A woman files a lawsuit at Yunyang Court in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality on May 4 (XINHUA)
At 9 a.m. on May 4, the Dongcheng District People's Court in Beijing opened its gate to welcome citizens with legal appeals as usual. However, for the workers responsible for accepting lawsuits and their counterparts across the country alike, this first working day after the May Day holiday is essentially different from any one before it owing to a major reform.
Effective on May 1, the case accreditation system adopted for decades by Chinese courts has been replaced by the case registration system, which allows litigants to bring their cases to the court more easily.
There were more people than usual flooding into the Dongcheng court's lawsuit-registration hall on May 4. Before coming, they each had received a guide book from the court on the new case-filing proceedings.
Inside the hall, the new rules were displayed on electronic screens around the walls, and about a dozen case-filing sample templates--including for natural succession, labor dispute and private lending--were posted around the writing counter where around 20 people could write their files simultaneously. At the same time, two judges were walking around to answer litigants' questions.
An 88-year-old man surnamed Zhou came to file a securities investment-related lawsuit against a bank, worth about 30,000 yuan ($4,836). After accepting the old man's bill of complaints, one judge pointed out some errors in the text and asked him to complete his filing materials within 30 days.
According to the judge, who declined to be named, the court used to refuse bills of complaints with either formality errors or lacking materials. The new rules have changed the situation and stipulate that litigants can file their complaints to the courts without delay and for those who lack the required materials, court workers will still accept the cases first and inform applicants in writing about what material should be submitted later.
Courts across China accepted 67,000 cases on the first day using the new rules, a year-on-year increase of more than 20 percent, said the Supreme People's Court (SPC), the country's highest judicial body.
On the same day, the Dongcheng court received 139 litigants and registered 80 lawsuits, as well as giving out eight notifications about missing materials, according to the district court.
Opening the gate
As the first link in the judicial litigation, the importance of case filing is self-evident. In the past, however, some cases were directly rejected by the courts in excuse of their minor errors.
One important cause of this was, in line with the case accreditation system, the courts would review lawsuits first and litigations that were deemed ineligible by reviewers would be turned down.
According to China's Civil Procedure Law, the courts have the right to turn down cases lacking one of the following four factors: the plaintiff being an individual, legal person or any other organization that has a direct interest in the case; involving a specific defendant; having a concrete claim, facts and cause of action; and being within the scope of acceptance for civil lawsuits of the people's courts and within the jurisdiction of the people's court where it is filed.
Zhang Xingmei, a lawyer with the Beijing Shangquan Law Firm, said that the case accreditation system had become an excuse for the courts to refuse complicated cases.
Some litigants ended up losing confidence in finding a solution at court and turned to inefficient alternative methods, such as petitions to higher-level authorities.
As part of an overall reform plan made by the Fourth Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee in October 2014, the case registration system has been introduced as a substitute to the case accreditation system.
On April 1, the 11th meeting of the Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform headed by President Xi Jinping approved a set of guidelines proposed by the SPC to reform its case filing system. On April 15, the guidelines were published by the SPC, stating that the courts must accept cases that should be handled according to law, and no organization or individual may obstruct for any reason.
All newly filed civil, administrative and criminal lawsuits, executions and applications for state compensation must be accepted by courts immediately, the SPC document states. It also stipulates if a case cannot be filed immediately, it should be filed within the legal deadline. If there are no clear provisions of whether a case should be filed or not, the courts are instructed to file first and ask questions later.
According to the new rules, if a case cannot be filed due to a lack of required materials, courts must clearly explain to applicants what materials are needed; if a case cannot be filed according to law, courts should inform applicants immediately, so they can appeal or apply for a review. Cases involving state sovereignty, territorial integrity, national unity or national religious policy, and matters outside the courts' jurisdiction, may not be filed.
Xue Feng, Vice President of the Dongcheng court, said that the introduction of the case registration system represents an important breakthrough in the case filing reform. "In the long term, the reform will create a solid foundation for the country's further judicial reforms," he told Beijing Review.
Legal experts say that the influence of the case filing reform will be felt in cases concerning administrative and civil procedure matters, especially in lawsuits against authorities.
Wang Yaxin, a professor at Beijing-based Tsinghua University, said that after the recent reform, the courts will no longer be able to turn down lawsuits against government departments or officials that they deem hard to handle. "The case registration system will give the public improved access to judicial proceedings in such cases, increasing the number of these lawsuits," he noted.
However, Kang Kai, a lawyer with the Beijing Yingke Law Firm, has warned that the lowering of the thresholds for case filing may lead to excessive litigation.
"After the new system is in place, people are more likely to resort to the courts to protect their rights and interests. With limited availability of judges and other judicial resources, it will be hard for the courts to handle such an explosive number of cases," he said.
"The problem will be a major challenge for the courts in the near future," Kang added.
The Dongcheng court's statistics show it handles more than 25,000 cases each year, of which about 10,000 are civil cases. "The implementation of the case registration system will bring about heavier workload on us," Xue said.
But on the other hand, Xue believes the situation will not last long. According to a survey conducted by Xue's court, only 22.1 percent of people they surveyed are ready to resort to the courts for help, while 77.7 percent prefer resorting to non-litigation methods such as mediations.
"We predict that the number of cases will increase in the short term, but in the long run, it will not be that big a difference," Xue said.
Meanwhile, Xue suggested the establishment of a multi-level dispute solution mechanism. "Concerning those easy ones such as some disputes between neighbors and small businesses, we can resort to those pre-litigation mediating organizations or industry associations for help," he said.
Copyedited by Kieran Pringle
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