The Chinese court system demystified

China's Legal and Court System Demystified

Here is our quick guide to the Chinese Court System.

According to the Constitution of PRC, the Chinese court system consists of local courts, special courts and the Supreme Court, with the first two subject to the supervision of the latter.

How are these courts organised?

Local courts are divided into three levels: Basic/trial people’s court; intermediate people’s court and a higher people’s court.

Local courts are established in accordance with administrative divisions across the PRC. The major administrative divisions in China are provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government. Provinces and autonomous regions are divided into autonomous prefectures, counties, autonomous counties, and cities. Counties and autonomous counties are divided into townships, nationality townships, and towns. Municipalities directly under the central government and other large cities are then divided into districts and counties.

Under the Law on the Organization of People’s Courts, the basic courts consist of tribunals in counties/autonomous counties, cities without administrative districts, or administrative districts of cities.

The Chinese Court System Demystified

What sort of cases are tried in each court system?

Major cases tried in local courts include criminal, civil and administrative cases. Every province, autonomous region and municipality directly under the central government has one higher people’s court. Several intermediate courts are set up according to population and economic development.

Special courts are courts set up in special departments for, unsurprisingly, ‘special’ cases wherever necessary. Currently, China has special courts handling cases involving military, maritime, railway and forest disputes.

Different special courts have varied level courts, e.g., the maritime courts have only one level courts, which are equivalent to the intermediate courts, while the railway courts have district courts and intermediate courts, the military courts have district courts, intermediate courts and the supreme military court. The special courts are incorporated into the local courts system by being supervised by and appealed to the higher-level courts in its jurisdiction,

The Supreme People’s Court is in Beijing, capital city of China is the highest judicial organ, exercising the highest judicial power while supervising lower courts and special courts.

In which court system in China would a case be heard?

Jurisdiction always depends on the nature and complexity of the case.

Chinese courts practice a four-level system in which the second instance is the final judgment. Origination depends on the case. Generally for civil cases, the dispute amount will dictate which court the case is heard in, and for criminal cases, the severity of crime and penalty determined by the supreme court is the deciding factor.

For civil cases, after ascertaining the appropriate court level based on the rules set up by the Supreme Court, the territorial jurisdiction depends on the defendant’s domicile; the place the contract was performed; and where the infringement occurred etc.  The parties to a contract may, through the written contract, choose a people’s court, which located in the place where the defendant would have his domicile, the contract would be performed, the contract would be signed, the plaintiff would have his domicile, or the subject of the contract would be located, to have jurisdiction over the case, as long as this jurisdiction choice does not violate the provisions of the Law regarding the Jurisdiction by Level and the Exclusive Jurisdiction.

Real estate, harbour operations and inheritance cases shall be under rules of the exclusive jurisdiction of the people’s courts, for example, a lawsuit brought for real estate shall be under the jurisdiction of the people’s court located in the place where the real estate is located.

What happens if there is a dispute on a judgement?

Should the litigant not agree with the judgment or ruling of the first instance, he or she may, within a specified period, appeal to the higher court. If the procurator believes that the first-instance ruling, or judgment is indeed mistaken, it may, within a specified period, protest the ruling or judgment to the higher court. If, within the specified period, the litigant fails to appeal, and the procurator fails to protest, then the first-instance judgment or ruling stands as the legally binding judgment or ruling.

The superior court, after reviewing appealed or protested cases in accordance with second-instance procedures, passes a judgment or ruling that is the final judgment or ruling. Except for cases involving the death penalty, all other cases take legal effect immediately upon announcement.

There is also a special arrangement for the court to reexamine judgments and rulings that have already taken effect as a remedy to the system of second instance being final. The precondition for initiating the judicial supervision procedure is that judgments and rulings that have already taken effect have been found to have contain errors in establishment of facts or application of laws.

For reexamining a case under the judicial supervision procedure, courts form a separate collegiate bench according to the original case level procedure. The rulings or judgments arising from a first-instance case are subject to appeal or protest, while the rulings or judgments arising from a second-instance shall be final.

What is the collegiate bench system?

Chinese courts practice a system of collegiate bench when trying cases. Members of collegiate bench are appointed on a case-by-case basis, and should be an odd number, usually at least three judges or a combination of at least three judges and People’s Assessors.

All cases are heard by a collegiate bench with exception to trials conducted by one judge alone, involving first-hearing criminal cases handled upon complaint and other minor criminal cases, simple civil cases and some special procedures cases, all of which are specified by the law.

The collegiate bench, as a basic form of the People’s Court, takes sole responsibility for trial cases, the principle of the minority submitting to the majority is observed, provided that the opinions of the minority are recorded in the court log. The judges and People’s Assessors enjoy precisely the same rights.

What is the role of the Judicial Committee?

Chinese courts at all levels can set up a Judicial Committee, with the task of deliberating on major, complicated cases, summarizing judicial practices and discussing other judicial issues related to judicial work.

Committee members are appointed by the standing committee of the People’s Congress at the same level, upon the recommendation of the president of the court.

The Judicial Committee is the most authoritative body in a court. Its direction must be followed by both judges and the collegiate bench.

We hope you find this a precise and practical introduction to China’s court system. Do let us know if you have any questions or you’d like us to post any further details on the Chinese court system contact@cambridgechinabusiness.com.

This article does not constitute legal advice or give rise to a solicitor/client relationship and is for general information purposes only. Specialist legal advice should be taken in relation to specific circumstances. Whilst we endeavour to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and we do not accept any liability for error or omission. We shall not be liable for any damage arising in contract, tort or otherwise from the use of, or inability to use this material or from any action or decision taken as a result of using this material. This material may have been prepared some time ago. Please contact us if you need a comprehensive and up-to-date statement of the relevant law.

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