BEIJING: China’s top court has pledged to “deepen judicial disclosure” after its plan to curtail access to court decisions faced unusual public criticism from lawyers and legal experts.
The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) announced in December it would create a new database of over 2,000 cases accessible to scholars, lawyers and experts. Academics believe the new database will eventually replace an existing, open database of 143 million court documents that remains online for now.
That decade-old archive, known as China Judgments Online, has been used by lawyers and activists in China and abroad, as well as by citizens involved in property and business disputes. It has also been used by human rights organisations.
After the clampdown plan was criticised on social media and through blog posts by lawyers and others, the SPC issued a statement on Jan 15 saying more court rulings should be made available under its proposed new system.
The SPC said more documents from higher-level courts, and “all documents that serve legal guidance, education and warning purposes” should be put online.
“It is necessary to balance the relationship between the disclosure of documents and the legal rights and privacy protection of the parties involved,” the statement said.
It was not immediately clear how the SPC decree would be implemented. The SPC did not reply to a request for comment.
Thomas Kellogg, executive director of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, said while the new language was “welcome”, it “probably doesn’t herald much of a change from the current policy”.
But he added the backlash to the court’s move to limit disclosure, including from top legal academics in China, suggests there are “at least some reformist voices” looking to “put reform ideas back into public discourse”.
China’s economy has already become more opaque. Since 2022, Chinese authorities have restricted overseas access to Chinese academic journals and corporate databases and stopped publishing key economic indicators.
Legal experts said while the SPC’s latest announcement appeared to be a partial concession to criticism that China’s court system was also headed that way, concerns about its dwindling transparency remained.
Donald Clarke, a law professor at George Washington University, said the December announcement caused “considerable concern in the Chinese law community inside and outside of China” which SPC’s statement did not alleviate.
“Only documents deemed suitably edifying by the authorities will be placed online,” he said. “This is exactly what we all feared.”
Lawyers and scholars said China’s court records would remain incomplete without fuller access to trial court rulings needed to study precedent and case law.
“The SPC seems to have made some concessions, but still insists on delisting a large number of judgments below the intermediate court,” Yale Law School professor Taisu Zhang wrote on Weibo.
Ryan Mitchell, a law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said it was positive that the top court had affirmed “the importance of publicising cases.”
But he said the SPC could still move toward “selective transparency” where politically sensitive cases could still be “subject to arbitrary non-reporting”.
David Zhang, a human rights lawyer in Beijing, said he hoped the SPC would fully implement its recent pledge. “I believe that court judgments should be made available to the public,” he said.
The number of court judgments published online dropped to 10.4 million in 2022 from 19.2 million in 2020, according to official data. The number fell further last year to 5.11 million through late December, the SPC has said.
Since 2021, rulings have been removed from China Judgments Online relating to the death penalty, national security and “picking quarrels and provoking troubles”, a criminal charge frequently brought against critics of government policies.
Columbia Law Review researchers found human trafficking-related verdicts were removed from the database after a public outcry over a January 2022 video of a rural woman chained to a shed. Six people including her husband were later jailed for crimes including human trafficking.