Farewell Judge Fang Jingang

 

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Funeral of Judge Fang Jinggang, #4 Circuit Court, Zhengzhou

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from website of Yale’s Paul Tsai China Center

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While Party leaders (including Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang) were attending the 19th Communist Party Congress, tragedy again struck the Chinese judiciary. Supreme People’s Court (SPC) Judge Fang Jingang, who was working in the #4 Circuit Court in Zhengzhou, succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 51. Joining the dark-suited crowd pictured above (his circuit court colleagues and selected current and former senior personnel from Supreme People’s Court (SPC) headquarters and elsewhere, including his former superior Jing Hanchao, now deputy secretary of the Central Political Legal Committee )  in spirit was a large crowd of former colleagues and friends, located in China and abroad who were unable to attend the funeral in person.

Judge Fang can be considered a symbol of the new generation of elite Chinese judges. He spent many years  in the local courts as well as the SPC and also spent time abroad.  Like many of his colleagues, he had a PhD, and had worked in Hunan courts before being recruited to the SPC, initially to the Institute of Applied Jurisprudence and SPC’s judicial reform office. While at the Institute and thereafter, he and colleagues translated foreign materials (including several year-end reports of the federal judiciary) for internal reference and publication and he continued to research and make use of foreign law. He also spent several months at Yale Law School as a visiting scholar and as a result made friends among the Chinese law academic community in the United States (and continued to keep up with English language news, presumably from foreign sources).

After he returned to China he transferred to the “front line”–to the SPC’s case acceptance division and #2 civil division and was also sent to work in Tibet’s Higher People’s Court for three years under the SPC’s “assist Tibet” program.  While at the #2 civil division, he was part of the team of people drafting the #4 Company Law interpretation and has been at the #4 Circuit Court in Zhengzhou since the beginning of this year.  He continued to work with his #2 civil division colleagues on the Company Law interpretation and somehow find time to write articles on the interpretation, including one comparing US corporation law with the new Company Law interpretation, the latter published posthumously.

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Judge Fang in meeting at 4th Circuit with Columbia Law School Prof. Benjamin Liebman & others, May, 2017

SPC-related media obituaries range from the very official (on the SPC website) to the more personal (this one with quotes from several of his former colleagues). Early indications are that Judge Fang may also become a “model judge” (like Judge Zou Bihua) as SPC President Zhou Qiang and Executive Vice President Shen Deyong have already said that others should learn from Judge Fang. Judge Fang was posthumously awarded the title of “national excellent judge.”

Query whether Judge Fang’s death might indicate that the SPC’s circuit court model is too “lean and mean.” Statistics issued by the SPC in August indicate that almost half of all cases accepted by the SPC in the first half of this year have been accepted by the circuit courts, meaning that circuit court judges are under extreme pressure to deal with cases that are complicated/involving large amounts in dispute on time, and discrete inquiries indicate that many are working weekends and into the night.  Like Fang, many of them who were involved in judicial interpretation drafting when working at SPC headquarters continue to provide input to the work of their colleagues at SPC headquarters and are pulled into other research and writing projects.  And like Fang, working in a circuit court means that they away from their families.

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Judge Fang, center, singing karaoke

When singing karaoke recently, he changed the lyrics of a song to say “live as a fourth circuit person, die as a fourth circuit spirit.” 还说:“生是四巡人,死是四巡鬼”

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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).]

 

What are China’s new circuit courts doing?

#1Circuit Court Building

#1 Circuit Court Building

In January, 2015, the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) established circuit courts (actually circuit tribunals) in Shenzhen and Shenyang.  Are they doing anything more than serving as places to divert petitioners from Beijing?  In September I visited the #1 Circuit Court in Shenzhen to have a look for myself.

The #1 Circuit Court It is located in the former Shenzhen Intermediate Court building, but an annex contains the reception area for petitioners and separate area with courtrooms.  Visitors, including petitioners, enter through the entrance in the photo below. The burdensome security checks that Chinese lawyers have complained about for many years still operate, with security personnel (and the system under which they operate) who seem to be unable to distinguish between professional visitors and persons who may be a security threat.

The circuit courts are not separate level of courts, but a branch of the Court, but have a narrower jurisdiction, as set out in the regulations governing their operation, primarily civil, commercial, and administrative.

Part of the goal of the circuit court is to implement the personnel and structural reforms that the Court is promoting.  There are 12 judges, plus 12 judge’s assistants, who come from areas outside the circuit.  The twelve judges are  profiled on the Court’s website.  The judges do not serve in fixed collegiate panels, but each serves as presiding judge, with cases assigned randomly, and hearings in appeal cases focused on the issues in dispute on appeal, rather than a re-opening of the entire dispute.

The #1 Circuit Court occasionally “rides circuit”– hears cases outside of its headquarters.

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Caseload

As of early September, the #1 Circuit Court had accepted close to 500 cases.  The hearing that I attended was an appeal from the Hainan Higher People’s Court, a dispute over shareholding between a Hebei and Beijing companies.  The presiding judge was Gao Xiaoli, formerly of the #4 civil division, who often writes and speaks on arbitration, private international law, and judicial review of arbitration.  She, like her other colleagues is highly experienced.

Petitioners

As described in a blogpost by Ivy Chen, a former intern with the circuit court:

In the Court, the interns first review the petitioners’ materials. If these materials fulfill the procedural requirements, the petitioners then would talk to the judge’s clerks and the clerks would decide whether to recommend the case for a further review by the judges. The judges would make the final decision of whether to grant a retrial. The clerks in the Court were actually sitting judges from the High People’s Court and Intermediate People’s Court from provinces other than Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan. My job there included: 1. to review the cases filed by petitioners and decide whether their cases have fulfilled the procedural requirements stipulated in the procedure laws, and whether the cases belong to the 11 categories of case stipulated to be handled by the Court; 2. to assist the clerks to document each petitioner’s case; and 3. to review the letters written to the Court, categorize the letters by their subject matter (criminal, civil, administrative or non-litigation), geographical associations and procedural status, and decide whether the letters should be resent to the High People’s Court of Guangdong, Guangxi or Hainan, or be resent to the SPC in Beijing or stay with the Court for the judges to review…..during the work, people realized that many petitioners have difficulty in finding good legal assistance and then the Court set up place for lawyers to offer free legal advice to the petitioners in late July.

Window to the world or window dressing?

The  #1 Circuit Court isn’t window dressing, although it seems to receive foreign delegations regularly.  What it does is provide the Court with more headcount to hear more cases, pilot  structures promoted in the judicial reforms in a environment under the Court’s direct control, seek to improve the quality of its legal policy role by research into local legal issues and greater interaction with the local legal communities.  Shenzhen is often on the leading edge in China in legal matters, particularly in commercial law.

New circuit courts opening soon in Shenzhen and Shenyang

Chinese press reports have revealed that the Supreme People’s Court (Court) will establish pilot circuit courts (巡回法庭) in Shenzhen and Shenyang by year’s end.  According to Chinese social media, Judge Liu Guixiang will head the Shenzhen circuit court, which has now been officially confirmed.  The vice presidents in Shenzhen will be Zhou Fan, formerly deputy head of the #4 civil division and Kong Xiangjun, formerly deputy head of the #3 civil division.  Hu Yunteng will head the Shenyang circuit court, while the vice presidents will be Zheng Xuelin, who now heads the environmental division and Yu Zhengping of the trial supervision tribunal.

The Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform approved their establishment in early December.  Although documents have not yet been released describing their location, jurisdiction or the personnel appointed, press reports pinpoint the former site of the Shenzhen Intermediate Court on Hongling Road as the location of the Shenzhen circuit court, with jurisdiction over administrative and major commercial trans-provincial cases arising in Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hainan. According to press reports, the Court issued a notice to judges inviting applications for the circuit courts.

On 30 December, the Court announced that the circuit courts will start taking cases from the beginning of 2015.