Court websites fail transparency test
Justice must be seen to be done, especially when the public still harbours a general distrust about the fairness of the judiciary. However, as a government think tank revealed in its recent study on the websites of mainland courts, judicial transparency still has a long way to go.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) carried out its first study on judicial transparency last year, examining the websites of 26 province-level higher courts and 43 city-level intermediate courts from July to November. The results show that the websites are generally poor quality and 'lag far behind' those of government departments.
The study assessed the websites by looking at whether they provided adequate, user-friendly and timely information in five areas: the court's structure and staff, litigation guidelines, trials and judgments, progress on the enforcement of judgments, and general court statistics like annual work reports.
Only 10 out of 26 provinces had working sites for all their intermediate courts, but they mostly contained news and propaganda reports rather than practical litigation information for citizens.
Only a handful provided basic information like addresses with directions or administrative structure, and the majority provided no information at all on their judges and court clerks.
The websites fared better when it came to providing litigation guidelines, but on the two most important elements of judicial transparency - open hearings and publication of judgments - they largely failed.
The law requires all court hearings to be made public unless a case concerns state or business secrets and privacy. In reality though, this rule is often not implemented for various reasons. Sometimes it's a bona fide reason such as the court is too small or too poor to accommodate an audience. However, when a case is deemed sensitive, a court might fill its courtroom with plainclothes officials rather than letting family members of the accused or reporters attend the hearing.
Details of all public hearings must also be announced three days in advance according to law, and this is where the websites could play an important role. The CASS study found that three-quarters of higher courts make such announcements as required, but only slightly more than half of intermediate courts do the same thing. In terms of how a citizen could apply to attend such a public hearing, less than 20 per cent of the courts provided the necessary instructions.
Putting judgments online should be another major task of court websites but the study found that only about one-fifth of courts provided judgments online in a timely fashion - with some websites' judgments dating back two or three years.
In relation to enforcement, it is a common lament on the mainland that even if one wins a civil lawsuit, one might still not be able to recover one's loss because the courts drag their feet in enforcing judgments against a losing party, or because it's impossible to locate the losing party. The courts' auctioning of a losing party's assets is also perceived by the public as a process prone to judicial corruption.
The CASS study revealed that again only about one-fifth of courts make public or provide updates on enforcement actions and less than half announce auctions. And lastly, only three higher courts provided annual work reports and only one provided more than a year of work reports for comparison purposes.
The study identifies several explanations for the overall low standard of court websites, one of them being the lack of a law guiding judicial transparency. Limited court resources, both in terms of money and staff, and a lack of expertise in creating websites are two other explanations, as well as judges' concerns over their privacy and safety. It's not unheard of for judges to be attacked by upset litigants.
However, as the study points out, a judge's privacy should be restricted to a certain extent by the public's right to monitor the judiciary, and in other jurisdictions there are even examples where the names of judges' spouses and children are made public to prevent corruption. In Hong Kong, a full list of all judges is available online.
Some mainland courts are already doing more. The Harbin Intermediate People's Court is providing the names of judges and even their office phone numbers. The Hainan Higher People's Court is also making public the details of court staff's relatives and retired judges who became lawyers. In terms of making hearings open, some courts are also streaming live broadcasts of hearings online.
A survey by web portal Sina further showed that by December there were 2,790 microblog accounts set up by courts or judicial bureaus, the government units that look after judicial matters, a sign that courts and judicial officials realise that they must communicate better with the public and can no longer operate behind a secretive cloak.
But the judiciary must speed up its transparency efforts, not only because this is a national and international trend, but also because mainland courts are struggling hard with establishing judicial authority, as reflected in the large number of court-related petitions. This public distrust is partly due to a string of wrongful judgments and judicial corruption in recent years, and partly because of the lack of transparency in judicial processes.
While legislation might take time, there are steps that could be taken immediately to improve court websites, as the CASS study suggests. First of all, information about court staff could be made public to different extents depending on their duties: for junior judges a list of names and terms of office should be provided; for senior judges their age and a simple resume should be added; and for administrative section heads their contact details should also be provided.
It is also important that time limits should be introduced on how many days in advance notice of a court hearing must be posted online, and within how many days a judgment must be posted online after a trial.