Chinese courts hear the public's voices

08:54, March 29, 2011      

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As many countries continue to debate the involvement of laypeople in criminal cases, some Chinese courts, eager to pull the judiciary process closer to the public, are creating more room for representatives from the society.

The eastern province of Jiangsu recently became the third Chinese province to hold a criminal trial before a randomly selected "people's jury." The province received public backlash in 2006 after a local court asked a man named Peng Yu to pay the medical bills for an old lady he helped after she fell.

"The Peng Yu Case taught us a lesson about the dangers of distancing our court rulings from public opinion," He Dongjun, senior official of the Intermediate People's Court of Changzhou City in Jiangsu, told local media.

Earlier this month, a court in Changzhou invited a jury of 11 members, including private company employees as well as community and government workers, to hear a trial on drug trafficking and submit their opinions on the conviction and sentencing.

The judges then reviewed the record of the jury's discussion, said Gao Shuqin, the judge presiding over the trial. A revision of the verdict would be considered if the jury's consensus differed from the opinion of the court.

Before Jiangsu, the practice had been tested in criminal courts in the provinces of Henan and Shaanxi as an alternative to the "people's assessors" system.

Chinese courts follow a legal practice that gives professional judges two to four selected "people's assessors" who come from the community and have the same sentencing power as judges.

However, a "people's jury" has up to 13 members and aims to use a cross section of voices from society to influence court rulings.

"Our conclusions were drawn from personal experiences and moral sensibilities, and we told the judges what ordinary people thought of the case," said Li Houdong, a local community worker selected for the jury in the trial in Changzhou.

In Shaanxi, where the jury pilot program started last year, jurors are chosen from a large pool of responsible and public-spirited citizens.

Those schooled in law are ruled out, said Tian Liping, vice president of Shaanxi High People's Court, who insisted the jury stands for ordinary folks.

Guo Xingquan, a legal expert at Shaanxi Academy of Social Sciences, praised the appearance of the jury for increasing public supervision over legal procedures.

"There were some cases in which court rulings had been subject to bribery or personal influence. The problem may be solved by more public engagement," said Guo.

Others, however, have questioned the legitimacy of the novel system and predicted doom for its future application.

"It is against standard judicial procedures and without any backup in the Chinese laws," said Qu Gangde, a lawyer at a Liaoning-based legal firm.

"Furthermore, it's not yet known how much effect the jury can have, since their opinions are non-binding on the final verdict," said Qu.

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