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China: Court Structure and Process
Country Study > Chapter 13 > Criminal Justice and Public Security > Court Structure and Process

COURT STRUCTURE AND PROCESS


Between the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957 and the legal reforms of 1979, the courts -- viewed by the leftists as troublesome and unreliable -- played only a small role in the judicial system. Most of their functions were handled by other party or government organs. In 1979, however, the National People's Congress began the process of restoring the judicial system. The world was able to see an early example of this reinstituted system in action in the showcase trial of the Gang of Four and six other members of the "Lin-Jiang clique" from November 1980 to January 1981. The trial, which was publicized to show that China had restored a legal system that made all citizens equal before the law, actually appeared to many foreign observers to be more a political than a legal exercise. Nevertheless, it was intended to show that China was committed to restoring a judicial system.

The Ministry of Justice, abolished in 1959, was reestablished under the 1979 legal reforms to administer the newly restored judicial system. With the support of local judicial departments and bureaus, the ministry was charged with supervising personnel management, training, and funding for the courts and associated organizations and was given responsibility for overseeing legal research and exchanges with foreign judicial bodies.

The 1980 Organic Law of the People's Courts (revised in 1983) and the 1982 State Constitution established four levels of courts in the general administrative structure. Judges are elected or appointed by people's congresses at the corresponding levels to serve a maximum of two five-year terms. Most trials are administered by a collegial bench made up of one to three judges and three to five assessors. Assessors, according to the State Constitution, are elected by local residents or people's congresses from among citizens over twenty-three years of age with political rights or are appointed by the court for their expertise. Trials are conducted in an inquisitorial manner, in which both judges and assessors play an active part in the questioning of all witnesses. (This contrasts with the Western adversarial system, in which the judge is meant to be an impartial referee between two contending attorneys.) After the judge and assessors rule on a case, they pass sentence. An aggrieved party can appeal to the next higher court.

The Organic Law of the People's Courts requires that adjudication committees be established for courts at every level. The committees usually are made up of the president, vice presidents, chief judges, and associate chief judges of the court, who are appointed and removed by the standing committees of the people's congresses at the corresponding level. The adjudication committees are charged with reviewing major cases to find errors in determination of facts or application of law and to determine if a chief judge should withdraw from a case. If a case is submitted to the adjudication committee, the court is bound by its decision. The Supreme People's Court stands at the apex of the judicial structure(see fig. 21). Located in Beijing, it has jurisdiction over all lower and special courts, for which it serves as the ultimate appellate court. It is directly responsible to the National People's Congress Standing Committee, which elects the court president.

China also has special military, railroad transport, water transport, and forestry courts. These courts hear cases of counterrevolutionary activity, plundering, bribery, sabotage, or indifference to duty that result in severe damage to military facilities, work units, or government property or threaten the safety of soldiers or workers.

Military courts make up the largest group of special courts and try all treason and espionage cases. Although they are independent of civilian courts and directly subordinate to the Ministry of National Defense, military court decisions are reviewed by the Supreme People's Court. Special military courts were first established in 1954 to protect the special interests of all commanders, political commissars, and soldiers, but they ceased to function during the Cultural Revolution. Military courts and procuratorates were reinstituted in October 1978, and open military trials resumed in December of that year.

Data as of July 1987




Last Updated: July 1987


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for China was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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