The Supreme People’s Court and interpreting the law, revisited

Marriage law judicial opinion

Marriage law judicial opinion

The topic of the Supreme People’s Court and the interpretation of law is one that vexes many, legal practitioners and academics alike.  Although the Chinese constitution vests the power to interpret law with the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC SC), the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) actively issue interpretations of law. The Court more so than the SPP, because it deals with a broader range of legal issues.  These interpretations of law are critical to the operation of the Chinese legal system because national law tends to set out broad principles that require additional legal infrastructure to be workable and the courts, in particular, need that legal infrastructure to decide cases.

A 1981 decision by the NPC SC delegated to the Court the authority to interpret law relating to questions involving the specific application of laws and decrees in court trials, while the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) was delegated authority to interpret law relating to questions involving the specific application of laws and decrees in procuratorial work.  The Organic Law of the People’s Courts re-iterates the delegation of authority to interpret law to the Court. Oddly enough, the principle is not in the Organic Law of the People’s Procuratorates. Interpretations by both the SPP and the Court are known as “judicial interpretations.”

In 2015, the Legislation Law, which had previously not addressed interpretation of law by the Court and the SPP, addressed the issue in Article 104.  This article is taken as intended to codify existing practice, because the explanation of the law recognizes the practical necessity of judicial interpretations:

  • “Interpretations on the specific application of law in adjudication or procuratorate work issued by the Supreme People’s Court or Supreme People’s Procuratorate shall primarily target specific articles of laws, and be consistent with the goals, principles and significance of legislation.”
  • It requires the Court (or SPP) in the situation described in the second paragraph of Article 45 of the Legislation Law (where the NPC SC  gives interpretations of national law), to submit a request for a legal interpretation, or a proposal to draft or amend relevant law, to the NPC SC.

(The explanation of the law  (legislative history) provides further background).

The process for drafting Court interpretations described in the 2007 regulations requires that the views of the relevant special committee or department of the NPC SC be solicited during the drafting process, and there would be pushback from the NPC SC if it was considered that the judicial interpretation had gone ‘too far.’

What types of judicial interpretations are there?

The 2007 Court regulations on judicial interpretations (linked here)  limit judicial interpretations to the following four types:

Those 2007  regulations set out various procedures for drafting and promulgating judicial interpretations, including a requirement that they be approved by the Court’s judicial committee and be made public.  As discussed in earlier blogposts, broad public consultation may be done if it affects the “vital interests of the people or major and difficult issues. These regulations also provide that judges may cite judicial interpretations as the basis for a court decision or ruling. Article 23 of the 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan mentions reform of judicial interpretations:

Improve the Supreme People’s Court’s methods of trial guidance, increase the standardization, timeliness, focus and efficacy of judicial interpretations and other measures of trial guidance. Reform and improve mechanisms for the selection, appraisal and release of guiding cases. Complete and improve working mechanisms for the uniform application of law.

As discussed in earlier blogposts, the Court also issues other documents with normative provisions that do not fit the above definition.  Those will be discussed separately.

The Supreme People’s Court and the Interpretation of Law

This post that focuses on the Supreme People’s Court’s (Court) authority to interpret law. My intent is to avoid the quicksand of academic discussion on the topic, which has run for over 20 years in Chinese, English, and other languages and focus instead, on what the Court is doing. This topic also gives me an opportunity to provide a historical perspective, because I examined this topic in detail 20 years ago.
This seemingly theoretical topic is relevant to the work of a broad range of people (among others);
• Lawyers reviewing memoranda from their China-based lawyers;
• Journalists;
• Consular officials stationed in China;
• Regulatory officials who are charged with monitoring exports from China; an
• Foreign and international judicial officials charged with international judicial assistance; and
• Arbitrators in cases involving Chinese law.
These posts will explain (with some historical perspective):
• Why Court interpretations are important;
• Important functions of Court interpretations;
• What they look like;
• The Court’s legal basis for issuing them;
• On-going issues (and suggestions for reform).

Why are they important?
Court interpretations are an important source of legal rules in China, particularly for the courts, and have been for most of the history of the PRC. The number of client alerts by major international law firms is testimony to their importance to the international commercial world, but the Court interprets on many other areas of law of critical importance to ordinary Chinese citizens and the domestic economy. In the last 6 months, Court interpretations in the following areas have achieved international prominence include:
• Labor (employment) law;
• Conflicts of law (private international law);
• Civil trademark disputes and
• Criminal bribery.
Many other interpretations have missed the glare of international scrutiny , although they are significant for the substantive or procedural area involved (as well as the persons affected).
Some important functions of Court interpretations
Among the important functions of Court interpretations are to:
• supply missing definitions;
• supply missing concepts;
• set out missing procedures;
• embody political policy as relevant to the court system;
• refine the discretion of the lower courts; and
• generally fill in the gaping holes or glitches in Chinese legislation.
The Chinese judiciary and legal system would be unable to function without them.
It is an area of Court operation where the Court has changed what it does, for the better, particularly in comparison to 20 years ago. Subsequent posts will also explain what “better” is but also point out some “areas of concern.”