The crux of China's judicial reform is to ensure grass-roots courts have enough well-trained judges while reducing political intervention in verdicts, senior court officials say.
Lu Zhongmei , vice-president of the Hubei Higher People's Court, said county courts were of particular concern, with a widespread shortage of judges amid a rising number of eviction and environmental disputes.
'I am very worried that the number of judges at local courts is dropping while few law graduates want to work there,' she said.
Grass-roots courts, especially those in poor areas, were finding it harder to recruit qualified people because of low salaries and heavy workloads. 'Apart from this, experienced judges leaving for other posts has also been a serious problem in recent years and a lot less people, including university graduates, want to take up the profession,' said Professor Lu, who taught at Wuhan University and other Hubei law schools.
She said the introduction of a national legal examination in 2002 had contributed to the personnel shortage. Mainland judges are required to pass the examination and hold at least a bachelor's degree.
About 80 per cent of the country's caseload was dealt with by grass-roots courts, Professor Lu said.
Apart from working overtime with low pay, judges who work in the countryside have far fewer opportunities for promotion compared to their urban counterparts.
Guangxi Higher People's Court president Tan Rifei said the large number of judges without a legal background or the required training had inflamed public dissatisfaction. 'Many officials at grass-roots courts do not know much about the law and show inadequate respect for people in law enforcement,' he said.
Professor Lu said easing tensions between the authorities and the public had become one of the main functions of courts.
She said rising public discontent and social unrest had coincided with central government pledges to pay more attention to people's grievances and protect their interests. Courts should shift their role to becoming mediators between the public and the authorities.
'We should not only rule on individual cases, but also find out the reasons behind disputes and conflicts between people and officials,' she said. 'According to a reform plan by the Supreme People's Court, we should change our work style to soothe social tensions and make the public feel safe.'
Mainland leaders have admitted that judicial injustice has become a main source of public dissatisfaction and social instability.
But Professor Lu said it remained difficult for judges to be independent from political pressure as their budgets were controlled by local governments.
She said the separation of administrative and judicial powers would also be the key to judicial reform. But a relatively neutral judiciary - aimed at reducing intervention in court decisions - would be a more practical goal than a western-style independent judiciary.
'Chinese problems must be resolved in a way with Chinese characteristics,' she said. 'We do not have a tradition to draw the line between the powers of the government and judiciary.'
Citing the Supreme People's Court's decision to take back the power to review death sentences from provincial courts as an important achievement, Professor Lu said judicial reform - as part of the sensitive political transformation - must proceed with caution and prudence.
Media supervision of judicial independence had often been exaggerated because too much attention had been diverted to cases involving miscarriages of justice, she said.
Professor Lu's court hit the headlines last year over the case of a man wrongfully jailed for 11 years for murdering his wife, who was later discovered to be alive.