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China's new system of circuit tribunals improves citizens’ access to the justice system. But the regional courts under direct control of the Supreme Court also tighten the Communist Party’s grip over the judiciary.

Not a fan of judicial independence: SPC President Zhou Qiang

Chinese citizens no longer need to travel far to bring a lawsuit to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC). By the end of 2016, the SPC had established six circuit tribunals all over the country. On 21 January 2017, the newly established “third circuit tribunal” of the SPC in Nanjing started to hear its first case – a dispute about the transfer of land use rights. These new tribunals were set up as permanent courts in designated cities across China. Unlike other regional courts they straddle provincial boundaries and can assume jurisdiction over disputes with national political and economic weight in several adjacent provinces. Decisions by circuit courts are final, as they will be seen as rulings directly issued by the SPC.

The tribunals are highly popular among local citizens who have brought thousands of cases to these courts since the first two were established in 2015. The judges, who are directly appointed by the SPC, are viewed as more professional than their peers in local courts, and the rulings are viewed as more reliable.

However, rendering access to justice more convenient for ordinary citizens is not the only rationale behind the new tribunals. They also serve to tighten the Communist Party’s grip on the local judiciary, as the jurisdiction over the cases they take on would have normally been exercised by local courts. Since 2014, circuit courts have been an integral part of Xi Jinping’s agenda to centralize the country’s court system. In fact, circuit tribunals now shoulder the task of thwarting any attempts by local judges to gain more independence or autonomy.

Initial hopes for more judicial independence

Before Xi Jinping came to power, circuit tribunals did not exist. The SPC exerted influence over local justice primarily by providing comprehensive “guidance” to local courts. For instance, the SPC fulfilled the typical functions of an appellate court, such as retrying a small number of representative cases. In addition, it issued judicial interpretations of laws and statutes, and replied to questions submitted by the provincial high courts. Finally, the SPC regularly publishes certain “guiding cases” tried by courts all over the country. Apart from that, the SPC rarely interfered in the day-to-day work of local courts, and local judges enjoyed a high degree of autonomy from the SPC.

The system of circuit courts was part of an effort to separate the judicial system and local governments. So when the first two circuit tribunals were introduced in Shenzhen und Shenyang in December 2014, there were high hopes among Chinese and Western legal scholars that these pilot projects spanning seven provinces would lead to reforms aimed at ending interference by local party bosses in the courts.

Supreme People’s Court tightens control 

While political interference at a local level might have been reduced, the hopes for more judicial independence proved premature. In fact, the pilot projects were the first step towards centralizing judicial power nationwide. In November 2016, the CCP approved a plan to establish four additional circuit tribunals in Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Chongqing and Xi’an, each with jurisdiction spanning provincial borders. The National People’s Congress appointed the presiding judges and chairmen of the four tribunals. Once all circuit tribunals were in place, the SPC had assumed direct control of the judicial practice across the country.

The new circuit tribunals have significant power and influence. They can choose to take over any significant case that falls within the jurisdiction of the SPC (especially politically sensitive ones) from courts in the provinces. The last four new circuit tribunals that were set up are each headed by a vice-president of the SPC and all of the six circuit tribunals are equipped with high-ranking judges. Each circuit tribunal has a party committee whose members are appointed and dispatched by the SPC. At present, an important difference to local courts is that a full-time CCP official ensures party control and oversees anti-corruption affairs at the tribunal.

Circuit tribunals will weaken local judges

Centralizing judicial power goes hand in hand with the CCP’s firm rejection of judicial independence. This became evident when the SPC’s president Zhou Qiang described judicial independence as a western ideological “trap” in a speech on January 14.

Circuit tribunals are a substantial tool in this ongoing effort at judicial centralization. In 2016, the two pilot circuit tribunals dealt with more than 4,400 cases, which amounts to a remarkable expansion of the SPC's involvement in local justice. The circuit tribunals will thus strengthen the SPC while weakening the role of judges and courts in the provinces.

Editor's Note: This text was updated to clarify the difference between the legal "guidance" provided through actual Supreme Court rulings with representative character and the “guiding cases” (指导性案例) in the Chinese system, which provide the SPC’s legal opinions on exemplary cases, including those not tried by the SPC.