Monday, December 27, 2010
This is not exactly earth-shaking news, but I'm writing about it because I'm convinced that one of the best ways to understand the Chinese legal system is to understand the incentive system under which its institutions and personnel operate.
The Supreme People's Court is, naturally enough, interested in the performance of lower courts, and one way it tries to measure this is by keeping track of their case closure rate. The basic idea is that the faster you close cases, the better. Traditionally, case closure rates have been measured by comparing the number of cases that come in in a given calendar year to the number that are closed (i.e., wrapped up in some way) in that year. The problem is that such a system discourages courts from taking cases near the end of the year, preferring to put them off until the next year starts. (Of course, this just means more cases in the following year, but this would hardly be the first time human beings had bought immediate gratification with the coin of deferred pain.)
The SPC is now contemplating a new measure: how many cases are closed within the statutory time limit. This seems like a much more reasonable measure. Trying to measure court performance in some way is a reasonable goal, but a system that treats cases that come in in January the same as cases that come in in December can't be a good one. And a system that treated cases wrapped up in one month as always better than cases wrapped up in six months wouldn't very good, either.
According to the news report from which I got this story, the SPC has already abolished the traditional system I've described above, but hasn't yet made a final decision on what to replace it with. I guess for the moment nobody is measuring how quickly courts are processing cases.