Introduction
Overview
Circuit covering areas
Accepting cases within Supreme People's Court jurisdiction
Proceedings
Circuit courts' bench


Introduction

From 2015 to 2020 the basic structure of the Chinese court system remained as four levels:

  • the Supreme People's Court;
  • the higher people's courts, which sit in each province and four municipalities (ie, Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing) and are directly under the central government;
  • the intermediate people's courts; and
  • the basic people's courts.

To improve trial quality and efficiency, specialised courts have been established since 2015. The Chinese court system has also been developing diversified methods of dispute resolution, such as mediation, and novel forms of virtual trial, such as online hearings.

This article provides an overview of updates to the circuit court system implemented between 2015 and 2020.

Overview

Circuit courts sit directly under the Supreme People's Court and are dispatched by the Supreme People's Court to local cities outside Beijing (where the Supreme People's Court sits). Although the official Chinese media calls them 'courts' in English, their function and position are the same as those of tribunals. The establishment of circuit courts of the Supreme People's Court is an innovation of the Chinese judicial system. The primary objective is to minimise interference from local governments, especially from the administration branch, given that the circuit courts cover several provinces but are substantially operated by the Supreme People's Court from Beijing. Circuit courts hear major administrative, civil and commercial cases. The judgments and orders rendered by circuit courts are considered the same as those of the Supreme People's Court. This further illustrates the nature of circuit courts as tribunals of the Supreme People's Court rather than independent courts.

Previously, all tribunals and supporting functions of the Supreme People's Court were located in Beijing with the Supreme People's Court. Since the end of 2014, a pilot plan has been developed to roll out circuit courts to other regions outside Beijing. In January 2015 the first circuit court was set up in Shenzhen City of Guangzhou Province. There are six circuit courts across China.

The Regulations on Several Issues Concerning the Cases to be Heard by Circuit Courts,(1) promulgated by the Supreme People's Court in 2015,(2) set out the following key aspects of the circuit courts' regime.

Circuit covering areas

The circuit courts' jurisdiction is the same as that of the Supreme People's Court. The Regulations on Circuit Courts introduce the concept of 'circuit covering areas', which are divided by administrative region. Circuit courts hear the cases within their given circuit covering area.

The Supreme People's Court is entitled to establish any new circuit courts, adjust the current circuit covering areas and adjust the scope of cases accepted by circuit courts.(3) Currently, the Supreme People's Court directly hears cases from:

  • the Beijing Municipality;
  • the Tianjin Municipality;
  • Hebei Province;
  • Shandong Province; and
  • the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Meanwhile, the other six circuit courts cover cases as follows.

Designation

Location

Circuit covering areas

Circuit court 1

Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province

Guangdong Province, Guangxi Province, Hainan Province and Hunan Province (the South China part)

Circuit court 2

Shenyang City, Liaoning Province

Liaoning Province, Jilin Province and Heilongjiang Province (the North Eastern China part)

Circuit court 3

Nanjing City, Jiangsu Province

Jiangsu Province, Shanghai Municipality, Zhejiang Province, Fujian Province and Jiangxi Province (the East China part)

Circuit court 4

Zhengzhou City, Henan Province

Henan Province, Shanxi Province, Hubei Province and Anhui Province

(Middle China part)

Circuit court 5

Chongqing Municipality

Chongqing Municipality, Sichuan Province, Guizhou Province, Yunnan Province and Tibet Autonomous Region (West China part)

Circuit court 6

Xi'an City, Shaanxi Province

Shaanxi Province, Gansu Province, Qinghai Province, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (North Western China part)

Accepting cases within Supreme People's Court jurisdiction

A circuit court may hear the cases arising from its circuit covering area if they are within the Supreme People's Court's jurisdiction.(4) Examples of these circumstances include:

  • significant and complex administrative, civil or commercial cases of first instance;
  • appellate cases where the first-instance trial has been heard by a higher people's court;
  • retrial cases which have been decided by a higher people's court;
  • civil or commercial cases and judicial assistance cases involving Hong Kong, Macao or Taiwan; and
  • other cases according to the Supreme People's Court's discretion.

Certain cases are reserved for the Supreme People's Court itself without being allocated to circuit courts, such as:

  • IP infringement cases;
  • foreign commercial cases (before the creation of the China International Commercial Court, circuit courts could hear such cases);
  • maritime cases;
  • death penalty review and approval cases; and
  • retrial cases protested by the Supreme People's Procuratorate(5)

For cases with significant social impacts or public interest, the Supreme People's Court may determine to hear such cases instead of giving them to circuit courts. Both the Supreme People's Court and circuit courts may publish exemplary judgments and orders as guidance to the other three lower-level courts.

According to the 2019 annual report by Chief Justice Zhou Qiang of the Supreme People's Court, approximately 60% of the 38,498 cases docketed by the Supreme People's Court were heard by circuit courts.

Proceedings

The proceedings process can consist of three phases.(6)

Docketing and filing
The litigation service centres in circuit courts are responsible for docketing and filing cases. If a case will be heard by the Supreme People's Court rather than a circuit court, it will be forwarded to the Supreme People's Court by the litigation service centre of a circuit court.

Appeal
If a party appeals any administrative, civil or commercial judgment or order rendered in the first instance by a higher people's court, the appellate complaint will be submitted through the higher people's court to a circuit court. If it is directly submitted to the circuit court, the circuit court will return it to the original higher people's court within five days. The original higher people's court is responsible for attaching all relevant trial documents and evidence to the appellate complaint and submitting the case in its entirety up to the circuit court within five days.

Retrial
A party may petition for a retrial before a circuit court if they believe that there is a legal ground to overturn a ruling rendered in an appeal trial by a higher people's court. If the party petitions directly to the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Court will direct it to the proper circuit court in a timely manner.

Circuit courts' bench

The Supreme People's Court appoints competent and experienced judges to the circuit courts' bench. Each appointed judge can serve as the chief justice or a member of the trial bench. Judgments and orders made by circuit courts are signed by the chief justice.

For further information on this topic please contact Tim Yimin Liu or Iris Tingting Yang at Global Law Office by telephone (+86 21 2310 8288) or email ([email protected] or [email protected]). The Global Law Office website can be accessed at www.glo.com.cn.

Endnotes

(1) 最高人民法院关于巡回法庭审理案件若干问题的规定 (法释[2016]30, 2016修正), effective from 28 December 2016.

(2) "Regulations on Circuit Courts", Fa Shi [2016] 30, amended in December 2016.

(3) Article 1, Regulations on Circuit Courts.

(4) Id, Article 3.

(5) Id, Article 4.

(6) Id, Articles 5, 6 and 7.

Luke Zhibo Li, intern, assisted in the preparation of this article.