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THE SUPREME PEOPLE’S COURT’S NEW CASE DATABASE

This article was originally posted on Susan Finder's invaluable site dedicated to understanding China's Supreme People's Court.

On February 27, 2024, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) held a press conference to announce the new SPC case database 人民法院案例库 (People’s Courts Case Database).  As of this writing, fewer than 4000 cases have been incorporated. This new case database provides a collection of edited cases (案例) rather than original judgments, rulings, or other judicial documents as collected in China Judgements Online (裁判文书网).  I summarize below the process by which edited cases are selected for inclusion in the People’s Courts Case Database.

The new People’s Courts Case Database is accessible from the SPC’s homepage, which is, the last time I checked, not accessible for those with a US IP address. I trust it can be accessed directly through the above link. It is intended to be accessible outside of China and appears to be hosted by the same platform as China Judgements Online.  Similar to the China Judgements Online Platform, it requires the user to register and provide personal information.  Even after such information is provided, the login process is not smooth, for those without a mainland China identification card.

This blogpost will address the selection process, the apparent rationale for establishing this case database, and whether it imposes new requirements on Chinese judges. It will flag matters that this case database does not yet address.

Why this New Case Database?

Press conference announcing launch of the case database, including SPC VP Yang, head & deputy head of Research Office, & head of the All China Lawyers Association

The large number of model/typical/exemplary cases that the SPC has issued in the past year makes it clear that President Zhang Jun favors those to guide the lower courts, rather than large numbers of policy documents.  So the decision for the Chinese Courts Case Database to serve as a database for various types of edited and especially selected cases, such as guiding cases, typical cases, and other types of cases selected for their persuasive or exemplary value is consistent with the views of President Zhang Jun on the use of cases.  It appears from the press conference announcing the Chinese Courts Case Database that launching the database timely was the primary responsibility of the Research Office, also involving other divisions and offices.

The SPC has described it as a new public legal service product (公共法律服务产品), launched before the Two Sessions. It is yet another product of last year’s thematic education campaign (主题教育).  As described in my article published in US Asia Law Institute’s Perspectives, during the campaign, President Zhang required SPC divisions, offices, circuit courts, and affiliated institutions to undertake research focusing on current significant problems or issues in their area of law or responsibility and write reports proposing practical solutions. One of the problems brought to the surface during that campaign was that [edited] cases issued for guidance (案例指导) were not standardized, timely, comprehensive, or consistent.  Followers of this blog would have known that.

Although the SPC describes the new database as providing more authoritative, standardized, and comprehensive guidance, with such a small number of cases in the database and such a large number of issues that face Chinese courts daily, as a practical matter it will not be a “one-stop platform” for Chinese judges or lawyers.  The SPC requires judges to check it when undertaking a similar case search (see my former student’s description of the process).

Case Selection Process

The procedure by which cases are incorporated into the Chinese Courts Case Database is analogous, but not identical, to the process by which guiding cases and typical cases are selected.  The details of the process for selecting typical [foreign-related] cases contained in my forthcoming article are consistent with the process described in one of the press releases accompanying the launch of the Chinese Courts Case Database. It is a bureaucratic process involving multiple levels of review.

Depending upon the entity that has submitted the case, the proposed edited cases are reviewed by members of the relevant operational division of the SPC.  The entire division (sitting as the professional judges meeting) reviews and discusses a group of cases for proper application of law, reasoning, and ethical orientation (value orientation 价值导向).  If the judges in the operational division consider that certain cases are suitable for inclusion in the database, they will be reported to the relevant SPC leader for approval.  I surmise that an explanatory report accompanies the selected cases.  The press release states that the cases are thereafter sent to the Research Office for review. During the review process, the Research Office reviews the format and substance of the selected cases, involving experts in the review.  As part of the formatting process, each case is labeled with a special number (see below). I surmise the initial approval by the SPC leader is subject to final clearance by the Research Office. Otherwise, the Research Office could be in the awkward position of negating a decision by a leader.  This procedure highlights the unique role of the Research Office at the SPC.

Case from Beijing Financial Court incorporated into database

This process appears to involve more reviews than typical cases, but fewer approvals than guiding cases. Therefore cases incorporated in the database should be considered highly persuasive.

Unresolved Issues for the Case Database

Annually, the SPC issues many reference (typical) cases, as selected by various divisions of the SPC and in connection with a variety of events.   My 2022 blogpost lists about ten different types of regularly issued typical cases.  One friend knowledgeable about the selection process for typical (model) and guiding cases, particularly in the intellectual property (IP) field, classified SPC Gazette cases as ranking second in prestige, behind guiding cases. The friend described the top ten  and the fifty typical IP cases issued annually as  “the Oscars.” The friend viewed the ten top cases as “best actors and actresses,” and the fifty typical ones as the “best supporting roles.” The friend noted that the digests (要旨) issued by the SPC IP Court are not as influential as guiding cases. My understanding is that lower court IP judges would consider them when deciding cases because they are statements of the view of the SPC IP Court on that particular issue.

A second issue for all these typical cases is that there does not seem to be a mechanism for reviewing previously issued typical cases to determine whether the case is still valid.  The SPC published a four-part five-volume set of typical cases(最高人民法院发布的典型案例汇编 2009-2021), pictured below. These volumes only include cases published in the SPC Gazette and the SPC’s official website, therefore not including the cases in the journals published by the operational divisions or the National Judges College.  It is unclear whether the SPC plans to incorporate the journal cases into the People’s Courts Case Database.  That would require a significant amount of personnel time to review those prior typical cases for timeliness and consistency.  So the database has not yet resolved the problems identified last year but has provided an authoritative database to check.

 

 

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