New online archive of cases a boon for judicial openness

Updated: Apr 2, 2024 China Daily Global Print
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Key rulings better explain legal matters to public, provide guidance


If a person inflicts psychological control or long-term mental harm on others, can he or she be charged with abuse?

Under China's Criminal Law, offenders face conviction if they frequently physically or mentally abuse family members by assaulting, insulting, confining, binding or leaving them out in the cold. Failing to offer a family member medical care or forcing them to do excessive labor also constitutes mistreatment.

However, if this type of abuse takes place between non-family members such as romantic partners, can charges still be established? If so, what kind of punishment would the offender face?

In the past, answers to such questions would be learned directly from law professors, lawyers and judges. But now, members of the public can get the information from — a newly established online archive for searching landmark and major civil, criminal and administrative cases.

For example, the case of a man who was convicted and imprisoned for mentally abusing his ex-girlfriend has been included in the archive. It clarifies the definition of a family member for the crime of maltreatment under the Criminal Law, stating that those with a stable relationship or who have lived together for a long period in order to start a family can also be deemed family members.

The archive of cases, created by the Supreme People's Court, China's top court, was opened on Feb 27. It mainly covers hot legal issues, including mental abuse, cyberbullying, telecom fraud, domestic violence, and justifiable defense.

Data released by the top court on March 9 showed that the archive included details of more than 3,800 cases and had been viewed over 3.27 million times, with 276,000 users from 82 countries and regions registered.

"Visitors can learn what laws were applied and why the courts arrived at their verdicts while reading about the cases on the archive, which will contribute to them using laws to protect themselves, enhance legal awareness and prevent disputes from beginning," said Yang Wanming, vice-president of the top court.

The archive was a new measure to unify verdict-rendering standards and optimize legal services, Yang said, adding that China's approach to ensuring judicial transparency had become more diverse.

At the end of last year, public concerns were raised that China Judgements Online, a website set up by the top court in 2013 to disclose rulings, could be closed after a decrease in the number of uploaded verdicts. This led to some netizens questioning a lack of transparency in the judiciary.

However, the top court stressed that the old website would continue to operate, and together with the new cases' archive would deepen the judicial openness.

Responding to concerns

While requiring judges nationwide to disclose verdicts on the new website, the top court is also selecting valuable and influential cases to place in the archive to respond to the public's concerns in a timely manner and also better educate them.

The archived cases are not only taken from courts across the country, but also provided by law firms, universities and even non-legal institutions, such as a middle school.

"(We're) aiming to expand the types of cases and enrich the sources," Yang said. "All of the cases should be reviewed by the top court and deemed to have reference value before going online," he added.

With the adoption, abolishment and modification of laws as well as the adjustment of judicial interpretations, cases uploaded to the archive would also be updated, so that visitors could access the latest and most accurate legal knowledge, said Zhou Jiahai, who heads the top court's research office.

Taking the maltreatment case as an example, Yu Haisong, deputy head of the office, said that it provided solutions to some new problems related to mental abuse.

"The case identified mental control as a kind of maltreatment," he said. "It also showed that those living together for a period, or starting a relationship for marriage, should be deemed family members," Yu said, adding that social development is leading to new circumstances that require strong protection of a victim's personal rights.

Cases of "justifiable defense" had also been widely searched for on the online archive. The legal term "justifiable defense "had been regarded as a "dormant clause" for some time in China due to challenges in interpretation and misconceptions.

After typing "justifiable defense" or "self-defense" into the archives, users can find 35 cases related to the issue.

"Information about these cases, with explanations on why the courts applied the provision, can help the public understand more about the term and urge judges to grasp the essence of the legal concept," Yu added.

Quantity and quality

At a meeting related to court work in January, Zhang Jun, president of the top court, said profound changes in the international and domestic environment as well as the rapid growth of big data technology, demanded that Chinese courts improve judicial transparency.

"The number of online judgements should be maintained on a considerable scale, and they need to cover various fields and case types," he said.

The number of verdicts disclosed on the China Judgements Online website dropped from 19.2 million in 2020 to 5.11 million in 2023, raising public concerns about whether the website would be shut down.

In late December, the top court said that since July 2021, the website had been modified and upgraded due to some improper disclosures, such as online security risks, which had resulted in the decline in the number of uploaded rulings.

Zhang confirmed the modification had happened. At the meeting he required judges to attach greater importance to protecting personal information in the disclosure of rulings to ensure the lives and work of litigants and their families, business operations, and development of enterprises are not affected by judicial openness.

The requirement was raised after many litigants, along with a few legal professionals, questioned the improper disclosure of their case information. On one occasion Cheng Xiao, a law professor at Tsinghua University, said some people found it difficult to find new jobs after the verdicts in their labor disputes were disclosed online.

To meet the demand of both quantity and quality, Chinese courts have begun making changes to the way judicial transparency is promoted.

More than 2.16 million verdicts have been disclosed on China Judgements Online since the beginning of this year, up 111.6 percent year-on-year, according to the annual work report issued by the top court on March 8.

Of the rulings, 35,000 came from the top court and provincial-level courts, a 4.7-fold increase, the report said.

Before disclosing the verdicts on the website and uploading them to the archive, courts nationwide blurred out the personal data of individuals and information on departments to strengthen the protection of their privacy, the report said.

To further advance judicial openness and public oversight, the top court had been disclosing judicial data every three months since the beginning of last year, it added.

Judicial research

Some legal experts said that judicial openness is also essential to promote judicial research, as they called for ongoing efforts to optimize the website and archive.

"More valuable verdicts, such as those involving complex or forward-looking cases, should be made public, because they're conducive to legal theory research and enrich legal practices," said Zhou Guangquan, a law professor at Tsinghua University.

Judicial transparency, along with high-quality and more diverse legal services, is expected to play a big role in helping the country improve its judicial credibility, he added.

Expressing strong support for judicial openness, he suggested courts collect, select and disclose more cases that have long-term significance and that can serve as guides for public behavior to improve the role of crime prevention.

Wang Yong, deputy procurator-general of Suzhou People's Procuratorate in Jiangsu province, praised the establishment of the new archive, saying it was a tool kit for those engaged in the judicial system.

The constant updating of cases in the archive had provided a steady stream of fresh material for legal research and contributed to the development of practice-oriented jurisprudence, he said.

Furthermore, unlike the large search for judgements on the website, the archive search is much easier as it "extracts the keywords and summarizes the core issues of cases, meaning that users can find the content they want more conveniently and accurately," he added.

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