SPC Work Report Reveals Direction of Judicial Reform for 2005

April 5, 2005

The Supreme People's Court (SPC) work report to the National People's Congress (NPC) on March 9 outlines Chinese judicial reform goals for 2005. Judicial authorities will lay out these projects in greater detail in a soon-to-be-announced five-year plan for judicial reform, according to both the work report and two articles (1, 2) appearing in the 21st Century Business Herald.

Highlighted reform efforts include: reform of court adjudication committees, changes to the judicial review of death penalty cases, regularization of the system of people's assessors, reform of rehearing procedures, and strengthening of basic level people's tribunals. (For more information, see below)



Reform of Court Adjudication Committees
Adjudication committees are the highest authority in Chinese courts and have wide discretion to overrule decisions or intervene in individual cases. This discretion often limits the ability of individual judges to decide cases independently. According to a 21st Century Business Herald analysis, reform efforts are likely to focus on:

(1) dividing court adjudication committees, which are currently unitary, into several specialized panels that would handle civil, criminal, and administrative cases separately;
(2) limiting case review to legal rather than factual issues; and
(3) changing committee review practices by discouraging the internal review of paper case files and introducing the practice of open oral arguments.

Changes to the Judicial Review of Death Penalty Cases
The PRC Criminal Procedure Law and Criminal Law mandate SPC review of all death sentences, but the SPC has delegated this power to provincial high people's courts for cases involving murder, rape, and several other crimes. Both legal and human rights observers have criticized this practice. But commentary suggests that officials are studying proposals to return the review power to the SPC. Click here for more detailed analysis.

Strengthening the People's Assessor System
Chinese authorities recently have taken steps towards regularizing the use of lay assessors in judicial hearings. Recent directives clarify that these laypersons, who court personnel often screen and select, enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as judges. Authorities bill this equality as an anti-corruption mechanism that allows popular supervision of the judiciary. (For more information from China Court Net, click here.)

Regularizing Expert Testimony and Forensic Determinations
An NPC Standing Committee decision issued recently bars courts and justice bureaus from establishing for-profit forensic centers to provide expert testimony. Links between judicial authorities and for-profit organizations that provide expert testimony raise important ethical and legal questions and undermine public confidence in the fairness of trials. (A Southern Weekend report has more information.) The SPC work report demonstrates that officials are determined to implement these reforms fully, but questions remain about whether or not judicial authorities can carry them out. As a report in the 21st Century Business Herald notes, many Chinese courts depend on the revenue that such centers generate to support their operations.

Reform of Rehearing (Zaishen) Procedures
Rehearing procedures permit courts to reopen and review final decisions, a practice that undermines the finality of court decisions. Few practical limits constrain rehearing practices. Other commentary has suggested that proposed reforms may restrict the number of times a case may be reviewed, but the reforms may also make it easier for individual parties to request a rehearing. How such reforms might affect the finality of court decisions is currently unclear.

Strengthening the Development of People's Tribunals (Renmin Fating)
Supervised by local basic people's courts, people's tribunals are charged with handling civil cases and minor criminal matters. The SPC's interest in their development suggests that the central government plans to extend the reach of the formal judicial system into the countryside. This policy likely reflects the Chinese leadership's interest in addressing rural issues, and may be a response to recent rural instability.

Additional reform measures covered in the work report include construction of a juvenile justice system and improved enforcement of court decisions.