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Percy Lo-Kit Chan
17 March, 2010  
Judiciary under strain

Senior Chinese judge nabbed for corruption … Others in the pipeline … Shortage of suitable judges and resources sees the courts reeling under the weight of the PRC’s rapid economic expansion … Percy Lo-Kit Chan reports from Honkers

imageYou know things are crook when on of your top judges is imprisoned for life for taking bribes.

In late January Xinhua newsagency, the PRC government official organ, reported the doleful news that Huan Songyou, the former Vice President of the Supreme People’s Court had been sentenced to life imprisonment for accepting more than 3.9 million yuan in bribes and illegally embezzling 1.2 million yuan from the government (divide by seven to get a rough and ready idea of how many Australian dollars are involved).

All his property and assets were seized by the state.

The PRC is still a jurisdiction in which financial and other crimes can attract the ultimate penalty (a couple of unfortunate players were shot not so long ago as a result of the “tainted milk” scandal which involved “bulking up” children’s milk with melamine).

imageSo, perhaps the judge was lucky that they did not decide to do an Admiral Byng pour decourager les autres.

Paradoxically, across the Straits of Taiwan in Taipei, the Justice Minister Wang Ching-feng (pic) has just been forced to resign because she will not execute people, a moral stance which, opinion polls reveal, offends the robust moral sensibilities of more than 60 percent of her constituents.

In Australia, particularly in the country, I would expect to see the same sort of results in favour of the death penalty.

To put things in context, simony – the selling of offices and preferment – bribery and nepotism were all very popular with English judges for many centuries.

imageSimony was one of many complaints against Cardinal Wolsey under Henry VIII. Bribery brought down Lord Bacon, and nepotism meant the end for Lord Westbury (seen here). Of Lord Westbury it was said in Parliament:

“I say that he has given great occasion of scandal in the country. He has led people to think that places can be obtained by corrupt means, and that he does not stand too nicely upon reasons for removing one man and putting in another. And this state of things, this want of vigilance, this supineness – I might almost say this fatuous simplicity – I say, this unsuspiciousness which has enabled his subordinates and those around him to practice that corruption, (from which I admit he himself is free,) is almost as bad for the country, although not for himself, as if he were personally guilty of this corruption.”

(The Pall Mall Gazette July 18, 1865 reporting the speech in the Commons of Mr Hunt.)

Verdicts are also awaited in China concerning a provincial deputy chief of the Public Security Bureau and a former Justice Department director, who have been tried on charges of taking bribes and protecting crime rings, as well as various sexual offences.

At the same time, the chiefs of the Supreme People’s Court and the Procuratorate (public prosecutor) are complaining of lack of resources.

A senior Henan judge has stated:

“It is not uncommon for a judge to handle two or three cases a day. That means on average up to 1,000 cases a year.

More and more senior judges are retiring, while the number of young judges entering the profession is being limited by the tough qualification examinations. The pressure on judges is getting very tough.”

Part of the problem is that as the economy expands the call for judicial resolution of disputes is increasing against a drop in available resources.

In addition, the PRC as in other civil law systems (like France, Germany, Japan – all of which derive indirectly via the Code Napoleon, and the Germany Civil Code of 1871) treat the judiciary as part of the civil service.

A young judge joins after law school and usually sits with two other more senior judges to gain experience and is gradually “promoted” to more difficult cases, and higher courts.

In most European countries to be appointed as a judge, not private practice in some cabinet operating from a Parisian garret, is a driving ambition of young law students, and graduates.

I lectured in Berlin years ago and inquired of one of the young German law students about the career path for graduates.

“The A grade students all become judges, and the C grade students employ the B grade students!”

imageMy friends tell me that the same could be said, mutatis mutandis, of practice in Sydney!

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, the announcement of the new CJ is eagerly awaited.

The smart money is on Mr “Yuen” aka Justice Geoffrey Ma (snap), a senior and well-respected jurist, who is married to a Court of Appeal judge, famed formerly for her tight control of the companies list.

Percy Lo-Kit Chan