China to limit access to court judgment searches to internal use

Lawyers say the move will make it harder for them to research cases and challenge judges' decisions.
By Gu Ting for RFA Mandarin
2023.12.14
China to limit access to court judgment searches to internal use Records at China’s Supreme People's Court are seen in this undated photo.
(AFP)

China has announced plans to take its court records offline, creating a limited-access database that excludes members of the public, according to official documents.

Acting on "requirements" from the ruling Communist Party leadership group within the country's Supreme People's Court, the court will launch a nationwide database of court judgment documents "to optimize the management" of the records, according to a Nov. 21 directive from the the General Office of the Supreme People's Court posted to the website of Shandong-based lawyer Liu Dezheng.

The move comes as state security police and other Chinese officials continue to target the families of prominent rights attorneys and other activists who were previously jailed in a 2015 crackdown ml on rights lawyers and public interest law firms.

Since 2015, several prominent lawyers have lost their license to practice after representing clients regarded as politically sensitive by the government.

Local courts must now upload judgment documents handed down since Jan. 1, 2021, by Dec. 31, with work on the database to be completed by the end of March, the directive said.

But the new database, unlike the current one, will no longer be searchable by lawyers carrying out research or the general public, according to a report on the news website Caixin.

"Only court personnel will be able to search for judgment documents on an internal private network, and lawyers, legal researchers and the wider public will not be able to access it," the report said.

‘More barbarism’

Currently, anyone with a mainland Chinese ID and phone number and a means to pay the fee can access documents from cases across the country via the Supreme Court's China Judgments Online website.

Hunan-based lawyer Wen Donghai said the comparative openness of that process had been a huge step forward for China's judicial system.

"Greater disclosure means the system gets more and more civilized, while less transparency means more and more barbarism," Wen said.

ENG_CHN_CourtRecords_12142023.2.jpg
Anyone with a mainland Chinese ID, phone number and a means to pay the fee can access court documents via the Supreme Court's China Judgments Online website. (RFA screenshot)

He confirmed that defense lawyers and the public will be locked out of the system.

"In the future, judges will be able to cite other cases, and say it's out of their hands, because a higher court made a ruling," he said. "We would be kept in the dark, because we wouldn't know why the judges [in those cases] ruled the way they did."

When China Judgments Online was launched in 2013, nobody expected this level of access to judicial records to simply be withdrawn 10 years later.

During that time, the website has recorded a cumulative total of 100 billion page views, with queries for more than 143 million documents.

However, the website has gradually seen a fall in the number of documents uploaded for public perusal.

Litigation in China is booming, with 33.72 million cases accepted in 2022, compared with 30.51 million in 2021. But the number of documents uploaded to China Judgments Online fell to just 1.28 million in 2023, compared with more than 14 million in 2019.

Precedent primacy

Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Sui Muqing, who is no longer allowed to practice after the authorities took away his license, said precedent plays a huge role in judges' decisions in China, even though the system isn't a common law jurisdiction.

"Precedent has some influence, and can affect subsequent judgments," Sui said. "Now they've set up an internal case library and closed off access, we've gone back to square one."

"This is very inconvenient for the parties involved," he said.

Wen Donghai agreed, saying it makes it harder for ordinary people to file and win lawsuits.

"I don't think this is very good, even looking at it from [the government's] point of view," he said. "If they close off all channels [to challenge the government] then what will people do?"

"They'll lodge a petition, but petitioning has been blocked off now too, so what form of protest will people adopt after that?" he said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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