Justice buckles under weight of soaring workload
Fewer judges and more cases test the mainland's judiciary. Kevin Huang reports on a legal system courting disaster
Beijing's Chaoyang District Court is one of the busiest lower-level courts in the capital.
Last year it took on a record 46,000 lawsuits, but that record looks certain to be overtaken this year, with the court having accepted about 31,000 cases in the first half of the year alone.
The court has 177 judges who each preside over an average of seven hearings a day, according to the People's Court Daily, which quoted one of the court's judges as saying that she still had more than 100 cases to assess and her court roster was fully booked for the coming month.
Chaoyang judges routinely work overtime and their caseload is climbing year by year, according to Mao Li , director of the court's research office.
A People's Court Daily reporter says the load on the legal system is obvious inside the court. 'You can immediately feel the tense atmosphere when you step inside the court building,' the reporter said.
'There are always long queues in the registration hall. Parties in the suits have to wait outside the courtrooms for a long time for their turn because each courtroom has about five different cases every day on average.'
Further south, in Guangzhou, the situation has become so acute that the city has had to 'borrow' judges from other areas to cope with the 'crazy' caseload, the Guangzhou Daily reports.
In the past decade and a half, the number of lawsuits accepted by the city's system has risen from about 23,400 in 1990 to more than 160,000 last year.
But the number of judges has declined slightly over the past few years. 'The mad increase in lawsuit cases and decline in the number of judges has led to a severe deficiency in judicial power,' a Guangzhou judge said. 'Working overtime is a common practice for Guangzhou judges.'
In the relatively prosperous city of Shenzhen, the intermediate court has sought to counter the increase in cases by implementing a collective overtime plan for its arbitrators since 2000, a move that could be defined as illegal under national law.
From last month, city judges have had to work overtime every Tuesday and Thursday night, and should work every Saturday. According to the 'Shenzhen 2004 Court Work Report', the workload of Shenzhen judges has doubled in the past five years.
The report also said 75 judges had asked to quit during that period because of the 'extraordinary work pressure'.
At the national level, the number of cases accepted has risen steadily every year while the country's judicial ranks have thinned. Mainland courts accepted 7.87 million lawsuits last year, compared with 5.68 million in 2003 and 5.35 million in 2000.
Supreme People's Court president Xiao Yang told a meeting of the National People's Congress Standing Committee that the number of judges had declined by 13 per cent between 2000 and last year.
The state does not release data on the number of judges, but there were thought to be about 280,000 in early 2000.
Wang Xuetang , a judge and researcher from Shandong , has been studying China's court system for more than 10 years and says economic development and social change have been the critical factors behind the shortage.
Judge Wang said there had been an explosion in the number of disputes because respect for social institutions was not well established in Chinese society.
He said members of the public were also more aware of their legal rights - and therefore more willing to file cases - and judges were now expected to meet higher standard.
In the past, China's judges were mainly either retired army personnel or court cadres who had worked their way up to judicial positions. But for the past three years, the mainland has had unified judicial exams which all judges, prosecutors and lawyers have to pass in order to practice.
'The unified examination became a barrier for judge recruitment in underdeveloped areas where the quality of judicial personnel is relatively low,' Judge Wang said, while admitting the exams were a significant step forward in terms of national reform.
For example, about 340 judicial staff from Qinghai sat the exams in 2002 when the system was implemented, but only eight passed. Poor pay had also made work on the bench less attractive. Judge Wang said his annual income was only about 30,000 yuan, which is about the same as an ordinary government worker and much less than a lawyer.
'Judges should be better paid because they engage in creative work and face heavy workloads and great pressure,' he said.
But Peking University Law School professor He Weifang disputed the claims that China did not have enough judges, saying the 'shortage' was an illusion created by defects in the judicial system. 'The proportion of judges in terms of population numbers in China is much higher than in many western countries,' Professor He said.
He said one of the main problems was that many judges were doing work that should be outside their range of responsibilities.
'Many basic-level courts are required by the local government to oversee investment invitations, family planning, tax collection and so on,' Professor He said.
Professor He said an ambiguous division of labour inside the courts forced judges to waste time on paperwork that would be done by assistants in other countries.
'Only about two-thirds of existing judges are really doing judges' work,' he said. 'The judges also have to spend much energy and time balancing different interest groups who can exert pressure on justice. It is useless to increase the number of judges in this case.'
Professor He said corruption had dragged down the reputation of the country's judges and turned people away from the profession. 'Prestige and independence are more important than salary for a judge,' he said, adding that it would be a more popular career choice if judges' authority and reputation could be guaranteed.