Speculation on court reforms quashed

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 December, 2004, 12:00am

Amendments aimed at strengthening judicial independence appear in doubt

Beijing last night poured cold water on recent speculation about reforms of the mainland's court system amid ongoing revisions to the judicial organisation law.

A spokesman for the Supreme People's Court research office told Xinhua that the revisions would focus on 'impartiality and efficiency', adding that foreign models of judicial independence should not be followed.

The spokesman said that while opinions expressed by legal experts did not represent the court's position, their views would be taken into account when the proposals were formulated.

Recently, two professors - Peking University professor He Weifang and National Procurators Institute professor Zhang Zhiming - have proposed extensive amendments to legislation concerning the way mainland courts operate.

Mainland media have reported extensively on their proposals, which will become a key reference for the Supreme People's Court when it presents its own draft amendments to the National People's Congress for deliberation.

The court spokesman said, however, that any statements on the reforms that were not issued through the Supreme People's Court only represented the views of the speakers themselves.

Professor He said the amendments were aimed at strengthening judicial independence.

'We wanted to rewrite a pure organisation law to embody the principle of independence so that legal bodies will not be influenced by other forces,' he said.

Proposed reforms cover the role of adjudication committees, the appointment of court presidents and the relationship between different levels of courts. Moreover, the professors also suggested changing the title of 'people's court' to 'court' to highlight the judiciary's professional nature.

Under existing laws, adjudication committees - usually made up of court presidents and other senior judicial officials - can 'review, adjudicate and rule on major and difficult cases'.

Professor He said such powers might not be appropriate and could constitute a breach of justice because they gave the committees the power to decide verdicts without a trial.

The professors suggested that for large and difficult cases, the adjudication committees should be required to hold open trials - conducted by a multi-judge bench - so both the plaintiff and defendant would know who was responsible for the verdict.

They also recommended that the practice of lower courts seeking 'advice' from upper courts before ruling should be stopped because it renders appeals meaningless.

Under the constitution, superior courts exercise 'supervision' over courts at a lower level. That often translates into lower-court judges seeking advice from their superiors instead of passing their verdicts independently.

'When lower courts feel undecided over some difficult cases, they then seek the opinions of courts at a higher level,' Professor He was quoted by the Beijing Times as saying. 'But such rulings mean that citizens cannot properly defend their rights through appeals. Therefore, we should make sure courts of different levels are independent of each other.'

Another recommendation concerned the appointment of court presidents and senior judicial officials. At present, local governments assign most senior positions in the judiciary, often to people who are not professionally trained judges.

'The proposal suggests that court presidents and senior court officials will not be allowed to influence cases in which they are not responsible,' Professor He was quoted as saying.