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Today the office of the Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform announced Shanghai, Guangdong, Jilin, Hubei, Hainan and Qinghai as the sites for ambitious new judicial pilot projects. The test sites are representative of various regions across China and include areas at different levels of economic development. This is expected to give insight into whether reforms will be possible at a national level following the successful completion and review of the pilots.
The pilots will explore four mains areas for reform:
I. Improving the systems for management of judicial personnel by type
II. Perfecting systems for judicial accountability
III. Completing employment security systems for judicial personnel
IV. Promoting unified management of court and procuratorate personnel and finances at the provincial levels.
Within these four categories, seven major areas for reform have been identified
1. Implementing a management system for judges and procurators different from that of ordinary civil servants. The system for management of court and procuratorate staff will divide them into judges, procurators, support staff and administrative staff.
2. Creating a system to position high-quality talent to flesh out the front lines of case handling by allowing qualified outstanding lawyers, legal scholars and other legal professionals to having the opportunity to enter the judicial and procurator corps to expand the paths by which talent might enter the judiciary.
3. Improving procedures and requirements for selection of judges and procurators, following the principle of Party management of cadres, respect for judicial discipline and ensuring the political quality and professional capacity of the judicial corps. A committee for the selection of judges and procurators will be established at the provincial level to propose judges and procurators from the perspective of professionalism. The departments for organization and personnel and for disciplinary inspection and supervision will review for political quality, integrity and self-discipline as well as and other such factors; and the people’s congresses will follow the law in making appointments and removals. The composition of the selection committee should be broadly representative, and should have both experienced judge and prosecutor representatives, as well as lawyers, legal scholars, and other community representatives.
4. Improving the case-handling responsibility system, increasing judicial openness, and strengthening supervision and restraint mechanisms. Use improvement of the responsibility system for presiding judges, collegial panels and procurators handling cases as an inroad to highlight judges and procurators’ principal positions, and form operations mechanisms for judicial powers that clarify rights and responsibilities, unify rights and responsibilities, and provide orderly management.
5. Completing a professional security system appropriate to the responsibilities of judges and procurators. Pilot locations may explore postponing the retirement age for outstanding judges and prosecutors, and the next step will be to consider increasing the age at which judges and procurators can first take up their posts.
6. Promoting unified management of personnel and finances at for courts at the provincial level. The economic and developmental realities of each area should be considered to ensure the funding of courts and procuratorates at all levels in terms of office expenses, case-handling fees and ensuring that personnel salaries are not below the current norms.
7. Improving the management systems for people’s police officers, other police and police technicians by class. The focus is to be on resolving the problems broadly affecting first line police: that their burdens are heavy, their rank is low and their pay poor. The professional categorization structure established by the Civil Servants Law will be followed to construct a professional technical civil servant management system for those in public security, safety, trial and procuratorate organs, and ensure that staff benefits are commensurate the professional duties.
The pilots are to be part of the new round of judicial reform first announced in the White Paper on Judicial Reform (2012) and the more directly implement of the ‘decision’ of the Third Plenum (2013).
The proposed areas of reform seem to focus on ensuring judicial independence by freeing both procurators and judges (both judicial actors) from normal bureaucratic review systems, shielding them form local protectionism and raising their professional caliber by inviting in non-career judges and extending the age of retirement to make room for more experienced judges.
At the same time, some troubling elements are present, such as the inclusion of accountability as one of the four major areas of reform and the mention of Party control as seeming limits on independence. Judicial (or procuratorial) independence, should never mean a lack of accountability, but the broad announcement of lifetime responsibility for wrongfully decided cases is chilling, and seems at odds with the general recognition that the duties of judicial actors are different from ordinary civil servants. The inclusion of the Party control and “political character” are a reminder that judicial independence has an outer boundary.