Smart Courts and the Push for Technological Innovation in China’s Judicial System

In March 2021, the National People’s Congress approved the 14th Five-Year Plan and announced their intent to continue deepening judicial reform (着力深化司法体制改革), a goal that was echoed in the Supreme People’s Court’s work report released several weeks later. Deepening judicial reform encapsulates a variety of measures, but perhaps most notably, the push for further implementation of “smart courts” (智慧法院). Smart courts are a combination of low- and high-tech measures that effectively digitalize China’s judicial system and fit into the CCP’s broader policy initiatives to improve economic and social development through technological innovation. While smart courts could accelerate such developments through increased transparency, accessibility, efficiency, and accountability, their implementation in China also allows the CCP heightened control over the judicial system and could serve as a tool to improve party outcomes.

Contextualizing Smart Courts

In the first meeting of the Central Leading Group for Cybersecurity and Informatization in 2014, Xi Jinping outlined the importance of digitalization and informatization to economic and social development. Since then, Xi’s drive for technological progress has been consistently reflected through various policy initiatives, such as the “Made in China 2025” plan that seeks to make China the world’s dominant high-tech manufacturer by 2025 and the “Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan,” which outlines China’s path to become a world leader in artificial intelligence (AI) by 2030. The recently passed 14th Five-Year Plan similarly emphasizes the importance of technological innovation in China’s next stage of development.

The standing president of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), Zhou Qiang, has made the implementation of smart courts one of his signature policies. Accordingly, the SPC has already made headway in achieving some of these goals, as signaled in their declaration that the 13th Five-Year Plan was a resounding success: courts have uploaded over 200 million case details and over 600 million pieces of evidence to national judicial online platforms.

Despite such efforts by the SPC to advance “smart courts (智慧法院),” the term itself remains vague. According to court system experts Peng Junling and Xiang Wen, smart courts can be most simply boiled down to the digitalization of courts, including more low-tech components like electronic case-filing, and more high-tech ones like online trials, a database of publicly accessible cases, like-case recommendation systems that use AI to identify cases with similar characteristics, and block-chain evidence storage platforms.

Over the last decade, the SPC has implemented measures that have gradually pushed China toward such digitalization. As early as 2010, the SPC required all courts to record trials in order to resolve deficiencies in trial records. In January 2014, every level of Chinese courts became responsible for uploading judicial decisions to a centralized SPC website. In May 2015, all cases had to be filed through a case-filing registration system over a case-filing scrutiny system; the new system determines case acceptance based on a set of formal system requirements instead of by judicial discretion. As compared to the same period last year, online court cases in the Shanghai High Court have increased by 63%.

Several conditions are contributing to the potential realization of China’s smart court goals. For one, close cooperation between the private and public sector continues to facilitate Beijing’s drive for informatization and digitalization. Private companies, including iFlytek, Tencent, and Alibaba have been enlisted in the development and implementation of smart court software by central leadership. Additionally, the judicial system has begun to develop a solid data infrastructure; for example, the SPC has created a number of large-scale, publicly accessible online platforms in addition to databases for individual local courts. These platforms aim to foster judicial transparency and streamline judicial processes, while their data feeds machine learning and big data analysis. According to legal expert George G. Zheng’s “China’s Grand Design of People’s Smart Courts,” the AI from big data can be used to provide statistical and predictive reports, including “intelligent like-cases search, similar-cases smart pop-up, litigation evaluation and prediction, and judicial statistics.”

However, China also faces challenges in smart court implementation. Most notably, researchers have found that incomplete legislation makes it challenging to ensure legal regulation of online trials. For instance, legislation exists on specific logistics of conducting online civil procedure cases, but not on those regarding online criminal procedure cases. Additionally, inconsistent e-filing practices create huge variation in online case availability: some districts have up to 80 percent of their cases online, while others have under 20 percent. Judges have also raised concerns over false litigation, as it can be more challenging to verify user identification and authenticate litigation materials when filing and litigation processes occur entirely online. As such, while there exists a solid foundation, the large-scale implementation of smart courts in China remains incomplete.

Implications for the Judicial System

If successfully implemented, smart courts could substantially alter China’s judicial system and advance economic and social development. First, China’s push for smart courts signals a step toward “controlled transparency” by the CCP, as court cases and documents are increasingly available to the public. While transparency could decrease corruption, the SPC has ultimate oversight over published material, which allows sensitive information to be carefully filtered. Second, e-courts could create a more accessible judicial system, allowing individuals in rural areas who would otherwise travel hours or days relatively easy access to the system. Additionally, when courts are no longer physically accessible in extenuating circumstances like a pandemic, smart courts would allow judicial activities to continue. However, online courts do not guarantee accessibility to adequate technological equipment or education around the judicial system. Third, e-filing and digitalization offer increased efficiency through reducing judges’ and clerks’ workload, while also notably decreasing individual judges’ oversight. Fourth, like-case recommendation systems offer a more standardized and consistent judicial decision-making process; outlier decisions are flagged for further inspection, which could serve as a tool to increasingly monitor judges.

In addition to such advances, smart courts could also increase the CCP’s control over the judicial system. For one, smart courts further consolidate the CCP’s political power by moving judicial control away from local authorities and into more centralized ones; the SPC’s heightened scrutiny over case standardization and like-case recommendation systems keep case decisions consistent with the party line, which accordingly decreases individual judges’ discretion. Additionally, legal experts note that this increased, controlled transparency and tightened judicial oversight could loop the judicial system into Xi’s hallmark anti-corruption campaign. As such, the CCP could use smart courts to effectively ensure that judicial outcomes are consistent with and supportive of CCP goals and related policy initiatives. While situated soundly within the CCP’s framework propelling development through technological innovation, Chinese smart courts also signal an increased oversight over the judicial system that could serve as a tool to improve party outcomes. Perhaps more notably, if successfully implemented, Chinese smart courts could set a precedent for the digitalization of courts worldwide.
Claire Cousineau is a former intern with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS.