Mainland judicial reform is needed now

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

The mainland's justice system has lagged behind other reforms that have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Changes have been slow and uncertain. It remains an instrument of state control and the mainland is no closer to the ideal of an independent judiciary. The announcement of the third five-year programme of judicial reform, therefore, arouses interest. Anyone looking through the plan's goals for evidence of substantive progress will, sadly, be disappointed. They will not loosen central government and party leadership of the courts. But they do hold out hope for improvements in the way courts dispense justice.

In an independent judiciary, the stated goal of 'perfecting' the courts' internal system and making it more efficient and 'reasonable' would be the responsibility of the top judge, not a ruling political party. The same can be said of rules for judges' behaviour, and an internal integrity system. And it would be good if investigations of those who 'illegally' disturb a court's independence included cases of official interference.

That said, plans to reform the funding of local courts and sentencing standards could improve the quality of justice.

Leaked details suggest the central and provincial governments will take over funding of 3,000-odd courts now dependent on local government support. This would free the courts from some of the influence that notoriously results in judicial decisions biased in favour of powerful local political and economic interests. It should also lead to a fairer division of funds for court buildings and services between coastal areas and underfunded central and western areas.

Reform of sentencing, hopefully, would result in fewer people being unnecessarily stigmatised as criminals and being sent to prison or labour camps when lighter penalties would serve the ends of justice. Local prosecutors would focus on people accused of major crimes or threats to state security. An alternative process with a more moderate sentencing regime would handle lesser offenders.

Troubled economic times can reorder social priorities. Environmental protection, for example, stands to lose out in the drive to maintain economic growth. Criminal justice reform could likewise be stalled through lack of a sense of urgency. But a fairer court system, especially at the lower level, would act as a pressure valve during times of social unrest over hardship and unemployment.

People brought before the courts may still lose their cases. But it is important that they feel they get a fair hearing. For the sake of justice and social harmony the authorities should lose no time in implementing these overdue improvements.