As the UK enters a period of uncertainty with the coronavirus outbreak, our justice system inevitably will be under considerable strain. Last week, the government announced the planned introduction of emergency laws in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of this plan includes measures that allow some civil proceedings in magistrates’ courts to be carried out by telephone or video and expanding the use of audio and video live links in criminal proceedings. The intention of these contingency measures is to enable our courts to continue operating even during the height of the pandemic.

The disruptions caused by COVID-19 bring to the spotlight Richard Susskind’s case for online courts in the UK and globally, especially on the ground of promoting access to justice. The more pressing question is whether we are ready for the delivery of virtual justice outside a brick-and-mortar courtroom? In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Personal Injury Law, I examine how Chinese courts have deployed new technologies as part of a wider policy framework aimed at enhancing judicial efficiency and transparency. This policy has created highly advanced technological infrastructure allowing Chinese courts to conduct more online filings and hearings during the crisis.

‘Smart Courts’ and Judicial Reform in China

An important goal of China’s judicial reform over the past decade has been to increase the professionalism, transparency and accountability of courts and individual judges. The implementation of new information and communication technologies (ICT) have been a key component of such reform to change the ways in which justice is delivered to the public and the judiciary is supervised. The concept of ‘Smart Courts’ was first proposed by China’s top court, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), in 2015. The SPC has since been directing courts at all levels to create Smart Courts.

In recent years, Chinese courts have seen rapid developments in online dispute resolution platforms, specialized Internet courts, and the wide use of AI tools across case management and adjudication processes in civil and criminal proceedings. Other novel technologies such as distributed ledgers, blockchain and smart contracts solutions are currently being developed and rolled out in several local and specialised courts. 

An important aspect of these developments is making trial data resources online. As of February 2020, there were over 81.5 million judgments and other judicial documents on the SPC’s China Judgments Online, representing the world’s largest digital repository of judicial information. This is made possible by the SPC’s centralised big data management and service platform, which connects every court in China (which includes around 3,520 courts, 9,277 tribunals and 39 maritime courts).

The Internet Courts

The most avant-garde courts in China are the three internet courts in Hangzhou, Beijing and Guangzhou set up in 2017-2018, which hear a wide range of internet-related cases. These are the first courts in China where the entire litigation process can be conducted online, including filing and service of documents, pre-trial mediation, collection and presentation of evidence, preservation of assets, the trial, judgment, enforcement, appeal and other processes. Any parts of the proceedings can be conducted offline upon the request of the parties involved or the needs of the trial.

Moreover, a ‘mobile court’ app can be downloaded on WeChat, China’s most popular social media app. Facial recognition technology is used to authenticate the parties. They can file a case directly and communicate directly to the judge by sending text and audio messages and upload evidence on the app. The parties and the judge can log onto the app at the same time, undertake the pre-trial mediation, complete the e-signing of the mediation settlement (if successful) and deliver the judgment on the app.

The internet courts have also been experimenting with AI tools to assist with the adjudication of basic, non-complex cases, real-time recording and transcription of trial proceedings as well as the provision of legal information to the parties. Beijing Internet Court developed bots that provides the parties with some basic but important legal information, including the question of whether the court is the appropriate jurisdiction.

These courts are seen by Chinese policymakers as the breeding ground for experimentation. Several local courts have expanded their online functions throughout the litigation process. In March 2019, the SPC has expanded the ‘mobile court’ pilot to 12 provinces and municipalities. A national e-evidence platform based on blockchain technology has also been established, linking courts in 22 provinces and municipalities.

Conclusion

Beyond goals to improve access to justice, China’s Smart Courts framework has been a key aspect of judicial reform to increase the courts’ quality of services and their accountability. Most importantly, it seeks to enhance public trust in the judiciary. While there are considerable differences between legal systems, including the nature of the judiciary and trial procedures, times of crisis show that the basic function of courts around the world is the same. As the UK government recently put it: ‘to deliver key services to protect the public and maintain confidence in the justice system’.

Mimi Zou is the inaugural Fangda Career Development Fellow in Chinese Commercial Law at St Hugh's College, in association with the Oxford Law Faculty and the Oxford China Centre.