of the case system with Chinese characteristics, he mentioned that Jiang Huiling, then his colleague at the China Institute for Applied Jurisprudence (now Dean of the Tongji University School of Law) had looked to jurisdictions outside of China to advocate that China establish a case law system. Professor Hu Yunteng doesn’t specify whether Dean Jiang Huiling was looking to case law systems in civil or common law jurisdictions in the “West.”).  In his 2016 Harvard Law Review student note, Mark Jia (now clerking on the Supreme Court), cited Li Shichun of the China Law Society to the effect that it was the National People’s Congress that opposed those seeking to establish a Chinese case law precedential system. That opposition has been overcome by widespread professional usage (as described in my 2017 Tsinghua Law Review article). It is unusual in that the practice came first and was not a top-down reform (顶级设计).

Concluding Comments

This discrete, technical reform is an important one for the rules relating to judicial decision-making better harmonized with judicial practice.  There are a number of unknowns.  One is whether it will result in judges feeling more comfortable in setting out their reasoning,  knowing that other judges may look to it.  An important question is how the practice of responding to cases will evolve–will judges tend to respond in their judgments, or as I suspect, do it orally. (As to why I think that–it is related to the desire of Chinese judges to reduce their risk under the judicial responsibility system).

In my view, this reform has the potential to make Chinese litigation a more predictable process. It is a bit of evidence of the gradual harmonization of the operations of the Chinese courts with the rest of the world,  as current circumstances permit.


The China International Commercial Court & the development of case law with Chinese characteristics

Screen Shot 2019-12-31 at 11.06.28 AM

Article in 30 December edition of People’s Court Daily

On 30 December 2019, I was quoted in an article that appeared in Supreme People’s Court (SPC) media (see the screenshot above).

“中国国际商事法庭的运作时间不长,但从迄今为止的运作中可以清楚看到,其受理案件非常慎重,会选择对中国相关法律发展产生影响的案件。”最高人民法院国际商事专家委员、北京大学国际法学院常驻知名学者Susan Finder表示,从首批案件的裁判文书可以明显看出,中国国际商事法庭的判决和裁定对于下级法院的法官和法律界人士来说,可能是重要的“软先例”,即权威性的裁判。

The CICC has been in operation a short time…What is clear from its operations so far is that it is carefully choosing its cases, only selecting cases that will have an impact on the development of relevant Chinese law. What seems evident from the initial rulings, at least, is that the judgments and rulings of the CICC are likely to be significant for lower court judges and members of the legal community as “soft precedents,” authoritative decisions….

It is an excerpt from a brief article that I am setting out below as I wrote it in English (I have added (’s) translation of excerpts from certain documents) and Chinese translation (many thanks to a knowledgeable person who took a break from year-end case closing to do this elegant translation).

I am honored to have this opportunity to comment on some of the first rulings and judgments of the China International Commercial Court (CICC). This brief commentary will address the significance of CICC judgments and rulings and the CICC arbitration-related rulings.

The CICC has been in operation a short time and it is early days to provide a more detailed analysis of its operations. What is clear from its operations so far is that it is carefully choosing its cases, only selecting cases that will have an impact on the development of relevant Chinese law. What seems evident from the initial rulings, at least, is that the judgments and rulings of the CICC are likely to be significant for lower court judges and members of the legal community as “soft precedents,”  authoritative decisions that are highly persuasive although not binding on the lower courts. Authoritative commentators in China and abroad have noted that the arbitration rulings fill a gap in Chinese arbitration law. The rulings are also consistent with the position taken by courts in some major jurisdictions that also find that the parties expressed their intent to arbitrate any dispute although their contract was never finalized. In the view of this commentator, they are part of China developing its own case guidance system, highlighted in item #26 of the 5th Judicial Reform Outline, in particular the phrase “Improve working mechanisms for mandatory searches and reporting of analogous cases and new types of cases” “完善类案和新类型案件强制检索报告工作机制” . It was previously mentioned in Opinions on Putting a Judicial Responsibility System in Place and Improving Mechanisms for Trial Oversight and Management (Provisional) –“on the foundation of improving working mechanisms such as consulting similar cases and judgment guidance a mechanism is to be established requiring the search of similar cases and relevant cases, to ensure a uniform judgment standard for similar cases, and the uniform application of law “最高人民法院关于落实司法责任制完善审判监督管理机制的意见(试行), (六) 在完善类案参考、裁判指引等工作机制基础上,建立类案及关联案件强制检索机制,确保类案裁判标准统一、法律适用统一 .

Moreover, thus far, five judges formed the members of the collegial panel, all of whom are the Chinese court’s most outstanding specialists on cross-border issues, including the judicial review of arbitration. This indicates the importance to which the Supreme People’s Court attaches to CICC cases.

In this commentator’s view, addition to CICC cases, other cases decided by or selected by the Supreme People’s Court would be classified as such. For example, cases decided by the Supreme People’s Court Intellectual Property Rights Court 最高人民法院知识产权法庭 would also be allocated to the category that I call “Supreme People’s Court soft precedents.” Other Supreme People’s Court soft precedents would include cases in the Supreme People’s Court Gazette 最高人民法院公报案件,  cases in the trial guides published by the various operational divisions 各个业务庭发表的审判业务指导丛书选的案件,and cases of the specialized judges committees of the SPC operational divisions 和各个业务庭专业法官会议案件。

In my view, cases decided by the collegial panels of the Supreme People’s Court are also persuasive, but not as persuasive as Supreme People’s Court cases in the categories described above. Supreme People’s Court circuit court cases are very persuasive to the courts within their jurisdiction. This case law is needed to supplement law and judicial interpretations and guide the lower courts correctly, as many new issues come before the courts before the legislative organs have time to amend legislation. I see China evolving its own case law, looking to traditional law and foreign jurisdictions for reference, but settling upon rules that fit China’s special situation, that may include some of the points I mention above. CICC decisions, whether rulings or judgments, will send important signals to the market, and are likely to be significant worldwide, as there is a documented increase in international arbitration cases where either the contract in dispute is governed by Chinese law or Chinese law is relevant in various ways.

The Chinese version:



中国国际商事法庭的运作时间不长,对其运作进行更详细的分析还为时过早。 但从其迄今为止的运作中可以清楚看到的是,中国国际商事法庭选择其受理的案件非常慎重,只选择会对中国相关法律发展产生影响的案件。 至少从首批裁定可以明显看出,中国国际商事法庭的判决和裁定对于下级法院的法官和法律界人士来说,可能是重要的“软先例”,即权威性的裁判,虽然对下级法院没有约束力,但具有很强的说服力。 国内外权威专家均指出,这批裁定填补了中国仲裁法的一项空白。 这些裁定也与一些主要法域法院的立场保持了一致,也即尽管双方当事人的合同并未最后敲定,但双方都表示有意将争议提交仲裁。 在本文作者看来,这些裁判构成中国发展自己的案例指导制度的一部分,正如第五个司法改革纲要第26项所强调的,特别是“完善类案和新类型案件强制检索报告工作机制” 。 此前,最高人民法院关于落实司法责任制完善审判监督管理机制的意见(试行)曾提及“(六) 在完善类案参考、裁判指引等工作机制基础上,建立类案及关联案件强制检索机制,确保类案裁判标准统一、法律适用统一 。”

此外,到目前为止,合议庭均由五名法官组成,全部都是中国法院在跨境问题(包括仲裁司法审查)方面最杰出的专家。 由此可见最高人民法院对国际商事法庭案件的重视程度。

本文作者认为,除国际商事法庭案件外,最高人民法院审理或选取的其他案件也将被归入此类案例。例如,最高人民法院知识产权法庭判决的案件,也可归为所说的“最高人民法院软判例”,最高人民法院其他软判例还包括最高人民法院公报案例、各个业务庭发表的审判业务指导丛书选的案例和各个业务庭专业法官会议案例。我认为,最高人民法院合议庭判决的案件也具有说服力,但是没有上述几类案例的说服力强。 最高人民法院巡回法庭案例对其辖区内的法院具有很强的说服力。 由于立法机关往往来不及修改立法,许多新问题就摆在了法院面前,因此需要以判例来补充法律和司法解释以正确指导下级法院。 我看到中国正在发展自己的判例法,参考传统法律和外国司法管辖区的做法,但最终确定适合中国特殊国情的规则,这可能包括上文提到的一些要点。 国际商事法庭的裁判,无论是裁定还是判决,都将向市场发出重要信号,而且很可能在全球范围内产生重大影响,因为已有相关文件显示,争议合同适用中国法,或者中国法在不同方面予以适用的国际仲裁案件不断在增加。

Happy New Year!