New rules on petitions are just a start, say scholars
In an attempt to cure a big headache for courts around the country, the mainland's top court issued a guideline this week on how to put an end to long-running petition cases that target judicial procedures.
For petitioners, however, the guideline might make it harder to seek justice in a system that is still largely crippled by corruption and judicial incompetence.
In October last year, the Central Committee for Political and Legislative Affairs, the Communist Party's top authority on judicial matters, announced the need for a final procedure to stem the unabating waves of petition cases. It said it should include some form of a public hearing when necessary, which legal experts said might help clear the backlog.
However, the Supreme People's Court did not issue its own departmental guideline until Wednesday. Its contents are not accessible to the public - with only glimpses available through reports by Xinhua.
The guideline supposedly sets down a procedure for the courts to declare that a repeatedly petitioned case has been conclusively dealt with and is not to be reopened. Whether this procedure includes a public hearing is unknown.
A public hearing could give the necessary assurance to the petitioner that the final decision was made fairly, legal scholars said.
The petition system is a grievance procedure unique to the mainland. Citizens make complaints to government departments over official actions. Ironically it is those in the justice system - courts, prosecutors, police and judicial bureaus - who are the main targets of petitions.
When it comes to the courts, most petitioners are upset over specific judgments. As a result, while a judgment given at an appeal hearing is supposed to be final under law, the case can haunt the court for years.
Dr Chen Hangping of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing says a benefit of the new guideline is that the courts will now be obliged to take some action to finalise a case, and it will also, in theory, screen out petitions that are truly unreasonable.
However, a procedural end would mean little if the problems faced by the petitioner still exist, such as loss of land without compensation.
'Let's say in the best scenario, where there is a public hearing, would the courts actually have the authority to command a concerned government official accused of illegal dealings with a land developer to attend the hearing?' Chen said.
'The roots of the problems lie with other government departments, policies and factors beyond the courts' control.'
Professor Zhan Zhongle of Peking University said such a procedure would be useful if it involves legal experts. However, he would prefer to see a third appeal procedure added to the trials system.
'The priority should be on strengthening the judicial system, not the petitioning system.'