On 11 October, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued brief guidance establishing a mechanism for resolving its inconsistent decisions, entitled “Implementing Measures on Establishing a Mechanism for Resolving Differences in the Application of Law (Implementing Measures) (关于建立法律适用分歧解决机制的实施办法). The guidance did not appear in Chinese legal media until the end of October. The intent of the guidance is to create a mechanism to resolve the old problem of inconsistent court decisions concerning the same issue (same cases decided differently 同案不同判) made by Chinese courts and even within the SPC. Widespread use of the SPC’s judgments database has brought this phenomenon to greater public attention. With the explosion in the number of cases in the Chinese courts and in the SPC in particular in recent years, the issue of divergent views within the SPC on the same issue is likely to be occurring even more frequently. The concern about uniformity or consistency of judicial decisions has its roots in the traditional Chinese legal system and is an ongoing topic of discussion among Chinese judges, legal practitioners, legal academics, and law students.
For those with an interest in the details of how the SPC operates, this document does not have the status of a judicial interpretation but the SPC’s judicial committee has approved it, as is evident from the title of the document (measures/办法 and the document number 法发〔2019〕23号 (Fa Fa (2019) #23. Judicial interpretations must have one of four titles and have a document number with Fa Shi 法释. The reason that the SPC judicial committee approved it is linked to Article 7 of the recently released guidance on judicial committees: “the adjudication [judicial] committee of the Supreme People’s Court is to unify law through means such as adopting and drafting judicial interpretations and normative documents (规范性文件), and publishing guiding cases.”
This mechanism has its antecedents in several previous judicial reform documents, and is one that is contained reform measure #23 of the last round of judicial reforms and reform measure #26 of the current round::
#23….Complete and improve working mechanisms for the uniform application of law.
#26 Improve mechanisms for the uniform application of law. Strengthen and regulate work on judicial interpretations, complete mechanisms for researching, initiating, drafting, debating, reviewing, publishing, cleaning up, and canceling judicial interpretations, to improve centralized management and report review mechanisms. Improve the guiding cases system, complete mechanisms for reporting, selecting, publishing, assessing, and applying cases. Establish mechanisms for high people’s courts filing for the record trial guidance documents and reference cases. Complete mechanisms for connecting the work of case discussion by presiding judges and collegial panel deliberations, the compensation commission, and the judicial committee. Improve working mechanisms for mandatory searches and reporting of analogous cases and new types of case. (完善统一法律适用机制。 加强和规范司法解释工作，健全司法解释的调研、立项、起草、论证、审核、发布、清理和废止机制，完善归口管理和报备审查机制。完善指导性案例制度，健全案例报送、筛选、发布、评估和应用机制。建立高级人民法院审判指导文件和参考性案例的备案机制。健全主审法官会议与合议庭评议、赔偿委员会、审判委员会讨论案件的工作衔接机制。完善类案和新类型案件强制检索报告工作机制)
A brief summary of the mechanism is set out, followed by my preliminary thoughts on the mechanism and related issues.
The Implementing Measures, which went into effect on 28 October, provide that if certain SPC entities or lower courts discover that the SPC has issued valid judgments (判决) or rulings (裁定) (the Chinese term is “生效裁判”) which apply the law differently (存在法律适用分歧), or an ongoing case may result in the later decision applying the law differently from that in a previous SPC case, the matter should be brought to the attention of the SPC judicial committee through an application process managed by the Trial Management Office.
Article 1 of the Implementing Measures designates the SPC judicial committee (also translated as adjudication committee 审判委员会) as the institution to resolve and guide differences in the application of law.
Article 2 authorize operational divisions of the SPC (业务部门), the higher people’s courts and specialized people’s courts to submit an application to the SPC’s Trial Management Office which may be eventually considered by the SPC’s judicial committee if either:
- there is a discrepancy in the application of law of judicial decisions of the SPC that are already effective (最高人民法院生效裁判之间存在法律适用分歧的);
- or there is a difference in the application of law between the conclusions in a case being tried and principles or standards on the application of law already determined in effective decisions of the SPC (在审案件作出的裁判结果可能与最高人民法院生效裁判确定的法律适用原则或者标准存在分歧的).
Article 3 authorizes the China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence (CIAJ) to submit an application to the Trial Management Office if it encounters differences in the application of law in effective judgments of the SPC that it encounters during its focused research work on like cases decided consistently (类案同判专项研究).
If the Trial Management Office determines the matter should be accepted (project initiation) (立项), that office is required to refer the matter to the CIAJ, which is required to provide an initial view to the Trial Management Office within five working days. Presumably, they will do little additional research and will focus on reviewing the materials submitted by the entity involved. In some situations, it appears to put CIAJ in the odd position of reviewing its own work. The Trial Management Office forwards the initial view of the CIAJ to the SPC operational division involved for further review and response. The operational division involved may involve experts in needed. The operational division should draft a response (复审意见) in a timely manner to the Trial Management Office, which should submit a request to an SPC leader (presumably the relevant SPC vice president) to place the matter on the judicial committee agenda. Once the judicial committee makes a decision, the entity that applied for a determination is to be informed. The Trial Management Office is required to provide a proposal containing the form and scope of the decision by the judicial committee for approval (提出发布形式与发布范围意见). It can be anticipated that determinations on non-sensitive topics may be made public, while those on more sensitive topics will be distributed either solely within the court system or to a relevant category of judges. Article 11 of the Implementing Measures requires SPC operational divisions, local courts, and specialized courts to make reference and implement (参照执行) the SPC judicial committee’s decision in the course of their work. Presumably that will depend on how widely distributed the determination is.
Some preliminary thoughts
In my view, the mechanism is a microcosm of themes reflecting how the SPC operates. As mentioned above, the SPC decides (either through judgments or rulings) large numbers of cases yearly, and the SPC responds to an unknown number of requests for instructions (请示), mostly on legal issues, which means that in practice that issues on the same body of law may be determined by different divisions of the SPC or different teams of SPC judges. So differences in legal issues may arise either through litigation or court administrative-type procedures. While SPC judges in practice (as I understand it) search for similar cases, it is inevitable that different people have different views on legal issues. Unlike some other legal systems, the SPC has not evolved an en banc or enlarged panel of judges (this description of how France’s highest court operates provides a good example) as the final institution for resolving these issues. Designating the SPC’s judicial committee reflects the traditional administrative way (官本位) that SPC makes major decisions concerning legal issues. As I described in a recent blogpost, the members of the SPC’s judicial committee are its senior leaders.
I surmise that many of the differences in views will be resolved before the matters reach the judicial committee. In comments made on the Implementing Measures, Justice He Xiaorong (head of the #2 Circuit Court) mentions that he has inaugurated a system of enlarged panels of judges that include those with a public law and private law background, and familiar with civil, criminal, and administrative law, to consider cases involving difficult issues. That system will reduce somewhat the pipeline of issues possibly entering this mechanism. For those issues that enter the mechanism, it is possible that opposing views may be harmonized when the operational division of the SPC needs to respond to the points summarized by the CIAJ. I predict that relatively few questions will go to the SPC judicial committee itself. The mechanism may have been designed with that goal in mind or may have that impact.
Additionally, from my reading of the Implementing Measures, the drafting could have benefited from more input from greater input either within the SPC or without, which could have avoided some of the problems I point out below. I surmise that the drafters were so used to the terminology used within the SPC, they did not realize that lack of clarity will confuse the lower courts and the greater legal community, for whom this system may have practical implications. In particular, the Implementing Measures:
- do not define what is meant by differences in the application of law (法律适用分歧). Presumably, a major difference in the application of law is intended and the SPC judicial committee (and its gatekeeper, which appears to be the Trial Management Office) will consider carefully which inconsistencies merit a determination by the judicial committee. My understanding is that the judicial committee is reluctant to reverse its determinations on particular legal issues within a short time, as it seeks to provide legal certainty on particular issues through judicial interpretations and other documents. As I described in my 2019 article on the SPC and FTZs, rules or policies included in SPC judicial policy documents may eventually be crystallized in SPC judicial interpretations and eventually codified in national law, but that process is slow and cannot meet the needs of the lower courts, which need to deal properly (politically and legally) with outstanding legal issues pending a more permanent stabilization.
- do not define the term “裁判,” which generally refers to judgments (判决) and rulings (裁定). To a casual reader, at least, it is not clear whether it is intended to include responses to requests for instructions (requests for advisory opinions, 请示). As I wrote in a blogpost earlier this year, some responses to requests for instructions are entitled fuhan 复函 and others dafu 答复. The editors (from the SPC) of a two-volume collection of responses described them as ‘usually called quasi-judicial interpretation documents’ (往往被称为准司法解释性文件) and ‘a necessary supplement to judicial interpretations’ (它是对司法解释一种必须的补充). It is not unusual for these responses to conflict with one another, as reasonable people can disagree and multiple institutions within the SPC issue responses on the same or related bodies of law. I have not noticed a document (at least one that was made public–I’d be grateful to be informed otherwise) describing an existing mechanism requiring the drafters of these responses to review related responses issued by other divisions. Differences in the application of law could also arise between an existing response and later judgment, or draft judgment.
- do not define what is meant by “业务部门” (operational departments/divisions). Does it include the SPC’s Research Office (which one knowledgeable person described as a comprehensive operational department (综合业务部门)), which often issues responses to requests for instructions? Research into another issue has led to an authoritative answer to this question. The knowledgeable person was citing “chapter and verse” from a 1995 SPC reply:”研究室是一个综合性的审判业务部门 ” (see Reply of the Supreme People’s Court as to Whether the Research Office is an Operational Department (最高人民法院关于人民法院研究室是否属审判业务部门的复函).
- are very weak on specific procedures for when a question of law should be referred to this mechanism. Consider, for example, a case that is being considered by one of the divisions of the SPC. 2017 SPC regulations on the SPC’s responsibility system mention professional (presiding) judges meetings (as discussed in a 2017 blogpost and again several times this year. The Implementing Measures do not specify whether the issue should be reviewed by the division’s professional judges meeting before it is submitted to the Trial Management Office. Presumably that will be the case, as the judicial committee guidance requires it. In Justice He Xiaorong, clarifies that the professional judges meeting is an important institution for resolving differences in the application of law. As a practical matter, will this procedure suspend civil litigation procedures? It is unclear.
- do not clarify what will be included in the package of documents that goes to the Trial Management Office. Will it be similar to the documents that go to the judicial committee under its new guidance on judicial committees? It appears that the Implementing Measures are not well integrated with the new guidance on judicial committees. I surmise (please message me if I am mistaken) that the drafting of the Implementing Measures and the guidance on judicial committees was siloed, a frequent problem in the Chinese and other bureaucracies, so that the drafters of the Implementing Measures were unaware of the details of the new judicial committee guidance. As I wrote last month, those contain more specific requirements concerning the content of the report that the judges are required to prepare for the judicial committee, including arguments by both/all parties, prosecution/defense counsel and a clear listing of the issues on the application of law that require discussion and decision by the adjudication committee, the opinions of the professional (presiding) judges meeting. The guidance also requires judges preparing these reports to search for similar or related cases. I surmise that these requirements will be consolidated in practice.
- give special authority to the CIAJ in the course of its research work on like cases. It is also possible that CIAJ could encounter major inconsistencies in its other work, such as compiling its Selection of People’s Court Cases (mentioned in my 2017 Tsinghua China Law Review article). Moreover, it is curious that the CIAJ is given this special authority but not an analogous institution in the National Judges College. Article 3 authorizes the CIAJ to submit an application relating to differences in the application discovered in the course of its work, while the Judicial Case Academy of the SPC (under the National Judges College) (see a list of its 2018-2019 research projects) has no such authority, giving the careful reader the impression that the CIAJ led the drafting of the Implementing Measures. It appears to be a version of a phenomenon I described in a draft article, that because the SPC is a large organization, with many entities competing for top leadership attention, policy documents are sometimes drafted with consideration of institutional interests, as a policy document approved by the SPC judicial committee can be seen as representing an undertaking by SPC leadership to the institutional goals of division or entity involved.