Supreme People’s Court gears up for 19th Party Congress

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As the days count down to the 19th Party Congress, all Party/government institutions are preparing for it, including the Supreme People’s Court (SPC). On 19 September, the SPC issued an emergency notice (pictured above), calling on the lower courts to strengthening law enforcement work to provide a good judicial environment for the holding of the 19th Party Congress.  The SPC, as other Party/government institutions, issue emergency notices from time to time (here’s one from the Ministry of Education), generally linked to a politically significant event. The full text for the SPC notice hasn’t been released (or if it has, it has escaped me). It is meant to send signals to the SPC staff and to the lower courts.

Some of the signals:

  • improve performance indicator systems (indicating too many courts still have dysfunctional performance indicators);
  • handle more cases, handle them well, handle them quickly (多办案、办好案、快办案, language better suited to the factory floor);
  • ensure that the goal of having  difficulties in enforcement basically resolved in three years is achieved (again….);
  • clear up those unresolved cases (要抓好长期未结案件清理,确保依法妥善清理案件)–this is being taken seriously by court leaders, again judges (and their clerks, assistants and interns). The PhDs (and Master’s degree holders) praised by the SPC may feel they are somewhere between a model production worker and a real judge (or clerk.). (Of the SPC quota judges, about 1/3 have PhDs, with over half holding a master’s degree), and PhDs are not unusual in the lower courts, at least in major cities.)  An unscientific survey shows judges and their support staff doing more overtime during the pre-19th Party Congress and pre-Golden Week holiday to meet this target;
  • reminds the lower courts about the case registration reform and reminds judges that cases should be accepted, even towards year end, when courts are concerned about their case closing numbers, especially the number of cases that will be carried over to the next year, and warns them against reporting false closing statistics  (坚决杜绝人为抬高立案门槛、拖延立案、年底前提前关门不收案等突出问题), (切实防止虚假报结、强迫撤诉);
  • reminds courts about another important but controversial judicial reform, implementing the judicial responsibility system (insightful analysis and research from within the courts on this is coming out, see this recent article in the National Judicial College’s journal);
  • it reminds judges of ways to deal with the increase and cases and reduction in headcount–use diversified dispute resolution, separate simple from complicated cases, and try similar cases together.

The SPC released some year to date (end August) statistics (I’m drilling down on the state of transparency in this area)–close to 16 million newly accepted cases (15.89 million), no breakdown on how cases are categorized, closed cases up to 12.67 million (up 15.7%). This indicates continued high pressure on first instance judges and their assistants. I’m awaiting data on what the vortex of reforms means for retaining high quality judges.

 

 

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China’s draft court law

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Screenshot of trial in the Haidian district court

A draft of the first comprehensive overhaul of China’s court law since 1979 (the organic/organizational law of the people’s courts) is now open for public comment (until 4 October).  A translation of the draft is available at Chinalawtranslate.com (many thanks to those who made it possible).  A translation of the current law is here and an explanation of the amendments has also been published.  The draft is significantly longer than the earlier version of the law (66 vs. 40 articles). It retains much of the framework of the old law, incorporates legislative changes as well many of the judicial reforms, particularly since the Third and Fourth Plenums, and leaves some flexibility for future reforms. As with the current law, Communist Party regulations address (and add another layer to) some of the broad issues addressed in the draft law. Some comments:

Drafting process

The drafting process (the explanation has the details) reflects the drafting of much Chinese legislation (further insights about the process from Jamie Horsley here)–several years of soft consultation by the drafters of relevant Party and government authorities, plus one month of public consultations. Among the central Party authorities consulted were: Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Central Organizational Department (in charge of cadres); Central Staffing Commission (in charge of headcount); Central Political Legal Committee.  On the government side: Supreme People’s Court and Procuratorate; State Council Legislative Affairs Office; Ministry of Finance, National People’s Congress Legal Work Committee. Investigations and consultations were also done at a local level.

General Provisions

Some of the dated language from the 1979 version has been deleted (references to the “system of the dictatorship of the proletariat,” “socialist property,” and the “smooth progress of the socialist revolution.” replaced by “lawful rights and interests of legal persons,” and protection of national security and social order. Although the draft court law deletes language that distinguishes among owners of different types of Chinese companies, Chinese criminal law still does (see this chart setting out sentencing guidelines, for example).

Article 10 of the draft incorporates judicial responsibility systems into the law (a prominent feature of the recent judicial reforms), but a topic regarding which dispassionate analysis is hard to find.

The draft contains clear statements about judicial openness and the right of the masses (i.e. ordinary people, that term is alive and well) to know about the work of the courts (according to law).

Organization of the courts

The draft mentions some of the specialized and special courts that have been established over the last thirty years:

Article 14 incorporates the guiding case system into the draft.

Article 15 of the draft crystallizes the SPC’s circuit courts (tribunals) into law (SPC regulations on the jurisdiction of those courts found here).

Article 24 gives space for establishing cross-administrative region courts (the time has not yet been ripe for establishing them).

Articles 26 and 27 give courts some flexibility on their internal structure (courts in remote areas with few cases need not establish divisions, while large city courts can have multiple specialized ones. (Earlier blogposts have mentioned establishing bankruptcy divisions, for example.)

Trial Organization

This section of the draft law incorporates the current judicial reforms in several ways, including:

  • In Articles 30-31, on the operation of collegial panels and requiring the court president to be the presiding judge when s(he) participates in a collegial panel;
  • Mentioning in Article 32 that the members of the collegial panel are the ones to sign their judgments and dissenting opinions are to be recorded;
  • Article 34 gives space for eliminating the role of people’s assessors to determine issues of law;
  • Article 37 incorporates into law previous SPC regulations on judicial interpretations and guiding cases, specifying that they must be approved by the SPC judicial committee;
  • Article 40 contains provisions imposing liability on members of the adjudication/judicial committee for their comments and their votes. It also incorporates into the law SPC regulations on disclosing the views of the judicial committee in the final judgments, except where the law provides it would be inappropriate;
  • Article 41 also incorporates into the law the specialized committees mentioned in judicial reform documents (briefly discussed in prior blogposts).

Court Personnel

Article 42 requires court presidents to have legal knowledge and experience.  It has long been an issue that court presidents have been appointed more for their political than legal expertise.

It appears that the reform of having judges below the provincial level appointed by the provincial level is not yet in place,

This section of the draft court law incorporates the personnel reforms set out in the judicial reform documents in several ways: quota judge system; selecting higher court judges from the lower courts; the roles of judicial assistants and clerks (changed from the old model); other support personnel in the courts; a new career track for judges, including judicial selection committees; preference to hiring judges with legal qualifications;

Safeguards for the courts’ exercise of authority

Article 56 gives courts the right to refuse to engage in activities that violate their legally prescribed duties (with this end the phenomenon of judges sweeping streets?);

Article 57 relates to reforms relating to enforcement of judgments (and the social credit system);

Article 59 relates to threats to judges’ physical safety and personal dignity, that occur several times a year in China, and have been the subject of SPC regulations;

Scope for further reforms for judicial personnel management (including salary reform!) are included in this section.

Article 60 reiterates the principle that judges may only be transferred, demoted, dismissed according to procedures specified by law (Party procedures  to which most judges are subject,are governed by Party rules.)

Article 62 relates to judicial (and judicial personnel training)–some earlier blogposts have shed light on this topic.

Article 64 incorporates into the draft law President Zhou Qiang’s focus on the informatization (including use of the internet and big data) of the Chinese courts.

Etc.

My apologies to readers for the long gap between posts, but several long haul trips from Hong Kong plus teaching have left me no time to post.

Supreme People’s Court ramps up its judicial responsibility system

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 7.04.09 AMIn April of this year (2017), the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued its judicial responsibility guidelines.  At the end of July, the SPC issued a 73 article implementing opinion (最高人民法院司法责任制实施意见(试行)(Implementing Opinion), which went into effect on 1 August.  There have been many summary reports in the legal press, but the full text was not found until 11 August. It has since been published by several Wechat accounts, but as of this writing, no official text has been issued.  The policy basis for the responsibility system links back to the 3rd and 4th Plenum Decisions. Senior Party leadership (the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms) approved the SPC’s responsibility system.

The document establishes operating rules for the SPC  after this latest round of court reforms, and therefore sets guidelines for the lower courts. It can be expected that the lower courts will issue corresponding documents. Through the Implementing Opinion, it is possible to see how much autonomy an individual judge/three judge panel has and what matters require approval by senior SPC leaders.

Opinions (as this blog has previously explained) are not judicial interpretations but a type of judicial normative document.   A recent Wechat post by an SPC commercial subsidiary, Faxin (法信), described them as judicial guiding documents (司法指导性文件). That is the terminology being used for them in a series of books published by the People’s Court Press. Inconsistent legal terminology is not a new phenomenon.

The basic principles of the Implementing Opinion are said to implement central authorities’ requirements, let those who hear cases bear responsibility, clarify how cases are to be dealt with and put in place the Party group’s responsibility for enforcement (the phrase “Party group” actually is mentioned three times) and case handling. It appears that some provisions memorialize current practice, while others set out new rules.

The  Implementing Opinion specifies roles of different personnel and institutions within the SPC such as the court president (and vice presidents), heads of divisions, professional judges committee, judicial committee, presiding judges, judges in charge of cases, clerks, and judicial assistants. It provides guidelines on how cases are to dealt with, from case acceptance, random case assignment, to issuing decisions.

The Implementing Opinion includes the following (selected) provisions:

  • Details on staffing for judges (one assistant and one clerk in the circuit courts, and some assistants and clerks at headquarters) (Article 3);
  • those with a leadership role (President/vice president/vice/heads of divisions) should generally be the presiding judge (Article 5), while the judges in collegial panels should change every 2-5 years;
  • leaders need to hear cases, that are difficult/important/guiding, etc., but specialists are designated to assist them (Article 7);
  • rules on who will issue judgments, mentioning that the president of the SPC signs the  order for the implementation of the death penalty (this was understood to be the case already)(Article 11);
  • court leaders may not give oral/written instructions concerning a case (except as otherwise provided (i.e. cases that are considered by the judicial committee)(Article 12);
  • responsibilities of professional judges committees (a committee put into place under the judicial reforms); judicial committee (can be split into specialist civil, criminal, enforcement subcommittees) (role said to have narrowed, but include major/difficult cases affecting national interests & social stability, but also other non-case related duties such as approving judicial interpretations/judicial normative documents, etc., the judicial committees requires  views be stated in the judgment (Articles 16-19);
  • the basic rule is random case assignment, with exceptions for major/difficult cases (Article 26-27), with electronic service of process & documents if agreed (Article 32);
  • basic rule is online broadcast of SPC court hearings, unless approved by leaders otherwise (Article 33), with requirements concerning the posting of rulings/judgments and other transparency requirements mentioned in the document;
  • circuit courts are prohibited (in general) from considering requests for instructions (the rule makes sense–it would defeat one of the purposes of having circuit courts (Article 25, this is an example);
  •  Articles 41-43 relate to precedent case review (as suggested in my recent article) and require approval by leaders if the ruling in a case will be inconsistent with prior SPC rulings on the topic (this has been criticized as being inconsistent with judicial autonomy). Approval is required in several other situations, see Article 40 (2-4));
  • Articles 46-50 set forth rules for a collegiate panel to consider a case and submit it to the division leadership/professional judges committee/judicial committee;
  • Article 51 requires the judge responsible for the case (承办法官) to draft the decision reached according to the majority view, indicating that the role of responsible judge has administrative overtones. If not so, the judgment would be drafted by one of the judges who agreed with the majority view.
  • Article 58 retains existing special procedures (including special standards for transparency) for certain criminal cases, such as death penalty cases, cases involving foreigners, overseas Chinese, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwanese Chinese.
  • Article 61 provides the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) representative stationed at the SPC can be a member of the judicial committee (this seems to be analogous to the procedure under law under which a representative from the procuratorate can take part in judicial committee meetings). Additionally, anti-corruption officials stationed in each division can participate in professional judges committee meetings and collegiate panel discussions.   Article 61 does not require their views to be adopted.  It could be that their views are considered more seriously if discussions relate to matters regarding which they are competent.
  • Article 64 requires certain types of cases to be submitted for approval to higher levels of the SPC, including cases involving mass incidents, that will have an effect on social stability; difficult and complicated cases that will have a major effect on society; cases that will conflict with prior SPC cases; those that indicate the judge violated the law; death penalty review, major criminal cases, cases involving requests for instructions involving foreigners, overseas Chinese, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwanese Chinese.

The vision for the reformed SPC remains a court with administrative characteristics (官本位), with concepts derived from other jurisdictions (judge’s assistant would be an example), that enables Party guidance in sensitive cases and its operations to reflect changes in Party/government policy (serving the actual situation), but seeks to be a more professional and accessible institution, hearing cases in a professional manner. It can be surmised that certain provisions from the Implementing Opinion will be incorporated into the revisions of the Organizational Law of the People’s Courts currently being drafted.

 

 

China’s 19th Party Congress & Judicial Reform

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29 March meeting of Party leading group on judicial reform

Meng Jianzhu, Politburo member and head of the Communist Party Central Political Legal Committee, held a meeting in late March (photo above), to convey Xi Jinping’s message–those in leadership positions must do all possible to ensure that judicial system reform responsibility targets are basically achieved before the 19th Party congress (努力实现党的十九大召开前基本完成司法体制改革努力实现党的十九大召开前基本完成司法体制改革任务的目标). For those not familiar with Chinese political-legal jargon, “judicial system” (司法体制) means here the political-legal institutions–the courts, procuratorate, public/state security, and justice administration.   “Responsibility and targets” are also Chinese political jargon. Xi Jinping’s message dates from early January, when he highlighted this goal in instructions transmitted to the Communist Party Central Committee’s national political legal work conference.  He emphasized that the cornerstone of the judicial system reform is the judicial accountability system.  Part of the message  is that 2017 is a critical time, during which there is a “decisive battle” for deepening judicial reform, the battle intended to achieve those targets.  “Decisive battle” is also a core part of Chinese political jargon.

Since late March, Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang and other senior SPC leaders have been publicizing the target of completing judicial system reform, particularly the judicial accountability system, before the 19th Party Congress.  The SPC leadership has been doing that through meetings, both of the SPC itself (and the circuit courts) and the provincial-level courts and through SPC media outlets. President Zhou Qiang did so during a recent visit to Anhui, while on April 7, executive vice president Shen Deyong, vice-president Li Shaoping, and Political Department head Xu Jiaxin transmitted that message on a nationwide court video conference. This message is likely to be repeated in the months leading up to the 19th Party Congress.

In recent days, the SPC’s judicial reform office has been explaining these reforms to the public that reads SPC professional publications, such as the People’s Court Daily and China Trial, with some of the core content in the form of FAQs.  The reforms outline the way a post-reform court should operate. Some of the points were previously set out in the SPC’s February, 2017 judicial reform white paper.

A brief summary of the responses follows below:

  1. Why is the responsibility system the critical part of the judicial system reform (司法体制改革的“牛鼻子”)? Answer: because Xi Jinping said it, and judicial power and accountability/responsibility go together; accountability limits power.
  2. What is the responsibility of a presiding judge? Answer: take the lead in a case, by outlining the hearing of the case, allocating responsibilities, taking the lead at trial and in post-trial discussions, and in cases of significant differences of opinion, submit the case to either a specialist judges’ committee or judicial committee.
  3. How should the system of court president’s and division chief’s hearing cases be improved?Court leading cadres have multiple identities, including Party administrative responsibilities, and they must concurrently plan, announce and implement Party construction and adjudication [substantive] work, and for those who are quota judges, they should hear some cases too. Those cases should depend on a person’s background and strengths and should be major, difficult, complicated, or new cases which are representative.
  4. What is the relationship between judicial teams and court divisions? Answer: A Judicial team is comprised of judges, judge assistants, clerks and other auxiliary personnel, formulated respective lists of responsibilities of judges, judge assistants, and clerks, established the new judicial work mechanism with judges at the core and the team members cooperating with each other closely,
  5. When judges are randomly assigned to cases, how should the judge in charge of the case be determined? Answer: random selection should be primary, supplemented by assigned cases.
  6. How should the reform of having judges sign judicial documents [judgments/rulings, etc.] be understood? Answer: Judges who hear cases should sign their judgments and senior court leaders should no longer review or sign the judgments on the cases when they had not been personally involved.
  7. How should the reform of having a conference of professional judges be understood? Answer: judges in different substantive areas can organize committees to provide their views to other judges on problematic issues, reducing the number of cases referred to the judicial committee.
  8. In courts where there are many judges, how large should the conference of professional judges be? Answer:basically, it depends on the profile of the cases and the number of judges.
  9. What type of management and oversight responsibilities will a court president have besides hearing cases? He (she) will monitor judgments and rulings, sometimes recommending the matter go the judicial committee (see further details in the white paper).
  10. What type of management and oversight responsibilities will a division chief have in addition to his responsibilities hearing cases? As delegated by the court president, a division chief can review matters such as extending a defendant’s period of arrest or detention, or other compulsory measures or extend the period for submitting evidence.
  11. When judicial power is delegated down in judicial reform, how can it be monitored? The old system of having senior judges sign off on judicial documents, including ones that they had not heard, and they are also forbidden from approving cases in an indirect way, such as giving oral instructions. Senior judges should be working on a macro, not micro level.
  12. How can the judicial committee reform move forward reliably? Answer: from now on, the focus of the work of judicial committees should change from discussing individual cases to summarizing experience, and discussing major cases, with exceptions (foreign affairs, social stability, etc. (see the analysis in the white paper).

Comments

These questions and answers reflect the challenges the SPC faces in moving the Chinese court system (including its own operations) away from the traditional model that fuses judicial authority with traditional Chinese [Communist Party] administration.  The post-reform concept of the judiciary is a more professional judiciary that gives judges greater professional autonomy (and therefore can retain the sophisticated talent that is leaving for law firms) but retains control in specified areas. How successful will these reforms be in moving courts and judges away from old patterns of behavior remains to be seen. It seems to be happening in at least some of the pilot courts (from my discussions), but that does not mean these will be successful in other less sophisticated areas.  Presumably, the SPC’s judicial reform office is monitoring the pilots in a more systematic way.

The reasons for stressing the importance of accomplishing these reforms by the 19th Party Congress are assumed, not explained. I understand it as intended to show that the judicial system reforms that have been undertaken in recent years are correct, have accomplished what they were intended to accomplish, and are effective in improving China’s judicial system.  I expect that the system described above is reflected in the redrafts of the People’s Court Organizational Law and the Judges’ Law.  To what extent will these reforms (apparently accompanied by increased political study) be able to retain the talent currently in or being recruited into the courts?

 

Why are Chinese judges resigning?

Much has been written on why Chinese judges are resigning (but not enough about Chinese prosecutors–to be the subject of a later blogpost), but this blogpost (written on the road) adds some more detail and analysis. Comments (and criticism) are welcomed.

In May (2016), Chen Haiguang, the head of the judicial management department of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) revealed that over 1000 judges had left, which he described as about 1% of the judiciary. The number appears to be an underestimate.  The legal Wechatosphere often mentions that a Wechat chat group of former Beijing-based (including the SPC) judges has reached its maximum of 500 members.

More data and analysis comes from two sources: a survey conducted in the fall of 2015 and published by Wusong (a big thank you to another “authoritative person” for bringing this to my attention) and a recent article by one of the more popular Wechat public accounts, Empire Lawyers ( 法客帝国).

Respondees to survey

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Six hundred former judges responded to the survey, conducted through social media, of which 72% had left within the past year, while almost 19% had left within the past 2-3 years.

Who is leaving

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Judges resigning, by sex (82.2% men, 19.67% women

It is mostly men leaving the judiciary, out of proportion  with the ratio of men:women in the judiciary (2:1). (This confirms what I have been saying when I have spoken on this issue). The survey gives the rationale that men are more interested in a challenging career than women, and are able to deal with a more pressured life.

Judges are resigning in their 30’s, for the most part (see below), and my own analysis is that the reason women are staying in the judiciary is that (married) women at that age also have responsibilities to children and elderly parents. Women are prepared to deal with the stresses of working in the judiciary because the work is more “stable,” and does not involve marketing work after business hours.

Age and education

Over half (55%) of the judges resigning are in their 30’s. Most (70%) have been in the judiciary for at least 6 years, with practically all (91%) with at least 4 years of experience, over 99% with an undergraduate degree and 37% with a master’s degree.

Type of court and area of work

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Most judges who have resigned recently  are from the basic level (78%) and intermediate level courts (18%).

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Many (almost 80%) of the judges who had resigned were in the civil/commercial divisions, with division chiefs and deputy division chiefs accounting for 14% and 19% respectively.

Reasons for leaving:

  • benefits insufficient (66% selected this as primary reason);
  • too much pressure and too much work (60%);
  • not enough opportunity for promotion (34%);
  • professional risk and lack of professional respect (31%).

Those that have resigned are generally pessimistic about judicial reform (47%) or can’t say for certain whether it will be successful (32%). Their “judges’ dream” is to be able to try cases independently, without reporting their case up to the leadership, worrying about parties to the case petitioning because they are unhappy with the outcome, etc.

Another analyst (the editor of the Wechat account Empire Lawyers) gave three reasons for the wave of judges submitting their resignations.

  • Wechat;
  • Judicial reform;
  • Other factors (especially money).

Why Wechat?  Because it has given them a new universe of social connections outside the judiciary. It also gives them easy access to information about the life of former judges similar to themselves. Moreover, through Wechat they can create a circle of friends and connections who can provide moral support when they have made the decision to resign. According to the editor, Wechat is often a vehicle for judges preparing to resign. Some judges establish their own Wechat public accounts while still in the judiciary, publishing articles that bring much more attention from legal professionals to their expertise than their judgments ever do.

The increased stresses of judicial reform are another set of factors–the lifetime responsibility system,  case registration system, and particularly, the bright line quota on the number of judges (no more than 39%) means that promotions will come more slowly than previously and others will not even be eligible to participate in the examinations for qualifying as a judge.

Other factors?  The editor cited money, particularly judges in major cities with high costs of living.  The fact remains that middle-class life in China’s major cities, particularly for couples with a child, is expensive and judicial salaries, tied to civil service rank, are inadequate.   As the editor mentioned, some judges supplement their wages with (legal) inome from writing or lecturing. (It seems likely in the current atmosphere, fewer judges are willing to risk soliciting illegal income.)

There is also the rigidity of the Party/state cadre management system. While law firm partner classmates are posting photos of themselves at Yosemite or in the Grand Tetons on Wechat, judges must obtain permission to leave the country

Finally, this couplet is popular on legal oriented Wechat:

网上流行一个段子:

Q: Do you regret resigning from the court?

问:从法院辞职,你后悔吗?

A: Regret.

答:后悔。

Q: Why do you regret it?

问:为什么后悔?

A: I regret that I left too late.

答:后悔出来晚了。

What China’s judicial reform white paper says about its vision for its judiciary

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Portrait of Qing dynasty inspector

Over one year has elapsed since the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has implemented the judicial reforms set out in the February, 2015 4th five year plan for reforming the judiciary.  While thousands of words have been written in Chinese and English, some praising,  criticizing, mocking, and bemoaning the reforms, it was only in late February, 2016 that the SPC issued a comprehensive official assessment, focusing on its achievements. That official assessment takes the form of a bilingual white paper (White Paper) issued in early March (but full text released on-line only in English), plus a section of President Zhou Qiang’s work report devoted to the judicial reforms, a first for the SPC.  I surmise that it was approved by the Judicial Reform Leading Group.

This blogpost looks at the vision for the Chinese judiciary that the White Paper conveys, by looking at several sections.

 

Chinese court system and the reform process

The description of the reform process in the first section of the White Paper tells us who/what is driving the reform process, the nature of the process, the core issues, and how the judicial reform process is being monitored.

Facts highlighted:

  • During 2014-2015,13 out of 19 plenary sessions held by the Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform involved judicial reform, where 27 judicial reform documents were adopted.
    • A partial list of those 27 documents is found here.
  • The Social System Reform Specialized Group (the Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform) is in charge of judicial reform;
  • The SPC has a leading group in charge of judicial reform, replicated at the provincial level, and any judicial reform plans piloted by them need to be approved by the SPC or above (the 4th Judicial Reform Five Year Plan states this).

According to this section, the four core judicial reform measures are:

  • improving the classified management of judicial personnel [treating judges differently from clerks and other support personnel and civil servants0;
  • the judicial accountability system [the lifetime responsibility system set out in regulations issued in September, 2015, but only implemented in areas piloting judicial reform, controversial among judge and academics];
  • professional protection of judicial personnel ;
  • unified management of personnel, funds and properties of local courts below the provincial level.

These four measures will be piloted throughout the country in several rounds before they are implemented nationwide.

Comments

From the description of the reforms we can see that the specific reforms discussed in the remainder of the report have been cleared by the Party leadership.  It seems reasonable to assume that each reform involved hundreds of hours of policy paper drafting by SPC staff and internal and cross-institutional discussions, and responses to comments during those discussions.

What the White Paper did not mention is that the Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform and the Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform established their own inspectorate for monitoring the progress of reform,including judicial reform, (reviving a traditional institution).  It is unclear which reforms will be targeted this year for inspection. The separate inspectorate seems to indicate that these Central Leading Groups want their  own source of information on how reforms are being implemented.

 

Judicial independence (Ensuring Independent and Impartial Exercise of Judicial Power Pursuant to Law)

One of the messages conveyed in this section is that local courts do not belong to local governments but are established by the State at the local level to exercise judicial power on behalf of the State. The goal as stated in this section, is to “form an institutional environment and social atmosphere that respects [the] judiciary, supports [the] judiciary and trusts [the] judiciary.”

It  lists about a dozen measures. What is new in this section:

  • a summary of the policy thinking on judicial appointments and funding of the local courts.  On judicial appointments, judges will be selected by judicial selection committee at the provincial level in terms of professionalism, and will be appointed and removed according to common standards. This is a push in the direction of professionalism, and away from the phenomenon noted in the past few years of having chief judges who lacked a legal education.  On the funding issue, the Central Government will fully guarantee the funding of the local courts. The provincial fiscal departments manage the funds of local courts below the provincial level, the local courts will submit their budgets to the provincial fiscal departments, and  budget funds will be appropriated by the centralized payment system of the national treasury.
  • Fuller discussion of cross-administrative district courts to hear administrative cases–piloted in Beijing and Shanghai and other locations, under the umbrella of a policy document of the SPC that has not been made public. The concept is to have cases against local governments heard outside of the area in which they arose.  The SPC recent policy document on the development of the greater Beijing area has further content in that area.

This section also discusses the following reforms, previously discussed: circuit courts; cross-administrative division courts; intellectual property courts (by Mark Cohen, chinipr.com); administrative cases being centralized in one court (Shenzhen is one of the pilot project venues); maritime courts; environmental protection divisions; official interference.

Improving the way the courts function ( Improving the Functional Mechanism of Adjudicative Powers)

The fourth section of the White Paper provides useful insights into how the judiciary is intended to operate post reform.  It starts out with a statement that judicial power is a judging power in essence and emphasizes impartiality, neutrality and personal experience.”

The focus on this section is on reforms to the way Chinese courts operate. As I have written previously, they have operated in many of the same ways that other Party and government organs operate.     This section describes pilot reforms, new policies, or regulations concerning the following (among others):

  • personnel reforms described above (but do not mention the pay rise that goes along with it in at least some courts);
  • senior judges within a court (court presidents, vice presidents, division chiefs) will no longer approve judgments, except for a small number going to the judicial committee);
  • senior judges will hear cases instead of concentrating solely on administrative matters;
  • courts will establish a specialized judges council made up of judges in specialized areas (criminal, civil, etc) to provide views to judges hearing cases on the interpretation of substantive issues, on an equal basis rather than seniority;
  • the SPC has abolished irrational performance indicators and forbidden senior judges from involving themselves in cases that they have not heard;
  • the SPC has issued policy guidance on the reform of judicial committees (not yet made public).  The principles set out follow generally what was described by President Zhou Qiang earlier, but include judicial committee discussion of “major and complicated cases concerning national diplomacy, security and social stability and those required by law.”  The guidance calls for more transparency (unclear whether to be within the court or greater), better record-keeping, and less involvement by judicial committees with specific cases. As discussed in an earlier blogpost, judicial committees have often been a route for transmitting the views of local officials and have been been implicated in some of the wrongful conviction cases);

    judicial committee

    judicial committee ©SPC

  • judicial responsibility/accountability system, mentioned above;
  • regulations on the jurisdiction of different levels of courts in civil cases (described in this blogpost).

These reforms look to do a number of things that are significant within strictures of the Chinese system: distinguish judges from other Party cadres and give them better status and pay; break down or reconstitute some of the basic internal structures of the courts that have facilitated corruption, unjust cases, and discouraged talented judges; abolish performance indicators that have been poisonous for judges and litigants alike.

 The vision

The vision that the SPC  has for the Chinese judiciary and judges can be seen from the description of the reforms above.  The SPC intends to create a more professional judiciary (with a lower headcount), that is better paid, more competent, has performance indicators that look more like other jurisdictions, with an identity and operating mechanisms separate from other Party/government organs, that will be more autonomous, no longer under the thumb of local authorities, but operates within the big tent of Party policy.  To be incorporated in the judicial reforms, the implications of each measure must have been thoroughly discussed by the Party leadership and the Party leadership is using its own institutions to monitor results.  Will the judicial reforms achieve their goal of making people feel justice in every case?  For that, the jury (or is it the people’s assessors(also being reformed)?) is still out.

China’s judicial legislation takes first step on road to complete overhaul

Vice President Shen Deyong

Vice President Shen Deyong

Implementing the judicial reforms in China requires an overhaul of China’s current basic legislation, the Judges Law (法官法)and the Organizational Law of the People’s Courts (人民法院组织法). The Supreme People’s Court (the Court) media outlets have recently reported that on 23 October the first meeting was held of the drafting group to amend the Judges Law, with Court Vice President Shen Deyong chairing the meeting, and senior Court judges in attendance.  The report notes that the focus is on securing the independence of the courts (but having them remain firmly under Party control). Judge Shen mentioned that issues under consideration include: criteria for the selection of judges; protection for judges undertaking their duties; evaluation of judges, judicial assistants, salaries scales, retirement and insurance, and rewards and punishments.

Part of the preparatory work for amending the Judges Law is to include field research and surveys, particularly of front-line judges in the judicial reform pilot areas.  The drafting group will designate some local courts and some universities/research institutes to assist with the drafting.  The drafting of the Judges Law will need to be consistent with the principles of the amendment of the Organizational Law of the People’s Courts and the work of the Central Leading Group on Judicial Reform.  This summer, the Court convened an initial meeting to discuss amending the Organizational Law of the People’s Courts.  How to reorganize the Chinese judiciary and what professional status Chinese judges should have and work under will affect how judicial reforms are implemented and less directly, more fundamental issues concerning China’s economy and society.