What Is the Impact of the SPC’s Circuit Courts?

President Zhou Qiang’s May, 2020  report to the National People’s Congress (which I will analyze when time permits) revealed that the number of cases that the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has increased about 10% over last year to 38,498 cases accepted. This year’s report usefully set out a bar graph with the number of cases that the SPC accepted and concluded.

 

These (also from the report) show that in 2019, almost 60% of the SPC’s cases were heard in the six circuit courts.

This is not accidental, but the result of intentional SPC policy. Judge He Xiaorong, current head of the #2 Circuit Court (and former head of the SPC’s judicial reform office) stated five years ago–” after the circuit courts (literally tribunals) are established, the center of the work of SPC headquarters will shift to supervision and guidance, primarily trying cases that have a major guiding function in unifying the application of law, that can become guiding cases  (巡回法庭普遍设立后,最高人民法院本部应当将工作重心转移到监督指导上,主要审理一些对统一法律适用有重大指导意义、具有重大示范价值、能够作为指导性案例的案件).

There has been one academic article in English (that I am aware of) (by Professors Chen and Wang) that focuses on the circuit courts, but looking at large scale policy rather than more granular analysis of circuit court decisions, whether in the form of judgments or rulings, or how circuit courts guide the lower courts, the impact on law practice in circuit court cities, and what it means for law students.  I’ll set out some quick thoughts on each topic.

Circuit Court Judgments & Rulings

According to the research of Tsinghua Professor He Haibo and colleagues, most of the SPC documents are rulings rather than judgments.  According to their data relating to 2017, 91% of the documents were rulings (relating to applications for retrial or trial supervision), with judgments accounting for about 4%, which in the authors’ view, makes it difficult for the SPC to fully fulfill its function of supervising and guiding the lower courts. This statement has made me think more about what the circuit courts are doing, particularly behind the scenes, as “supervising and guiding” the lower courts has multiple meanings.

What appears not to be generally known is that a substantial proportion of the cases heard in the circuit courts are administrative cases, although Chinese law firms have done many big data reports of commercial cases heard in the circuit courts. I am not aware of a comprehensive study on the number and type of administrative cases in the circuit courts.  This report on the #3 Circuit notes that approximately 70% of the cases were administrative, without breaking out annual statistics. I understand that similar statistics are true for the #1, #2, and #6 Circuit Courts. This report from a Shaanxi law firm on #6 Circuit cases (based on 2017-first half of 2019) found that practically all administrative rulings (96%) rejected the applicant’s request to retry or remand the cases (see the pie chart below).
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The law firm commented that of the administrative cases that were accepted, most of them involved the taking of collective land and the condemnation of housing on state-owned land, indicating government enforcement issues (among others). The comments of the lawyers on the judgments indicated that “administration according to law” is still a long term goal, particularly in western China, as the cases revealed instances of local governments:

  1. condemning or taking land and housing without obtaining approval;
  2. taking land or housing in excess of administrative authority;
  3. taking land or housing first, then obtaining approval;
  4. failing to compensate real estate owners or land use rights holders;
  5. failing to follow required procedures;
  6. demonstrating poor awareness of law, including procedural and evidentiary requirements;
  7. failing to protect the rights of related persons;
  8. failing to comply with open government regulations.

This data is consistent with what I had understood from other sources. One informed commentator mentioned that circuit courts are reluctant to order the retrial of administrative cases. He attributed it to “holistic” thinking on the part of judges (my term–considering factors other than those relating to the case), particularly social stability, the need to uphold the prestige of government, etc.

However, in addition to judgments and rulings, circuit courts use other ways of guiding local courts, and indirectly, local governments.

 How the circuit courts guide the lower courts

Doing some further digging, I found that circuit courts use their judgments and rulings in other more traditional ways to guide the lower courts.  Among those are:

Circuit Courts and Elite Law Firms

Another impact of the circuit courts is to attract some of the elite Beijing or Shanghai law firms to establish branches in circuit court cities.  Tian Tong Law Firm appears to be one of the first, but I’ve also noticed that some of the other big Chinese law firms have followed Tian Tong’s lead. The impact on lawyer career paths remains to be seen, but it is likely to improve the level of litigation practice in some locations.

Circuit Courts and Chinese law students

Finally, having a circuit court nearby has an unrecognized benefit for Chinese law students, many of whom are educated in a very traditional way, with little experience in thinking through legal problems in a comprehensive way or are unused to using their research skills analytically.  It also enables the circuit courts to have greater intellectual support, without expanding their headcount.  From my conversations with law students who have interned in circuit courts, the experience has given them the opportunity to undertake thorough analysis on new issues and to have their work reviewed carefully by highly qualified and experienced mentor judges or judge’s assistants.  It has also given some law students an appreciation of the demands of working “in the system” rather than the more relaxed environment of a university, as several of my students found when they didn’t realize that they needed to inform their supervisors ahead of time about taking leave from their internships to return to school!

 

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.