Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Case acceptance in Chinese courts

When you sue someone in a Chinese court, your complaint must first pass through a gatekeeping procedure in which a special division of the court (the case filing division [立案庭]) decides whether or not to accept (受理) and docket (立案) the case. According to Art. 108 of the Civil Procedure Law and Art. 41 of the Administrative Litigation Law (the applicable law depends on the kind of case), courts must, unless an exception applies, accept cases that meet the following standards:

  1. the plaintiff has a direct legal interest (a term of art) in the case;
  2. there is a specific defendant;
  3. there are specific claims, facts, and causes of action; and
  4. the lawsuit is within the court's geographical and subject-matter scope of jurisdiction. 

The decision to accept or not is a pre-trial procedure that is undertaken on the basis of the complaint and evidence you may be asked to submit; if the court doesn't accept the case, you never get the chance to prove your claims at trial. Moreover, it's made in something of a black box without the benefit of adversarial arguments. When the system works as intended, the case filing division makes its own initial determination of the merits, deciding whether there is enough there to warrant going forward. In practice, a court trying to avoid a nettlesome case can use the case filing stage to reject the case.

Any judicial system needs some kind of gatekeeping, of course. Consider how the US system works: when you bring a complaint, the court makes no initial determination of the merits. It's up to the defendant to challenge it. Now the defendant does have a chance to try to make it go away without all the expense of a trial: it can move for dismissal for failure to state a claim. That means that the defendant says that even if all the facts you allege are true, you still have no legal claim. (For example, I sue you for damages because I allege that you published a letter to the editor praising the president, and I don't like the president. We don't need to empanel a jury to decide the truth of your factual allegations; even if I didn't write the letter, I can admit for the sake of the motion that I did, and say, "So what?") Even if I don't win at this stage, I can still cut things off before trial. Suppose you sue me for saying, "Good morning" to you, alleging that in fact it was a secret code phrase known to both of us meaning I was threatening to kill you. OK, perhaps the court will allow you to survive summary judgment and bring evidence to prove your claim. Before the trial gets underway, I can ask the court again to dismiss on the grounds that no reasonable factfinder could, on the basis of the evidence you've brought, conclude that when I said, "Good morning," it was intended as a threat.

In both of these gatekeeping proceedings, both parties appear and make arguments, and the court gives a decision that can be appealed. But this is precisely what doesn't happen in the Chinese case filing stage, and that has led to dissatisfaction and criticism. There are always cases where, for one reason or another, a court won't want to give a judgment declaring the plaintiff the winner (e.g., powerful people or institutions will be offended), but at the same time doesn't want to declare it the loser, either (e.g., the evidence in favor of the plaintiff's case is overwhelming). The best thing to do in these case is simply to avoid taking the case.

I've long thought that this system deserved more attention in the English-language literature on Chinese law, but my own efforts were confined to encouraging students to write about it. I'm glad to see that it's now getting the scholarly attention it deserves. In fact, I'm writing this post solely to call attention to two recent contributions:

  1. Nanping Liu & Michelle Liu, "Justice Without Judges: The Case Filing Division in the People’s Republic of China," 17 U.C. Davis J. Int’l L. & Pol’y 283 (2011)
  2. Mark Cohen, "“Case Filing” In China’s Courts and Their Impact on IP Cases," China IPR blog, March 24, 2012

Apologies if I've missed anyone else's recent contribution.

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