The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issues a range of documents as part of its authority to supervise the lower courts. The significance and authority of these documents is confusing to many, both in and out of China, in the world of practice, in academia, and in government, and of course among Chinese law students and graduates.
They are an illustration of how documents continue to be an important tool for Chinese governance, a fact it appears is often forgotten outside of China. “In current Chinese political life, governing the country by documents objectively exists” ( “在现实中国政治生活中，文件治国是一种客观存在”), from this 2017 article by Zhang Xuebo of the Central Party School’s Politics and Law Department.
This blogpost provides an updated consolidated (partial) guide through the forest of SPC judicial documents, drawing on my past research and analysis, not including judicial interpretations (司法解释). I will return to this topic in the future and will discuss judicial interpretations in a separate blogpost. I have a special interest in judicial documents, because they drew me into researching the SPC in the early 1990s.
The seven categories of documents below are classified as judicial documents or “judicial normative documents” (司法文件 or 司法规范性文件 and sometimes judicial policy documents” (司法政策性文件). The SPC’s website lists some of them. As I’ve written before, this fuzzy use of terminology is not unusual. An (authoritative) follower has proposed using the English translation “judicial regulatory document” for 司法规范性文件. An attentive reader can discover from reviewing the documents on the website that this blogpost is not comprehensive.I will have more to say about all of these documents in the fullness of time, when I have an opportunity to explore the forest. The SPC issues many other documents as well, covering personnel and administrative matters, but this blogpost focuses on those with normative provisions.
SPC judicial documents are partially governed by 2012 regulations on the handling of SPC official documents (人民法院公文处理办法), which leave much unsaid and unexplained. It seems likely that additional guidance exists, whether in the form of bureaucratic custom or internal guidelines. Many, but not all, are the SPC’s special versions of Party/government documents.
It is one of the special features of the SPC that so much time and effort is allocated to different types of “soft law,” likely linked to other features of the Chinese legal system.
Partial catalogue of SPC judicial documents
1.Opinions (意见)–In my view, the SPC issues several types of Opinions. I have not yet done detailed research into these different types of documents and have not seen detailed analysis in Chinese (or English). What I’m setting forth below is my tentative analysis. I’m likely to discover more categories of Opinions as I do further research.
Opinion Type 1: An Opinion issued solely by the SPC, that addresses a range of matters. The Services and Guarantees Opinions appear to fall into this category. These documents create and transmit to the lower courts new judicial policy, update previous judicial policy, establish new legal guidance that may be eventually crystallized in judicial interpretations and direct the lower courts, but cannot be cited in judicial judgments or rulings. They are generally linked to an important Party or state strategy or initiative. This post has a summary of what opinions are, while another one focuses on how they are structured. I have often written about this type of Opinion. The ones labeled “Guiding Opinions” are intended to push policy forward, but others may do as well. Sometimes the SPC issues illustrative “model/exemplary/typical cases to clarify certain points to the lower courts (and the legal community) , such as the Opinion providing Services and Guarantees [Safeguards] to the Yellow River Basin, for which the SPC issued illustrative cases.
Opinion Type 2: An Opinion issued solely by the SPC, that consolidates rules or guidance found in disparate documents and adds some new rules, focused on one particular topic, relating to litigants. The April, 2020, Opinions on Promoting Lawful and Efficient Trials of Bankruptcy Cases is a good example.It incorporates a provision from the Minutes of the National Court Work Conference on Bankruptcy Trials, for example, regarding consolidating bankruptcy cases of affiliated enterprises.
Opinion Type 3: An Opinion also issued solely by the SPC, that sets out in normative form Party policy/judicial reforms, may be the framework for further normative opinions, and eventually crystalized in law. An example is the 2015 Opinions on Improving the Judicial Responsibility System of People’s Courts. The first line clearly links the document to Party decisions–“for the purpose of implementing the general deployment of the Party Center on deepening the reform of the judicial system….(为贯彻中央关于深化司法体制改革的总体部署). It is linked to several normative Opinions and the judicial responsibility system has been incorporated into the People’s Court Law.
Opinion Type 4: the SPC is one of several issuing institutions. They do not create new legal rules but harmonize legal positions among institutions and for the courts, and clarify how the law should be applied. They also cannot be cited as the basis for a judgment or ruling. These are particularly common in the area of criminal law, and are often related to the latest campaign or focus of the authorities. The 2019 Opinions on Several Issues Regarding the Handling of Criminal Cases of Illegal Lending, (最高人民法院 最高人民检察院 公安部 司法部印发《关于办理非法放贷刑事案件若干问题的意见》的通知) part of the Special Campaign to Crack Down on Underworld Forces (扫黑除恶专项斗争) is a good example. One aspect of the ongoing campaign, which began in early 2018, is to use the criminal justice and regulatory authorities to crack down on “routing loans” (套路贷), an offense not defined by the criminal law. This 2019 Opinion harmonizes the understanding among the criminal justice authorities to punish those providing “routing loans.” Article 1 describes certain types of lending activity that can be punished under the crime of illegal business operations (Criminal Law article 225(4)). (See more here).
2. Conference summary/meeting minutes（会议纪要): the SPC uses specialized court conferences as a way of transmitting central legal policy, unifying or harmonizing court practices in accordance with that policy, and obtaining an overview of court practices and problems. Although conference summaries do not have the status of a judicial interpretation, the lower courts will generally decide cases according to its provisions. “Harmonizing court practice” means in Chinese judicial parlance that judges are applying the law similarly.” A recent example is the 9th National Courts’ Civil and Commercial Trial Work Conference Summary. The document itself has a very useful explanation: “the Conference Minutes [Summary], which are not judicial interpretations, cannot be cited as a basis for adjudication. For first instance and second instance pending cases after the Conference Minutes have been issued, people’s courts may reason according to the relevant provisions of the Conference Minutes when specifically analyzing the reasons for the application of law in the “The court is of the view” section of adjudicative instruments.” This post has a summary of what conference summaries are.
3. Professional judges meeting summary (法官会议纪要): I have not yet written a blogpost focused on these. although I have mentioned them from time to time. I have several published collections of these in my library. The SPC circuit courts appear to have led the way on publishing these as a way of “unifying judicial practice” but the #2 Civil Division (focusing on commercial issues) has published a collection as well.
4. Response or reply (复函 or 答复） These are responses or replies to requests for instructions or approvals. SPC, like other Party and state organs, handles requests for instructions (qingshi 请示). Although proposals have been published to either incorporate the practice into procedural law or abolish it, the practice lives on at all court levels, including the SPC. If the issue raised is considered important enough, the reply will be approved as a judicial interpretation. There are apparently fewer requests for instructions than ten or twenty years ago. I surmise more are submitted on the criminal issues than civil. One subcategory of these responses are the ones issued by the SPC’s #4 Civil Division, the division focusing on cross-border commercial and maritime issues. These are responses to request from instructions (请示) from provincial-level courts (including the higher courts of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing), as required by the SPC’s Prior Reporting system for arbitration matters. See more here.
5. Notice (通知). Documents transmitting one of the above types of judicial documents are often called notices, but this is meant to call attention to a document entitled “notice” (通知), such as the Notice concerning some questions regarding the centralized handling of judicial review of arbitration cases (关于仲裁司法审件归口办理有关问题的通知), discussed here.
6. Rules (规则)and (条例 ) One recent example of the use of rules (规则 is the CICC’s Procedural Rules for the China International Commercial Court of the Supreme People’s Court (最高人民法院办公厅关于印发《最高人民法院国际商事法庭程序规则（试行）》的通知), issued by the SPC’s General Office. The rules were discussed by the SPC judicial committee but not issued as a judicial interpretation. I have observed that 规则 is used for court rules–as the same term is used for the Working Rules of the SPC’s Compensation Committee . The term 条例 is used to regulate internal court system matters, such as rules (using the term 条例) on judicial training(法官教育培训工作条例) and 2012 rules on especially appointed inspectors.
7. Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) The most well-known example is the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding on Taking Joint Disciplinary Actions against Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement (对失信被执行人实施联合惩戒的合作备忘录). It appears to be the first time (or at least one of the first times) that a large group of central Party-state institutions has concluded an MOU. The SPC concludes many, only some of which have been made public. The lower courts do so as well. It shows that despite ongoing criticism of “Western” law and legal concepts, the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese government finds it useful to borrow some of them for its own uses. (See more here.)
According to the SPC’s rules on judicial interpretation work, judicial interpretations must be published. As for the judicial documents listed above, not all are published, as there is no requirement to do so. (I have more on this subject in an academic article on judicial transparency). As I have observed on this blog and in the article, the SPC is generally publishing more judicial documents than before. The contrast is clear, when compared to the early 1990’s, when I started to research the SPC. One positive and important example is the the approved judicial interpretation agenda, issued in the form of a notice from the General Office of the SPC. The SPC Gazette and People’s Court Daily are required to publish the interpretations, but for the other documents published, it is hit or miss. The SPC’s official website publishes some, but not all of the ones that can be found in some other sources A problem for those puzzling out these documents is that unfortunately the staff of the SPC’s website does not take the due care they should to ensure that documents are published in the correct classification, so the careful observer will find that misclassifications occur from time to time. Sources other than the SPC’s website may have more of these judicial documents. Some of these judicial documents, such as replies or responses by the #4 Civil Division under the Prior Reporting system for arbitration matters, are published in the division’s own publication, as discussed here.
Two additional comments on data (or lack thereof) and persuasiveness to the lower courts. It is difficult to determine how the number of judicial documents/judicial regulatory documents that the SPC issues compares to the number of judicial interpretations, as it is clear that it is inconvenient for some judicial documents to be made public (and some appear to be classified).
A second comment is on the persuasiveness of these judicial documents to the lower courts. I surmise that some of them are more important to local court leaders than to ordinary judges, but it depends on the nature of the judicial document. It is my understanding that judicial documents with normative provisions (conference summaries or Opinions with normative content) are cited in trial reports (审理报告 or 审查报告), but not in judgments or rulings.Finally, I surmise that SPC decisions are or will become increasingly important as a form of guidance to lower court judges, especially with the formal implementation of the similar case guidance system.
Those with corrections or comments or additions, please use the comment function or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Many thanks to certain knowledgeable persons for spending some of their valuable free time commenting on earlier drafts of this blogpost.