Stanley Lubman writes for The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2015
A sweeping program of legal reforms being undertaken by China’s Communist Party hinges on having capable, experienced people on the bench to dispense justice. The problem: the country’s disillusioned judges are continuing to leave the courts despite government efforts to entice them to stay.
The exodus of judges is a reminder of how urgent and complicated judicial reform is for China. The quality and quantity of the country’s judges has increased dramatically since the 1980s, but a surprising number of them are choosing to leave their positions in Chinese courts due to a combination of heavy caseloads, low professional standards, bad pay and government interference – as well as the growing threat of violence at the hands of angry petitioners.
The number of judges in all courts grew from 59,000 in 1979 to 195,000 in 2011. And unlike in the past, notes legal scholar Zhu Jingwen, the overwhelming majority have university degrees. Yet as The Wall Street Journal reported in October, the number of judges has barely grown since 2007, while the number of cases has swelled by almost 50%.
A sense of the frustrations faced by China’s judges can be gleaned from a judge profiled by China’s Economic Observer last year, who resigned after working in a court in suburban Beijing for five years despite having earned several honors. His reasons for leaving: too much work, difficulty obtaining promotions, wages on a par with ordinary civil servants, and a loss of pride and status. “Had I felt at least intellectually satisfied, I wouldn’t have left my job,” the judge, identified by the pseudonym Li Zhi, told the newspaper.
Li was required to hear close to 300 civil cases yearly, more than twice the national average, and often he was not able to decide issues in cases in which he was the presiding judge: Presumably the case was decided by a superior judge who didn’t participate in the trial, which is a common practice in lower-level courts.
Of the over 2,000 judges recruited in Beijing in 2008-2012, almost 17% left their jobs, primarily in the lower courts, according to the Economic Observer story. Experienced judges are also quitting, and judges in Jiangsu and Henan Province, in particular those under 40, are increasingly resigning.
Some reforms in the “political-legal system” (courts, procurators and police) began last year, and the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has established pilot programs in six places. In Shanghai, where one of the programs is in progress, the remuneration of judges and procurators will be increased to “higher than 43% of that of general civil servants for the moment.”
Although the texts of the Court Reform Plan issued last year and a larger legal reform blueprint produced the year before are public, little information is available about the details of the reforms as they are being implemented. Susan Finder, a close observer of the courts, has written that one aim is “[P]rofessionalizing court personnel (that is, both judges and other personnel) and distinguishing their status from ordinary government officials.”
Despite these promises of higher status and better pay, however, old judges continue to leave and prospective new judges are choosing other paths. Earlier this month, Guangzhou’s Southern Weekly newspaper reported that at least eight provinces reported cancelling judicial exams for lack of interested applicants. In order to stem the tide of departures, some courts have issued strict new rules punishing those who resign early by disqualifying them from practicing law or taking another civil service job.
One complaint is quotas. In Shanghai, new rules fix the number of judges and prosecutors at 33% of the total number of staff in the city courts and procuracy. The aim is for courts to reserve the title of judge for only the best court officials. But in some courts the selection process is based on the judges’ seniority and administrative grade, resulting in many younger, better judges losing both status and pay.
In addition to the pressures that judges face from the party-state, their superiors and the populace, they also face the threat of violence. “Li,” the Beijing judge mentioned above, said that he had noted “an increase in the number of judges being assaulted by angry petitioners from outside the capital, which demoralized the whole profession.” Recent media reports have described the prevalence in some courts of security doors to protect court officials from outraged litigants.
With reform in the early stages and judicial resignations numerous, China is taking incremental steps that demonstrate how long the road is toward substantial legal reform, let alone a relatively independent judicial system. Among the problems that lie ahead are whether young law graduates will be attracted to the judiciary. It is possible that in the next few years the number of younger judges who are now leaving and the current lack of applicants could weaken efforts to professionalize the courts, and force the courts to recruit lower quality candidates.
Stanley Lubman, a long-time specialist on Chinese law, is a Distinguished Lecturer in Residence at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. He is the author of “Bird in a Cage: Legal Reform in China After Mao” (Stanford University Press, 1999) and editor of “The Evolution of Law Reform in China: An Uncertain Path” (Elgar, 2012).