Judicial reform plan fails to impress critics

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 March, 2009, 12:00am

The Supreme People's Court has unveiled a five-year reform plan promising to better meet the public's rapidly increasing demands on the court system, but critics say it will do little to enhance judicial independence.

In an online statement yesterday, the court said reforms between now and 2013 would mainly focus on four elements, including steps to make the system more efficient.

It said the changes would centre on improving internal court processes such as trial procedures, as well as finding ways to investigate people who try to influence verdicts.

In addition, the courts would reassess standard criminal prison terms, including possible lenient treatment for elderly criminals and tougher penalties for some offenders, but the statement offered no further details.

Jiang Huiling, vice-director of the court's reform office, told Xinhua that there was a gap between the public's requirements of the courts and the existing system, so 'it was urgent to launch the new round of reform'.

Mr Jiang said the court was also planning to publish some of its verdicts on a website, but he thought it was essential to maintain a balance between ensuring the public's right to know and ensuring that classified files remained secret.

The Xinhua report said the reform programme would also lay out rules governing live television broadcasts and recordings of court hearings.

This programme is the court's third five-year reform plan, and mainland law experts regarded the previous efforts - one launched in 1999 and the other in 2005 - as contributing 'nothing to advancing judicial independence'. They said they were not optimistic about the third plan which was, like the previous two, littered with Communist Party slogans and empty promises.

'Judicial independence will remain a dream as long as the political committee of the local Communist Party rules on court appointments and internal trial court committees [of officials] are allowed to 'legally' meddle with the judges,' a Guangdong-based lawyer, who did not want to be identified, said.

She said that under the existing mainland court system, the internal trial committee, consisting of a judge and other court administrators, had the greatest influence on sentences.

'Under the new plan, the local procurator general or his deputy would be invited onto the committee, giving less weight to the opinions of judges and lawyers - a situation that is actually backwards,' the lawyer said.

China Law Society member Wang Xuetang said he did not understand why the court was launching the new plan when the old ones had not achieved their goals.

But a former judge and current law professor at a Hainan university, who did not want to be named because of the subject's sensitivity, said that according to his sources in the legal community, the Commission of Politics and Law of the CPC Central Committee was working on another plan to give low-level courts more leeway for 'relative independence'.

'Under the new plan, the provincial and central governments [and not the lower-level authorities] will be responsible for the budgets of local courts,' the professor said. 'I hear that they want this idea to take effect this year.'

Legal moves

The reforms plan to:

Improve courts' internal systems to make them more efficient

Find ways to investigate those who attempt to influence judgments

Introduce new standards on criminal policy, such as lenient treatment of elderly criminals

Set regulations about live television broadcasts from courts

Lead to some verdicts being posted online