The Supreme People’s Court’s New Petitioning Measures

Beijing petitioners at SPC (used with permission of Natalie Behring)

Beijing petitioners at SPC (used with permission of Natalie Behring)

In the past two weeks, the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) has taken new measures to resolve the problem of petitioning (ordinary people petitioning higher authorities concerning their grievances).  Court petitioners generally have grievances related to judgments (or the enforcement of judgments) in the lower courts.  Petitioning affects the Court itself.  The current measures are tied with the document released on 27 February 2014 by the General Offices of the Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council on petitioning reform (the Petitioning Reform Document, linked here) and briefly reported here. More measures from the Court are anticipated this year.

Approximately 60,000-70,000 petitioners approach the Court each year, many repeat petitioners. In the Court Reform Decision of November, 2013 and other statements in 2013, Court leadership identified resolving the issues underlying petitioning as a target for action (see previous blogposts in January, 2014, October, 2013, and September, 2013).  It is likely that its current and future initiatives related to petitioning will be mentioned in the Court’s Work Report to the National People’s Congress.

Link to the Petitioning Reform Document

The Petitioning Reform Document is intended for distribution to the court system, as a Party document distributed to “all departments.” It pinpoints measures for the court system to take, some highlighted below.

Several points of the Petitioning Reform Document relate to the new measures taken by the Court.  Point 5 of the document relates calls for pathways for petitioning issues to be heard, including on-line petitioning platforms.  Point 9 of the document calls for greater legalization of petitioning, such as:

  • separating litigation from petitioning;
  • taking petitioning into the courtoom;
  • improving various types of appeal procedures (litigation/arbitration/administrative reconsideration)
  • improving systems within the courts/procuracy/public security/judicial administration to deal with the underlying issues causing petitioning.

The last sentence in Point 9 calls on the strengthening of the capacity of the judicial system, to satisfy the ever increasing demands on the judicial system of the masses (ordinary people), and to make the masses feel that they have received fair justice.

Phrases in the last sentences are frequently used by the Court leadership. The latter phrase is part of a statement made by Xi Jinping in early 2013 is often used by the Supreme People’s Court leadership (discussed here).

Internet petitioning platform

To implement the Petitioning Reform Document, on 28 February, the Court established an electronic platform for petitioners, linked here.  The internet platform can be accessed from the Court’s official website:

网上办事

The platform includes a short video explaining how to use the on-line system, as well as its benefits, linked here.  It is likely intended as a model for the lower courts.

Time will tell how the Court (and the lower courts) will promote the electronic system and resolve the underlying issues.  A related issue is whether the Party anticipates a greater scope for NGOs in dealing with court-related issues.

For example, will a team of Court staff be dispatched to the street with tablet computers to register petitioners’ cases?  Will this mean that NGO representatives will assist petitioners to register their issues with the courts(although this report from Guangzhou anticipates official channels only)?  Most importantly, what will the Court do to resolve the underlying issues?  Will this initiative be successful and result in few petitioner visits to the Court and the lower courts?

7 Model Cases

On 17 February 2014, the Supreme Court (Court) issued 7 model cases (典型案例) on protecting the livelihood of ordinary people. “Protecting the livelihood of ordinary people” is a political rather than legal term, and is described in court press releases as cases affecting the lives and livelihood of ordinary people (for more details, see here).

These model cases (linked here) and explained below, are not precedents but intended to be instructional. The legal reasoning in the cases is not important. The release of these cases sends several messages.

  • It shows the political leadership that the Court has taken the initiative to deal with petitioning related cases.
  • The Court is showing ordinary people that it is implementing Party policy by taking measures to improve how the court system deals with the underlying issues causing petitioning.
  • It is sending a signal to the lower courts that these cases are a political priority.

These cases include:

  1. a dispute seeking compensation for forced demolition of property on village land;
  2. a copyright infringement case in which Yang Jiang, widow of the writer Qian Zhongshu sought an injunction to prevent an auction house from auctioning some of his letters (see a discussion here);
  3. a Sierra Leone ship (with an Albanian captain and Syrian crew) arrested by the Xiamen Maritime Court  (see a press report here);
  4. a judicial review of an administrative decision in an environmental case in which a farmer’s complaint made to the local environmental protection bureau concerning water pollution was ignored;
  5. a celebrated case in which two men sought compensation for wrongfully being incarcerated for 10 years for a crime they did not commit (see a press report here);
  6. a medical malpractice case; and
  7. an unenforced judgment (despite multiple efforts by the court) in a forced demolition of property case brought by a trade union against a real estate development company (the defendant was one of the companies on the first list of judgment debtors issued by the Court).

Cases #2, #3, and #5 were well known either nationally or locally, and case #7 may have come to the Court’s attention when the defendant was named on the judgment debtor’s blacklist, but it is unclear how the rest came to attention of Court officials (possibly when they met with provincial court officials).

Although the Court is promoting the use of cases to guide the lower courts, including its announcement in the October, 2013 the Court Reform Decision, that it would ” fully expand the important role of leading cases and cases for reference.”

充分发挥指导性案例和参考案例的重要作用

these cases are meant as political rather than legal guidance.  The subject matter of these is typical of many “people’s livelihood” cases.

In a November, 2013 blogpost, Mark Cohen (of Chinaipr.com) gave a good overview of model cases, contrasting them with guiding cases.  The case descriptions of the model cases do not contain the original judgments but rather a brief summary of the facts, judgment, and (critically) the importance of the case.  These model cases are not an indication that the Chinese judiciary is borrowing case law from common law system.

It is likely that 2014 will see more initiatives by the Court to deal with some of the issues underlying petitioning, including working with the NPC Legal Work Commission on expanding the jurisdiction of the courts under the Administrative Litigation Law. The Petitioning Reform Document calls for:

  • the establishment and improvement of systems imposing liability for mistaken verdicts and
  • lifetime responsibility (liability) for the quality of cases handled.

The Court is likely to focus on these as well as other issues related to the judiciary raised in the Petitioning Reform Document.

The Supreme People’s Court Encourages the Masses to Leave the Streets and Go Into the Courtroom: week ending 27 December

In the last full week of the year, the Court called on the masses to “believe in law, not petitioning” (信法不信访). To that end, the Court leadership publicized on Wechat (and through the press and the national court website) two initiatives:

  • Focusing on enforcement of 10 types of disputes  affecting the livelihood of ordinary people (涉民生案件) that it identifies as most likely to cause social disturbances;
  • Its views on the draft Administrative Litigation Law (行政诉讼法), shortly before the National People’s Congress issued its draft for public consultation.

In a five month initiative launched by telephone conference (a form of communication often used by the Communist Party), the Court is focusing on the enforcement of judgments in the following areas:

  • unpaid wages(particularly owed to migrant workers);
  • support payments (to the elderly);
  • child support;
  • alimony;
  • compensation payments (to the disabled or families of the deceased)
  • medical malpractice compensation;
  • traffic accident compensation; and
  • industrial accidents.

The Court has called on the lower courts to:

  • select cases for enforcement;
  • devote resources to the campaign;
  • use its database of judgment debtors and work with the People’s Bank of China Credit Reference Center to identify assets, so outstanding judgments can be enforced.

The Court has issued similar notices in previous years prior to Chinese New Year.  Judgments in these types of cases are often difficult to enforce for a number of reasons:

  • with China’s legal aid system inadequate for societal needs, migrant workers and other ordinary people have problems navigating the court system;
  • the enforcement system, in particular, is difficult for individuals to navigate;
  • although work has been done by both the court system and the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, the smaller companies that are the judgment debtors in many of these cases are skillful at disappearing without a trace and disguising their assets;
  • these cases are generally not priority cases for the enforcement divisions of local courts.

The intention is to avoid the yearly phenomenon of migrant workers demonstrating in the run up to Chinese New Year because their company bosses have disappeared and absconded with their unpaid wages.

Provincial high courts are tweaking the focus of the enforcement campaign to suit their local circumstances. The Gansu Province Higher People’s Court, for example, is focusing on 1300 cases that date as far back as 2011 and is working with the provincial Political Legal Committee and Finance Department to allocate more funds for those in particular difficulty.  The persons affected are fortunate if their case makes it onto the list, because for migrant workers, traffic accident victims, disabled workers, and others affected, justice delayed is justice denied.

Court officials may also have some self-interest in having these cases resolved locally, because some, when talking privately, mentioned that petitioners frequently surround the front gate of the Court.

The other initiative publicized by the Court to encourage the masses to avoid social disturbances is several of its proposed amendments to the Administrative Litigation Law.  Admitting that administrative cases are difficult from beginning to end, the Court i to focus on several major issues related to the refusal of courts to take administrative cases:

  • expanding the type of cases that the courts may accept (including government agencies infringing on private rights to land and other natural resources);
  • permitting parties to file cases orally;
  • implementing stricter procedures for case acceptance;
  • imposing more liability on courts that refuse to take cases.

In its statement, the Court mentioned that many cases involving government action as ones that should be resolved through the courts rather than through public protests.  Because of the structure of the local courts, in particular local courts being funded by local governments, it is not in the interest of the local courts that these cases receive a hearing. The court reforms announced late last year may eventually improve matters.