Thursday, December 3, 2020

Supreme People's Court Makes Two Announcements About Online Court Database

A screenshot of the China Judgements Online site’s announcement requiring users to register a mobile phone number. The announcement was put up on August 31, 2020, one day before the change took place. 

In September 2020, China’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC) announced two developments concerning China Judgements Online, the country’s national public internet court case database. First, the Court announced that the database has grown to contain over 100 million judgements—a staggering figure. Second, since September 1, database users have been required to register using a mobile phone number in order to search the website—a chilling restriction. Do these two developments mean anything for the future of judicial transparency in China? On both counts, the answer is yes, but not for the obvious reasons. The growth of the database may be positive, but more cases do not necessarily signal more judicial openness; meanwhile, the registration requirement may be bad, but more access requirements don’t necessarily signal more legal repression.  

China’s Judicial Transparency Initiative and Case Databases 

The SPC launched China Judgements Online in 2013 as part of a commitment to increasing judicial transparency. The database is reportedly the largest of its kind in the world, and it continues to grow at a rapid pace. The database has been one of the most important court developments in China in half a century; it is a boon for lawyers and researchers, as well as ordinary citizens who want to know what the courts are doing.  

But despite the database’s promise, those who want to use it face two major roadblocks. The first impediment is about interface: the search functions on the website are not very good. Cases are often inaccurately tagged and do not always come up in searches, even when they are available on the website. The second impediment is about content: many cases are not available on the database. In principle, all court judgements are supposed to be posted online, but some categories of cases—notably those deemed state secrets and those that might endanger social stability—are excepted from this requirement. Unfortunately, courts are not transparent about which cases are not posted. The subversion trials of human rights lawyers such as  Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), Li Heping (李和平), and Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) have garnered substantial media attention even within mainland China, but their judgments are not available on China Judgements Online

Worse still, cases sometimes are removed from China Judgements Online without notice, or cease to show up in searches, even when they are still available. This means that China Judgements Online queries alone are not a reliable way to identify published cases. Finally, the contents of cases are not always disclosed, making their inclusion on the site largely uninformative. This tends to be particularly true of cases of endangering state security involving ethnic minorities in restive regions. In one example, Dui Hua found that nine Tibetans had been sentenced for inciting splittism in Ganzi, Sichuan, but the site included no information beyond their names, the charges of conviction, and the dates of the judgement.  

Because of these shortcomings in the official China Judgements Online database, a brisk secondary market in online case databases has taken hold in China. Secondary databases include open access, such as Jufaanli, and paid databases such as LawXP and Legal Miner. Secondary databases exist in a legal grey zone. SPC guidelines prohibit duplication of the website, but the popularity of alternative databases has only grown in recent years, and the court has not seriously moved to eliminate them. That may be because the secondary databases are so useful. Not only do alternative databases offer better user interface and analytical tools, but they may also contain judgements that are not available on China Judgements Online, including cases that may have been taken down or cases from local courts that were not uploaded to the national database. For example, the case of Ismaili Rozi has never been posted on China Judgements Online but is available on an alternative site. Rozi is the first known case of educational placement, a measure imposed on prisoners who are considered “a danger to society” even after they have completed their sentences for terrorism or extremism offenses. 

While these secondary databases provide benefits over the official Court website, they also make the user problems with the official database worse. Many users—including researchers at Dui Hua—have noted that response times on China Judgements Online queries have slowed to a crawl in recent years. This is reportedly due in large part to the increased traffic from secondary databases, which use programs to search and scrape cases from the public portal. The use of bots to harvest case data helps explain why China Daily reports that China Judgements Online has had nearly 48 billion visits (it seems unlikely that these are human visits, as this would amount to the equivalent of dozens of site visits from every person on the planet).  

Registering for China Judgements Online 

This brings us to the announcement that as of September 1, 2020, users who wish to query the database must first register using a mobile phone number. The registration is apparently an effort to ensure that site users are humans, rather than web crawling bots that slow down database queries. If this is indeed the court’s rationale, this is a commendable attempt to improve the experience for individual database users. Even so, requiring registration to search public cases raises fears of surveillance and may deter citizens from using the database.  

There are many reasons people may be hesitant to register for the site. For some users, the registration requirement may raise worries that the SPC is tracking their individual case search histories. This could be a particular concern for people who search, for example, administrative lawsuits against local governments in order to bring a similar action themselves. Registration may also deter scholars who study sensitive types of cases such as political prosecutions, capital sentences, or cases from areas such as Xinjiang, Tibet, or other minority autonomous regions. These scholars may worry that if authorities track their searches, the judgements they find will be taken offline in response.  

Dui Hua regularly uses China Judgements Online for case research, and the foundation was able to successfully register after several attempts and gain access to the site after the new requirement went into effect. The change did seem to bring desired improvements for site stability and performance. However, a faster site alone will not reduce the draw of secondary case databases. Long-standing aforementioned issues still remain. Dui Hua regularly uncovers published cases posted on alternative databases that do not appear in queries on China Judgements Online. Until the SPC can guarantee that all public cases are accessible on its own website (and not removed without notice), people will still flock to alternative databases to seek information. However, to comply with China's internet use regulations, many alternative sites have already implemented user registration requiring a China mobile number or a WeChat account, which greatly impeded access from overseas. 

Along the same lines, the rapid growth of China Judgements Online is a laudable feat. The number of posted judgements, 100 million online, is incredible. But transparency is not just about volume, it is also about completeness. As Dui Hua indicated in its assessment to the United Nations in preparation for China’s 2018 Universal Periodic Review, the country’s record on this matter is mixed. The sensitive cases are always the minority, but in a rule of law system, a handful of cases could also be the ones that count most. The public needs some information about all cases, even the controversial ones. Where there are legitimate reasons for withholding the publication of a judgement, the existence of the case and the reason for the restriction should still be made public in every instance. Otherwise, although China Judgements Online may provide us with more and more cases, it will not tell us anything more about what we actually need to know.