One of the more controversial parts of the current proposal to amend China’s Criminal Law concerns the possible expansion of Article 309, covering the offense of “disrupting courtroom order.” Lawmakers have argued that new measures are necessary to “ensure the ability of the people’s courts to implement their adjudicatory powers in an independent and impartial manner” by punishing those who might try to use courtroom disruptions to influence judicial decision-making. They are responding to worries about a worsening atmosphere inside China’s courtrooms—particularly the sense that growing antagonism between judges and defense lawyers is helping to undermine the dignity and credibility of the courts in the public eye. Critics, on the other hand, argue that the proposal unfairly targets lawyers and will have a chilling effect on their ability to pursue vigorous defense on behalf of clients.
Few would challenge the value to society of preserving a substantial degree of courtroom order. A courtroom should be a forum in which opposing sides of a contentious issue may argue in a reasonable, if sometimes heated, manner over important matters of truth and justice. It is thus reasonable to demand that all sides adhere to a set of fair and impartial rules and standards of decorum because respect for the outcome of the judicial process is linked to the respect that all participants demonstrate toward the process itself. If disorder in China’s courts is in fact contributing to a public crisis of confidence, then addressing the problem at its root is an essential step toward furthering the development of rule of law.
At the heart of the debate over the proposed amendment to Article 309 is disagreement over the root causes of tension in the courtroom. Who is to blame when conflict erupts between the various parties at trial, especially between lawyers and judges? Are unscrupulous lawyers showing brazen contempt for the law and the courts, or are judicial bias and procedural violations forcing some lawyers to adopt more confrontational tactics as a form of protest? Regulating lawyer behavior through the threat of criminal sanctions might lead to a more orderly courtroom, but if defense lawyers become meek participants in judicial proceedings that remain arbitrary and biased, then this is likely to do little to enhance the courts’ reputation for delivering justice. On the contrary, imposing further limits on the fragile rights of lawyers may actually erode public confidence in the Chinese judicial system even further.
Letter of the Law
The existing offense under Article 309 imposes a maximum sentence of three years in prison for “gathering people to stir up trouble or attack a courtroom” or “assaulting a judicial officer (sifa gongzuo renyuan),” when those acts “seriously disrupt courtroom order.” The draft amendment proposes to expand the assault clause to include “those participating in the proceedings.” It also adds two new offense categories: “insulting, defaming, or threatening a judicial officer or participant in the proceedings after being told by the court to stop” and “engaging in other acts that seriously disrupt the order of the court.”
The first of these changes is relatively unproblematic. Liu Renwen, a legal scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has in fact been quick to point out that expanding the scope of protection against courtroom assaults is aimed at protecting the rights of lawyers. In particular, he believes that the change will help address attacks by victims’ family members against defense lawyers or defendants’ relatives. Such attacks are unfortunately frequent in China, particularly in cases involving the death penalty.
There is much less support for the two other proposed amendments to Article 309. Critics contend that “insulting,” “defaming,” and “threatening” are acts that can each be defined quite broadly. Professor Qu Xinjiu of China University of Political Science and Law notes that “insult” can include ordinary name-calling, damage to reputation that might be eligible for civil litigation, and a relatively rare degree of offense that might qualify for criminal prosecution. The proposed expansion of Article 309 does not make clear what degree of insult would qualify for criminal prosecution, or why the existing criminal statute covering insult and defamation is insufficient to handle the acts being targeted. Observers similarly note the ambiguous and subjective nature of the word “threaten” (weixie), which has no corresponding criminal offense. To remedy these problems, Professor Chen Xingliang of Peking University Law School has recommended scrapping the “insulting, defaming, or threatening” clause entirely and expanding the assault clause to cover the more menacing act of “intimidating” (konghe) judicial officers and other parties.
The prospect of sanctions against insult and defamation at trial is particularly troubling to lawyers, who feel unfairly singled out given the way the offense is written to presume the court’s authority. Many have argued that China should in fact adopt measures to give lawyers civil and penal immunity for statements made in connection to a case—a recommendation based on Article 20 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers. Otherwise, it is feared, lawyers who dread the consequences of their speech may become “obsequious and servile” and reluctant to express their defense opinions fully, thereby potentially harming the interests of the defendants they represent.
It is the final clause, known as the “pocket clause” for its ability to contain almost anything, which has generated the most opposition. Lawyers and legal scholars are frequently critical of such legal formulations, considering them to be sloppy, “unscientific,” and open to arbitrary and abusive interpretations. In this instance, critics argue, the inclusion of such a clause is particularly detrimental to lawyers. This is because, as Chen Xingliang explains, both the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate have the power to issue legal interpretations that can shape how provisions like these are applied. In other words, of the three main participants in courtroom proceedings, only lawyers have no say over what “other acts” might be construed as serious disruptions to courtroom behavior—potentially putting them at a serious disadvantage.
Critics and Crackdowns
Stepping back from the issue of how the proposed offense would be worded, critics of the amendment also doubt whether an expanded criminal offense is even necessary. In addition to existing offenses covering insult and defamation, Article 194 of the Criminal Procedure Law empowers a presiding judge to forcibly remove a trial participant or spectator for continuing to violate courtroom order after being warned to stop. In serious cases, the judge may also impose a fine of up to 1000 yuan or a jail term of up to 15 days. With respect to lawyers, other disciplinary sanctions—such as formal warnings or suspensions from practice—can be applied to deal with the most serious cases.
Despite all of these arguments, which were amply presented to lawmakers when the first draft of the Criminal Law amendments was made public in late 2014, the proposed expansion of Article 309 remained essentially unchanged in the second draft presented to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPSC) in late June. Drafters are expected to submit one final proposal for passage later this year.
Will lawmakers once again ignore the opposition of lawyers and legal scholars?
They may very well do so, if the recent crackdown on Chinese rights lawyers is any indication. Liang Jianbing, a law professor at Liaoning Normal University in Dalian, believes that there is a clear link between public opposition to the proposed changes to Article 309 and the sweeping detention of lawyers initiated on July 10. He suspects that many members of the NPCSC were swayed by the outpouring of criticism directed at the first draft by lawyers and legal scholars, putting the future of the proposed amendments in jeopardy. In response, law-enforcement institutions and others who want to see this legislation passed have carried out a highly public campaign against a group of rights lawyers, some of whom have been engaged in courtroom confrontations in the past. The media exposure of these lawyers as “criminals,” Liang argues, is a tactical move intended to overcome remaining skepticism and resistance and secure enough support to ensure that the amendment passes.
Even if the campaign against lawyers is not directly aimed at ensuring passage of an amended Article 309, both threaten to contribute to fragmentation and passivity among lawyers and accentuate divisions between lawyers and other legal professionals. Han Jiayi of the All-China Lawyers Association has warned of lawyers choosing to “stay away from the courts” and instead focusing their practice on matters that do not involve litigation. Those in power might not mind if more lawyers opt to stay out of the courtroom, or if the ones who go to trial are less willing to challenge authority. Nevertheless, these outcomes would create a version of “rule of law” unlikely to satisfy many Chinese citizens.