Which Chinese cases are most persuasive?

23885878-1_x_2Chinese courts are paying more attention to the use of precedent in considering how to decide cases.  (Two of my fellow bloggers, Mark Cohen and Jeremy Daum, have recently published on this issue, as have I.)  One of the many issues remaining to be settled as China constructs its own case law system is a hierarchy of precedent, so that the Chinese legal community, in particular its overworked judges, have clear rules on this issue.  (This is one of the questions subsumed under #23 of the Fourth Five Year Court Reform Plan).

We know that the hierarchy of precedent is not settled because two recent authoritative Chinese publications take a similar but not identical approach:

  •   The first, as cited in an article by Judges Jiang Huiling and Yang Yi of the Supreme People’s Court Center for Applied Jurisprudence, highlight the list set out in “The Beijing IP Court Guiding Case Work Implementation Methods (Draft)” (summarized in Jeremy Daum’s article); and
  • The second, an article by Judge Wang Jing, a senior Nanjing Intermediate People’s Court judge, published (and re-published) in a number of prestigious Wechat public accounts, including the account of the Shandong Higher People’s Court.  (Wang Jing has frequently published in SPC publications and she published her views on the judicial quota system (on Judge He Fan’s public account).

(As helpfully translated in Jeremy Daum’s article, the Beijing IP court draft regulations list, from most to least persuasive:

  1. SPC guiding cases
  2. SPC annual cases
  3. other SPC cases
  4. High People’s Court model cases
  5. High People’s Court reference cases
  6. Other prior cases from High People’s Courts
  7. Intermediate People’s Court precedent,
  8. Basic-level Court precedent,
  9. Foreign (non-mainland) case precedent.

I’ll focus on Judge Wang Jing’s analysis.

Judge Wang Jing

1.SPC guiding cases

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2.Cases published in the monthly SPC Gazette.  Those are of two types: selected judgments (裁判文书选登) and cases  (案例), generally totalling 20-30.  The first type are cases decided by various trial divisions of the SPC and reflect their views on certain issues, while the second model cases submitted by the local courts (through the provincial high courts), which have been reviewed by the various trial divisions of the SPC.

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3.Other cases published by journals of the SPC such as Selection of People’s Court Cases(人民法院案例选),  (a quarterly publication of the SPC Center for Applied Jurisprudence), China Case Trial Highlights (中国审判案例要览) (an annual publication of the National Judicial College and the Law School of People’s University)、and People’s Justice–Cases (People’s Justice is a biweekly publication,but the Cases section is published monthly). She notes that these cases reflect issues considered difficult and disputed in practice.z4573143

 

4. Trial Guides edited and written by the trial divisions of the SPC (最高法院各审判业务庭编写的审判指导丛书).  The People’s Court Press publishes a series entitled China Trial Guide (审判指导丛书), with separate publications by various trial divisions of the SPC, including the case filing, civil, administrative, #2 civil and #4 civil divisions. These publications often contain cases from the lower courts, or in the case of the #4 civil division, cases that have been reported to that division for review under the Prior Reporting system.

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5. Case publications by various higher people’s courts (各地高级法院等编辑的案例刊物).

She notes that many provincial higher people’s courts (and some intermediate courts) publish cases, with cases published by the ones that have been in operation the longest and are more influential considered the more persuasive.  She mentions the Jiangsu Higher People’s Court Gazette as an example, which has cases decided by that court and model/typical cases from the lower courts.  (These are similar to categories 4-6 above).

Although her list does not specifically mention non-guiding (and non-model or typical cases) in her list of authoritative sources, she addresses them in her advice for lawyers providing precedent cases in litigation, with three common sense items of advice: when  you provide a case, it should be according to the court hierarchy, and date issued, provide the source, and use cases to provide a mind map for the judge to follow.  (A prestigious intermediate people’s court (the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court) recently also mentioned litigants (positively) using cases from the SPC’s case database, China Judgements Online, as a reference to judges.)

Some comments

This is another area in which Chinese law appears to lack firm guidelines about order and terminology (as I wrote about this theme in a series of articles for Practical Law China, ( note that they are behind the company paywall).The SPC and its divisions (and even one of its Circuit Courts) issue collections of model/typical cases (and summaries of such cases) under a variety of titles.  Terminology (aside from the guiding cases) is not entirely consistent.   The SPC issues notices and replies (generally of divisions of the SPC), acknowledged by Vice President Shen Deyong as a source of law, in an introduction to the book Collection of the Supreme People’s Court’s Judicial Rules (2nd edition)–how do these relate as sources of law vis a vis various types of cases or case summaries?  The legal community (domestic and foreign) awaits greater guidance.

 

 

 

The Supreme People’s Court Issues its Newest Five Year Reform Plan for the Courts

On 9 July, the Supreme People’s Court issued its fourth five year reform plan for the courts, approved by the Party leadership, which sets out 4 broad areas of reform, relating to 8 general areas. An overview has been released on Wechat and other Chinese social media and can be expected to be published very soon in more traditional media. An clear info graphic was published on the Court website and other official media, translated here.

The Court described it as taking first steps towards establishing a judicial system with Chinese characteristics and is intended to roll out reforms announced in the 3rd Plenum decision and the judicial reform decision announced earlier this spring and some of its themes were highlighted in press releases published just after Chinese new year.  Many of these issues are ones that have been discussed within the Chinese legal community for many years and draw on international expertise as well. The summary below highlights five of the eight broad areas.

  • Personnel reforms
  • Separate administrative and judicial jurisdiction
  • Improve the operation of the judicial function
  • Improve the protection of human rights
  • Increase judicial transparency
  • Clarify the roles of the four levels of the courts
  • Improve judicial administration
  • Promote reforms relating to petitioning

Personnel reforms

The intention of the personnel reforms are to split the treatment of judges from other civil servants, to step away from the traditional model of judges as cadres. This will involve pushing forward the initial reforms being tested to change the personnel management of local courts, and transfer that to the provincial level. This will include:

  • the establishment of provincial level selection committees, will involve clearance by Party disciplinary and other functions, and retain appointment by the people’s congress.
  • Personnel reforms will also involve splitting the management of judges from other judicial personnel, such as judicial police and clerks.
  • Additionally, reforms are intended to the use of judicial headcount, to focus that by increasing the number of judges.
  • Two other reforms involve establishing new systems for judicial promotions and establishing differing criteria for the recruitment of different types of judges.

Separate administrative and judicial jurisdiction

Reforms in this area include:

  • taking steps to take certain cases, such as some environmental and commercial cases out the local administrative jurisdictions, so that they can be heard fairly.
  • Reform some of the lesser known courts, such as the forestry courts, to bring them into the ordinary court system.
  • Establish a system for circuit tribunals at provincial level to hear difficult cases, and focus on environmental cases.
  • In areas where  there are more intellectual property cases, promote the establishment of intellectual property courts.

Improve the operation of the judicial function

The summary concerning this section admits that having the person who heard the case decide it remains difficult to implement within the Chinese jidicial system, and that despite initial attempts, internal multi-level approvals for deciding cases remains the norm.  The intended reforms in this area include:

  • improving the system of responsibility of the primarily responsible judge and the panel that heard the case.
  • Changing the system of signing judicial decisions.
  • Improving the monitoring of judicial performance.
  • Improving judicial disciplinary procedures.

Importantly, reforms look to change the current relationship between the judge responsible, the tribunal, and others in a position of leadership within the courts, such as the head of the division and court president. There has been a great deal of academic writing about this, in both English and Chinese, as well as articles written by judges serving at various levels.  A great deal of thought has gone into this section and implementing these reforms will involve changing long-term patterns of interaction.

Improve the protection of human rights

Reforms in this area are intended to improve the protection of human and property rights, particularly by improving judicial review of the investigation and prosecution stages:

  1. Eliminate the use of illegally obtained evidence.
  2. Improve the role of the defense lawyer and the statement by the advocate for the defendant.
  3. Improve systems for pursuing judicial negligence.
  4. Improve the protection of assets relating to [criminal cases].
  5. Improve reforms in the area of minor crimes, so that those cases are heard more quickly (pilot projects are underway in some areas).

These reforms represent the result of years of discussions within the judiciary, with lawyers, academics, and interactions with members of foreign courts, research into foreign legal systems, and others.

Increase judicial transparency

Reforms in this area build on the initial steps taken late last year and include:

  1. Make the hearing stage more open, by improving the system of announcements and permitting spectators to attend court hearings, increase real time broadcasts of hearings.
  2. Improve the handling of judicial information, so that litigants can determine the status of their case on-line.
  3. Improve the judicial decision database, Judicial Decisions of China.

All of these reforms are good practical proposals. Foreign observers of the Chinese courts would welcome easier access to Chinese court hearings.

A quick comment

Drafting this reform plan has been a tremendous undertaking and its implementation promises to be even more challenging.  Some of the reforms discussed above are the subject of pilot projects in various parts of the country, ranging from Guangdong and Shanghai, where the courts have heavy caseloads and face cutting edge cases, to less prosperous inland provinces. Reforms are likely to start with what is most easily implemented and where results can most easily be achieved.  What this means for some of the specialized courts, such as the military and maritime courts, will be clarified in time. The extent to which these reforms can change patterns of interaction within the judiciary and between the judiciary and government/Communist Party of many decades standing remains to be seen.  It is hoped that the pressure of greater professionalism within the judiciary, and other social and economic forces will eventually result in a judiciary that better serves the needs of all.

 

The Supreme People’s Court Strikes Against Violence in the Medical System

Dr. using opinion as a shield

Dr. using opinion as a shield

In late April, the Supreme People’s Court, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and three central government agencies issued a document focusing on medical-related disputes and crimes committed within China’s medical system, along with four typical cases(典型案例).   (I flagged the importance of the issue of medical disputes and crimes in a post late last year and have discussed typical cases here.)  The document:

  • provides an recent example of the Court issuing policy documents;
  • shows how the Court implements Party/government policy relating to an important social issue;
  • illustrates the stresses in the Chinese medical system; and
  • highlights the inadequacies in medical legislation.

Why was this document issued?

The document was issued to deal with the increasing number of disputes and especially the violence in the Chinese medical system, that have been reported and explained by a variety of sources, including the Lancet, BloombergBusinessweek, and the Atlantic. The Chinese press (also academics outside of China and foreign press) has run many stories on “medical troublemakers” (医闹) –either disgruntled patients or their families or people especially hired to make trouble in a hospital to embarrass the hospital to making a large settlement. Why?  As Wan Xin, a member of the Council of the Chinese Medical Law Association is quoted in a Xinhua press release as saying: “if you make little trouble, you get little money, make big trouble, you get big money, if you don’t make trouble, you don’t get money” (小闹小给钱, 大闹给大钱, 不闹不给钱).

Heilongjiang medical workers protest

Heilongjiang medical workers protest

Protest outside one of Kunming's main hospitals

Protest outside one of Kunming’s main hospitals

The Court issues policy documents

The document, clunkily named  “Opinion on strictly punishing according to law illegal and criminal acts relating to the medical system and upholding normal medical order” (关于依法惩处涉医违法犯罪维护正常医疗秩序的意见) (the Opinion), was issued by the following government agencies in addition to the Court:

  • Supreme People’s Procuratorate;
  • Ministry of Public Security
  • Ministry of Justice;
  • State Commission on Health and Family Planning.

The Opinion is what in Chinese is called a normative document(规范性文件). As I discussed in an earlier blogpost, the Court often issues them (and has done so for many years). They contain legal rules and policy statements and have different titles from judicial interpretations, in this case “Opinion”.

This document, for example, does not fit the legal definition of a judicial interpretation because it is issued with three State Council ministries/commissions, that is three agencies not authorized to issue judicial interpretations.   The rationale for this practice is that officials of the administrative organ involved will comply only if their administrative organ jointly issues it with the Court and requires compliance of its subordinates, which in this matter includes the hospitals and other parts of the medical system, the police, and the people’s mediation committees.  Normative documents also address issues, such as this one, where the law is unsettled and are also on the political agenda.

What the Opinion says and does not say

The substance of the Opinion is in two sections.

Section 2 describes six sets of offenses commonly committed, how they should be punished and what different parts of the justice system should do.  Those offenses are:

  1.  Attacking or intentionally harming medical personnel and damaging property;
  2. In medical institutions, setting up shrines, funeral wreaths and burning paper money or placing a corpse in public spaces;
  3. Restricting the freedom of medical personnel (e.g. by preventing them from leaving their workplace)
  4. Insulting medical workers,
  5. Bringing weapons, explosives, radioactive materials etc. into medical institutions; and
  6. Instigating others (including family members) to commit crimes against medical personnel.

For each offense, a range of punishments is described, ranging from administrative penalties under the Law on Administrative Penalties for Public Security to criminal punishment.

Section 3 focuses on preventing medical related disputes and improving the way they are resolved.  In particular, the health authorities are directed to improve the quality of medical services, their own monitoring of medical institutions, the compliance of medical institutions with medical legislation and medical codes, improve the protection of patient’s right to privacy, right to know, right to choose, and other rights, and push the establishment of better channels of communication with patients. The Opinion calls for a three track system for resolving medical disputes:

  • medical institutions should establish departments to receive and deal with complaints;
  • otherwise, medical disputes should be mediated through three party mediation;
  • if mediation does not work, the courts should deal with the cases in a timely manner.

The Opinion does not call for improving legal rules dealing with medical issues.  (But see more about this below.)

The Court implementing Party/government’s policy

Disputes involving the medical system have increased in number and severity in the last few years.  Violent crimes committed by patients and/or their families have increased, capturing national attention.  In the Third Plenum Decision, the Central Committee called on the government to address the underlying issues:

Reform of the medical and health care system shall be deepened. The comprehensive reform of medical security, medical services, public health, drug supply and regulatory system shall be pushed forward in a coordinated manner…Efforts shall be made to improve the work system linking people’s mediation, administrative mediation and judicial mediation, and set up a comprehensive mechanism for mediating, handling and resolving conflicts and disputes.

Therefore improving medical security and medical dispute resolution have been high on the agenda of the Central Committee Political Legal Committee. The Opinion and related articles were published on the website of the Central Political Legal Committee and the Chairman of the Central Political Legal Committee has been involved in initiatives implementing the Opinion, particularly the mediation of medical disputes.

Protecting medical institutions from troublemakers

Protecting medical institutions from troublemakers

Inadequacies in medical legislation and dispute resolution

The Opinion does not address the inadequacies in existing medical malpractice legislation.  (This has been the topic of several law review  articles in English (also in medical academic literature) and many more articles in Chinese, including on Chinese social media. Although the Tort Liability Law contains basic principles, the law itself and its related judicial interpretation do not have sufficiently detailed rules on issues such as:

  • cause of action;
  • liability of different parties;
  • expert opinion;
  • determination of causation;
  • issues of proof; and
  • determination of damages.

Therefore, these cases drag on in the courts, and Wan Xin noted that a wait of two or three years to resolve these cases is not unusual.  A Beijing judge, writing on social media, noted that medical malpractice cases in his district are “many, difficult, and volatile” (多,难, 激).

The lower courts have to cope with the increase in medical malpractice litigation, because patients are increasingly aware that litigation may result in a more favorable settlement than mediation.  Some local courts have issued court rules to deal with some of these issues. Some of the outstanding questions are:

  • when will the Court issue a more detailed judicial interpretation on medical malpractice and how will it strike a balance between the rights of patients and the medical system?
  • Can a effective dispute resolution system be devised which can put the “medical troublemakers” out of business?
  • Do foreign medical/legal systems have expertise in medical malpractice that may be suitably transferred to the complex Chinese medical/legal system?

 

 

 

More on the Supreme People’s Court and Typical Cases

SPC announces model cases

SPC announces model cases

In a press conference on 30 April, the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) announced that it will more systematically use model (typical) cases (典型案例) to guide the lower courts. The Court is increasingly using model/typical cases.  My recent blogpost  explains what model cases are, which courts issue them and the authority of model cases.

One of the initiatives the Court highlighted in its October 2013 judicial reform plan is “expanding fully the important role of leading cases and cases for reference.” because its leadership considers model cases an important supplement to legislation, judicial interpretations, and “guiding cases” (a special category of cases so designated by the Court).  Mark Cohen, of chinaipr.com, has blogged on the Court’s use of model cases in the area of intellectual property law.

The Court will issue at least five model/typical cases on a monthly basis, selected from cases submitted by the lower courts.  The cases can be accessed through the Court’s Cases in Chinese Courts portal. The ones on the website are currently limited to those issued in 2013 and 2014.  Unfortunately, a search functions appears lacking.  Despite the limitations, it is a further development in the use of case law “with Chinese characteristics.”

 

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 Court’s September 2013 notice on the CIETAC split: When will greater transparency come to the Court?

In early September, 2013, the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) issued the Notice on Certain Issues Relating to Correct Handling of Judicial Review of Arbitration Matters (最高人民法院关于正确审理仲裁司法审查案件有关问题的通知)(Fa [2013] No. 194) (the Judicial Review Notice).  This clunky sounding notice relates to the split between CIETAC and its former sub-commissions, the Shanghai International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (the Shanghai International Arbitration Center) and the Shenzhen International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (the Shenzhen Court of International Arbitration). It is therefore relevant to the thousands of companies (and their lawyers) that have CIETAC Shanghai or CIETAC Shenzhen/South China arbitration clauses in their contracts.

The Judicial Review Notice dispute was not published on the Court’s official website or the website of the national court system (which it also operates)  but the text was distributed by local lawyers associations (one is linked here) and was published by Peking University’s Chinalawinfo service.   It became the subject of law firm alerts and other publications in Chinese and English (some English alerts are linked here and Chinese alerts are linked here).

The Judicial Review Notice is not a judicial interpretation and is not required to be made public.  It is a Court normative document (discussed in an earlier blogpost). Court normative documents address new issues or phenomena where the Court is of the view that the law is not settled enough for judicial interpretations. The Judicial Review Notice, which (as described in the above client alerts) requires certain lower court rulings related to the CIETAC split to be considered by lower court judicial committees and reported up level by level to the Court.  On the topic of judicial committee, see my earlier article on the subject–Article on judicial committees and as mentioned in an earlier blogpost, the Court is reconsidering)  These new procedures affect the rights of litigants in these cases as well as parties (or potential parties) to arbitration proceedings in the Shanghai International Arbitration Center and Shenzhen Court of International Arbitration.  However, relevant regulations do not require that all Court normative documents be made public.

The Court leadership is requiring more transparency of the lower courts.  They need also to turn their attention to their own documents and consider where the Court can be more transparent, because that will also be a step forward in (as the Court’s slogan has it) “Vigorously Strengthening a Fair Judiciary and Continuously Increasing Judicial Credibility”.

The Supreme People’s Court: Week Ending 21 December 2013

1.  The Chinese government cracks down on medical institution crime. On 21 December, 11 government and Party bodies, including the:

  • National Health and Family Planning Commission;
  • Supreme People’s Court;
  • Ministry of Public Security;
  • Ministry of Justice; and
  • Supreme People’s Procuratorate,

initiated 1 year movement to crack down on crime relating to medical institutions. The plan, reported here and  linked here , calls for the punishment of offenses related to medical institutions.  It also announces the framework for related reforms:

  • restructuring state-owned medical institutions;
  • resolving medical disputes with mediation;
  • improving rural health; and
  • improving security in medical institutions.

Although the Supreme People’s Court co-issued this document, it is not a judicial opinion.  It is a policy document.

2.  The Court posted structural reform issues for on-line discussion, although it is unclear what the response has been.  On 18 December, the Court posted two court structural reform issues raised by the Third Plenum Decision on the “Everyone Discuss Judicial Reform” Website (linked here) and asked for comments:

  • local courts and procuratorates–promote uniform administration of  personnel, finance, and property at provincial level and below;
  •  the four levels of the courts–clarify their role and position.

Questions raised by the Court concerning the “uniform administration of the local courts”:

  • what does this mean;
  • what are its implications,
  • will it mean further bureaucratization of the courts and procuracy,
  • what flexibility should there be,
  • what will it mean for local protectionism.

Questions raised by the Court concerning “clarify the role and position of the functions of the four levels of the courts” concern the implications for:

  •  judicial interpretations,
  • appeals systems;
  • internal organization of the courts.

The “Everybody Discuss Judicial Reform” website is a joint project of the national court website, justice website (Supreme People’s Procuratorate), and the China Law Society.  It is a forum for eliciting discussion on important issues for which the institutions must already have framework plans.

Communist Party Political-Legal Committees Come out of the Closet and Onto the Web

As everyone who has spent some time paying close attention to the Chinese legal system knows, the Chinese Communist Party has a system (系统) of Political Legal Committees (政法委员会 or 政法委) that oversee, coordinate, and implement Communist Party policy in the legal institutions–public security (and state security), procuratorate,  courts, and justice (公检法司).  The Political-Legal  Committees, that exist at every level of the Communist Party and government, have been existence for many years.  This quick blogpost reports on two unnoticed phenomena:

  • the Political-Legal Committees “coming out”; and
  • the Supreme People’s Court (Court) opening discussion on the relationship among the legal institutions.

What I mean by “Political-Legal Committees ‘coming out'” is that from the central level on down, Political Legal Committees now have their own websites that link to the institutions (with the exception of state security) at the same level of government.  At the top level is Chinapeace, featuring articles related to Party policy (and other topics) in the legal institutions and linking horizontally to the websites of those institutions and vertically (downwards) to the local political legal committees. Chinapeace has links to the websites of local political-legal committees at the provincial level (or equivalent)–such as the Shanghai website.

The Communist Party must have issued a decision to permit these websites to be established.  It means that the Communist Party has decided that the Political Legal Committees need to be on the Internet to promote the Party’s policies. For the veteran observers of the Chinese legal system, it is an amazing phenomenon, when for many years, these committees had been in the metaphorical closet.

The second  unnoticed phenomenon is that at the end of October, the Court has posted on its website a link to the newest topic for discussion for a project it co-sponsors with Qinghua University on judicial reform–the relationship between the legal institutions and whether they should be “adjusted.”

The Constitution (Article 135) sets out the basic principle–they shall “in handling criminal cases, divide their functions, each taking responsibility for its own work, and they shall coordinate their efforts and check each other to ensure the correct and effective enforcement of law” . It is signficant that the Court has raised this, especially publicly.  It is another issue for all concerned about the Chinese legal system to watch.

The Supreme People’s Court: Interpretations of Law as a form of Official Document (公文)

This post explains why:

  • the Supreme People’s Court (Court) releases normative documents  inconsistent with the law and its own definition of “judicial interpretations;”
  • the Court issues normative documents that guide the judiciary in deciding cases but that are not publicly released;
  • the Court issues normative documents with government organs that are not authorized to issue judicial interpretations.

The explanation is based on recently issued Court regulations.

The practical implications of these phenomena depend on your role.  For those in policy roles, rule of law work, diplomatic or governmental role with the Chinese judiciary, or those otherwise those involved in dispute resolution strategy in China, it is critically important, because it explains why China has a system of non-public normative documents guiding judges in deciding cases. It is not a mode of operation beneficial for domestic or foreign litigants and their counsel.

Official documents—the key concept

The key to understanding how the Court treats interpretations of law is the recently issued Measures for Handling Official Documents of the People’s Courts (Court Official Documents Measures, linked here) (人民法院公文处理办法)。 They replace 1996 regulations on the same subject.

What are the Court Official Documents Measures?

 The Court reissued the Official Documents Measures at the end of 2012  because the Communist Party and State Council General Offices re-issued the Regulations on the Work of Handling Official Documents of the Party and Government (Party and Government Official Documents Measures) (党政机关公文处理工作条例).[2]  The Court Official Documents Measures state that they were drafted with reference to the Party and Government Official Documents Measures and a comparison of both reveals that the Court Official Documents Measures reveal are an iteration of those Official Documents Measures for the court system.

What do the Court Official Documents Measures do?

The Court Official Documents Measures define “court official documents” as “official documents of the people’s courts which are formed in the course of trials and enforcement and judicial administrative operations which have special effect and have a special form.”   (This definition is close to that in the Party and Government Official Documents Measures.) The definition further states:

“court official documents are important tools in transmitting the Party line, direction, and policy, implementing state law, issuing judicial interpretations…”

What are interpretations of law?

As for interpretations of law, the Court Official Documents Measures state:

“litigation documents, judicial interpretations and others are special legal official documents of the people’s courts which should be handled according to relevant provisions of law, regulations and judicial interpretations.”

This means that the Court regards judicial interpretations as “special legal official documents” (特定法律公文) of the courts.

Although the Chinese constitution vests the power to interpret  law with the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, a 1981 decision by that same organization 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 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.  Interpretations by both organizations are known as “judicial interpretations.”  In 2007, the Supreme People’s Court issued regulations on judicial interpretations (linked here)  limiting judicial interpretations to the following four types:

  • “interpretation” (解释); (a set of legal rules in a specific area of law, unrelated to a specific case);
  • “provision”(规定)  (often similar to court rules);
  • “reply” (批复)(a reply to a “request for instructions” from a lower court relating to a specific case); and
  • “decision”(决定) (a document abolishing or amending existing judicial interpretations).

Those 2007  regulations also mention judicial interpretations may be jointly issued by the Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and requires that judicial interpretations be made public. These regulations also provide that judges may cite judicial interpretations as the basis for a court decision or ruling.

However, a review of the Gazette of the Supreme People’s Court, the official website of the Court, and lists of superseded judicial interpretations and judicial documents reveals the following phenomena:

  • a category of documents labelled “judicial documents” exists (a term not defined);
  • documents that the Court issues with administrative organs, such as the Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of Justice are published under that classification and contain normative provisions;
  • documents such as “conference summaries”(纪要) and “opinions” (意见) that are classified as types of official documents are also published under that classification or elsewhere on the Court website, and seem to have normative provisions, because many of which contain language that the lower courts should “implement their provisions” or “use them as guidance.”

Some of these normative documents address new issues or phenomena where the Court is of the view that the law is not settled enough for judicial interpretations.  Other normative documents have a more overtly political purpose and are more closely related to current Party policy.

However, there is no requirement in the Court Official Documents Measures that all Court normative documents be made public, although the Measures designate two forms of official documents as ones that will be released both domestically and internationally, either broadly or for limited circulation.  The Measures refer to the secrecy classification and secrecy level of court official documents and how those should be handled.  Moreover, an Internet search reveals that some Court official documents such as “conference summaries” which were never officially published have made their way into the public domain through unofficial sources such as law firm websites and blogs. (linked here)

What does this mean?

It means that judicial interpretations are considered by the Court to be a type of official document but that the courts often rely on official documents that are not “judicial interpretations” in deciding cases, in addition to the law and existing judicial interpretations, although (according to former judges), it will not be apparent from the face of the judgment or ruling.   However, there is no requirement that these normative documents be made public.

Some of these normative documents may be ones that the Court issues with administrative organs (for example the Ministry of Public Security) (although such documents do not fit the definition of “judicial interpretation”).  The rationale for this practice is that officials of the administrative organ involved will comply only if their administrative organ jointly issues it with the Court and requires compliance of its subordinates.

It means that there is no assurance for any party, domestic or foreign, corporate or individual, that the legal rules on which the court has relied in his case have been made known to him.   It is not an issue in every case, of course, but is more likely in new or sensitive areas.

This is an area for the new Court president to turn his attention, and for foreign and international institutions to encourage the Court to make positive changes to implement regulations requiring the publication of all normative documents.

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.”