China’s “One Website, Two Databases” Approach to
Judicial Transparency, Reform, & Consistency†
Table of Contents
- The Website & Its Limitations
- An Internal Database to Support Big-Data Analyses
- A Public Database to Facilitate Searching for Similar Cases
- The Website’s Value to the Two Databases
Estimated Reading Time
- 6.3 min
The past few weeks saw growing concerns about the future of the Supreme People’s Court’s website named “China Judgements Online” (中国裁判文书网; “Website”), a key channel used by Chinese courts since 2013 to publish millions of judgments. To alleviate certain concerns, the Supreme People’s Court took an unusual step last week not only to confirm the continued operation of the Website, but also to announce the establishment of two new databases. The complementary features of the two new databases evoke optimism that the Chinese judiciary will be able to leverage the databases to formulate data-driven judicial reform measures and increase judicial consistency. While the databases help address deficiencies of the Website, it is important to stress that the proper use of the Website can, in turn, enhance the value of these databases.
The Website & Its Limitations
The launch of the Website is a milestone in Chinese legal history, as never before have Chinese judgments been published in such massive quantities. According to official data, the Website has more than 140 million judgments, rulings, and other types of documents, all of which are from more than 3,500 courts in China.
The Website is, however, not user-friendly. It lacks sophisticated search functions to help, for example, lawyers search for cases that are similar to pending ones handled by them. Yet, it is an indispensable platform to access official versions of Chinese judicial documents.
“[…] the decrease in the number of new documents uploaded to the Website has drawn widespread attention.”
Given this exceptional value of the Website, the decrease in the number of new documents uploaded to the Website has drawn widespread attention. For example, the numbers were 19.2 million, 14.9 million, and 10.4 million in 2020, 2021, and 2022, respectively. The declining trend has worsened in 2023; by mid-December 2023, only slightly over five million additional documents have been uploaded to the Website.
The Supreme People’s Court has attributed this decreasing trend to its adoption of more stringent publication standards to help address some problems related to the Website. Among these problems are misuse of information included in published judgments for extortion and other illegal purposes as well as challenges facing companies or individuals when their business partners or employers become aware of their lawsuits.
An Internal Database to Support Big-Data Analyses
The circulation of a notice issued by the Supreme People’s Court in late November regarding the establishment of a new “Database of Adjudication Documents of Chinese Courts” (全国法院裁判文书库) sparked speculations whether this database would be open to the public and whether it would replace the Website.
Last week, the Supreme People’s Court confirmed that the new database will not replace the Website. Designed to be used internally for supporting the Supreme People’s Court’s big-data analysis of judicial developments, the database will have a wealth of information, much of which is currently excluded from the Website. Except for “confidential cases” or “adjudication documents containing sensitive information” (neither term is defined), the database will include all judgments, rulings, mediation documents covering disputes resolved by judicial mediation, and other documents issued by courts in China.
Equipped with this database, the Supreme People’s Court will be able to conduct important big-data analyses. For example, analyses showing the percentage of first-instance decisions upheld by appellant courts and the percentage of appealed cases remanded for retrial may help reveal problems in the court system. As a result, the Supreme People’s Court will be able to adopt data-driven reform measures to improve the judiciary.
A Public Database to Facilitate Searching for Similar Cases
Last week, the Supreme People’s Court also announced the establishment of the “Database of Cases of People’s Courts” (人民法院案例库). Designed to address the Website’s lack of effective search functions, this database will contain a relatively small number of cases with “exemplary value” (“exemplary cases”) and will support searches based on keywords and legal principles used in these cases to help judges handling disputes involving similar legal issues efficiently identify useful prior cases.
The establishment of this database is significant in three aspects. First, when the database is ready for use, Chinese judges “must” (必须) use it to search for similar cases before rendering judgments to ensure uniform application of law. After the Supreme People’s Court established the “Search for Similar Cases” System in 2020 (see, e.g., Game Changer!—Guiding Cases Empowered by a Chinese High Court’s Retrial Order; Anti-Monopoly Law and Intellectual Property: More Guidance for Chinese Courts), this is the first time that the top court has used such a strong term to make judges’ search for similar cases before rendering judgments mandatory.
Second, the database will be available to the public, meaning that there will be a useful tool for litigants and/or their lawyers to safeguard judicial consistency.
Third, members of the public are encouraged to help identify exemplary cases for inclusion in the database, which currently has slightly more than 2,000 cases, based on recommendations within the court system. On December 22, the Supreme People’s Court formally called on “relevant agencies, social organizations, law schools, scientific research units, as well as experts, scholars, lawyers, and individual citizens who are interested or engaged in research, etc.” to recommend cases that, in their opinion, have exemplary value for the top court’s consideration. This type of public participation in the development of the Chinese legal system is rare and encouraging.
The Website’s Value to the Two Databases
The “Database of Adjudication Documents of Chinese Courts” and the “Database of Cases of People’s Courts” can clearly help address the limitations of the Website. It should be noted, however, that the Website can, in turn, enhance the value of these two databases. For example, making more judgments open to the public via the Website allows the public to play an active role in identifying exemplary cases for inclusion in the “Database of Cases of People’s Courts”.
“[…] making more judgments open to the public via the Website can create a deterring effect on all judges and lawyers […].”
In addition, according to the Supreme People’s Court, the “Database of Adjudication Documents of Chinese Courts” can help identify judicial corruption by, for example, supporting big-data analysis of all cases handled by a certain law firm to reveal whether the firm’s cases have exceptionally high rates of success when they are adjudicated by a certain court or judge. While big-data investigations targeting specific firms or judges conducted by the Supreme People’s Court are important, making more judgments open to the public via the Website can create a deterring effect on all judges and lawyers—a more cost-effective approach. Why will there be such a deterring effect? Knowing that the adjudication documents of many cases handled by them are subject to public scrutiny, law firms and judges are more likely to be deterred from conducting themselves in an unprofessional manner.
The Supreme People’s Court is considering how to improve the Website without compromising judicial transparency. Balancing all the interests is not easy. Nevertheless, the above two factors are worthy of careful consideration.
† The citation of this article is: Dr. Mei Gechlik, China’s “One Website, Two Databases” Approach to Judicial Transparency, Reform, & Consistency, SINOTALKS.COM®, In Brief No. 39, Dec. 27, 2023, https://sinotalks.com/inbrief/202312-english-judicial-transparency-reform-consistency.
The original, English version of this article was edited by Nathan Harpainter. The information and views set out in this article are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the work or views of SINOTALKS®.
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