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China grants more judicial independence to judges amid reform

Updated: Oct 16,2014 3:30 PM     Xinhua

China’s judges can expect more judicial independence with an upcoming key political meeting expected to spearhead unprecedented judicial reform, experts said.

The reform, to be discussed at the fourth plenary session of the 18th Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee slated for Oct 20-23, aims at curtailing clumsy trial procedures and outsider interference in the country’s judicial system, according to Shen Guoming, a legal expert in Shanghai.

With the number of judicial cases increasing, reform is crucial to guarantee justice for the public. Amid growing legal awareness and enhanced transparency, courts in China are receiving more cases than ever.

In 2013, the country’s local courts heard more than 14.22 million cases, up 7.4 percent over that in 2012. They had final rulings on 12.95 million cases, up 4.4 percent.

In the country’s vast rural areas, disputes on land contracts, marriages and private lending are catapulting on the back of farmers’ amassing fortunes. Meanwhile, increasing population has increased gridlock, resulting in a surge of traffic accidents and more trial cases.

Previously, complicated administrative measures have largely prolonged legal processes, putting huge pressure on local courts and judges.

“In extreme cases, I am charged with handling five cases in a day,” said Wang Meng, the youngest rural judge in Xinmin city, Northeast China’s Liaoning province. The local court Wang works for has a jurisdiction of over 3,300 square kilometers in Xinmin, home of roughly 700,000 people.

Also under scrutiny is the “try but not judge” practice, traditionally a key part of the judicial system, but now seen as impairing court fairness and breeding corruption.

Earlier this year, Liu Yong, an official with the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), was suspected of taking bribes of over 2 million yuan ($326,500) in exchange for intervention in trials.

Cases of erroneous judgment are becoming commonplace and have generated headlines.

In one case, a local from the southwestern Sichuan province, Wang Benyu, was wrongfully sentenced to death with reprieve for rape and murder by the Higher People’s Court in Inner Mongolia in 1994. He was not released until 2013, a year after the actual criminal was caught.

As outrage and concern run high, China has taken pains to reform the judicial system by setting up a jurisdiction system of courts that relies on judgment using resources beyond administrative divisions.

In 2013, the SPC issued a jurisdiction reform plan and piloted it in a number of regions such as Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangdong, Sichuan and Liaoning. Designed to simplify the process, it eliminated overly sophisticated bureaucracy by abandoning the need for courts heads to sign papers, therefore empowering local judges more judicial independence when handling common cases.

But with great power comes great responsibility. Wang said that he feels more pressure and a greater sense of responsibility now that he is in full charge of daily cases.

The pilot scheme is only a small example of the judicial reform all across China.

In July, Shanghai initiated a program to make judges more accountable and curb government intervention in trials by creating a clear-cut division between judicial staff and administrative personnel.

Newly assigned responsibilities to trial judges will eliminate the need for rulings to go through excessive approvals by the court’s chief justices.

The SPC also published a broad-stroke guideline for judicial reforms over the next five years. The guideline includes 45 major measures in eight key judicial issues such as personnel, finance and judicial selection, most of which are included in the Shanghai reform plan.

Fan Zhijun, a professor with China University of Political Science and Law, sees the reform as a sign of weeding out protectionism and creating a court system with more independence and less influence.

And there is more to expect, as Chinese officials will, for the first in history, focus on the rule of law at the meeting next week, according to Fan.

“As the reform gains steam, China’s judicial system will be more scientific and better safeguard the people’s interests,” Fan said.

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