The automation of justice has become a worldwide phenomenon. Various big data and artificial intelligence (AI)-driven technological applications have been introduced in the administration of justice over the past years. These range from predictive analytics to automated divorce proceedings and automated decisions in small claims cases. The People’s Republic of China (PRC or China) stands at the vanguard of this development. Its judiciary has embraced the power of technology to promote judicial reform and “to build a judicial mechanism that is open, dynamic, transparent, and convenient and improve public understanding, trust, and supervision of the judiciary” (The Supreme People’s Court, February 26, 2015).
Under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping’s “ruling the country according to the law” (依法治国, yifa zhiguo) reform platform, the modernization of the judiciary is a top priority. The Xi administration has indicated that it wants to re-establish the legitimacy and credibility of its legal system, mainly by centralizing control and improving judicial consistency across the country. Additionally, it has launched reforms aimed at improving procedures and compliance. Judicial reform has, among others, focused on increasing judicial accountability and supervision mechanisms (Supreme People’s Court, August 5, 2020; Supreme People’s Court, April 18, 2017), unifying and standardizing law application (Supreme People’s Court, July 27, 2020), and improving transparency and judicial services (Supreme People’s Court, November 21, 2013; Supreme People’s Court, September 25, 2020).
China’s first digital court, the Hangzhou Internet Court, launched its full online litigation platform in 2017 to hear internet-related civil and administrative cases (Hangzhou Internet Court, August 18, 2017). The Supreme People’s Court spurred on these developments with an authoritative opinion calling on all courts throughout the PRC to accelerate “building smart courts” (建设智慧法院, jianshe zhihui fayuan (The Supreme People’s Court, April 12, 2017). Since then, many courts throughout China have developed and implemented various systems to automate and digitalize their court proceedings, often in cooperation with private technology enterprises. For example, Alibaba developed the first AI assistant judge to help judges during trial hearings, significantly reducing the time from filing to closing. This was debuted in the People’s Court of Shangcheng District, Hangzhou City, in September 2019 (AI Legal Studies, October 10, 2019).
This article takes stock of China’s smart court policy by analyzing the 2020 annual “Report on Informatization of Chinese Courts [中国法院信息化发展报告, zhongguo fayuan xinxi hua fazhan baogao]” (hereafter “Report”), which is published by the Legal Studies Research Center of the state-affiliated Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It finds that China’s smart court system is diverse and that no stereotypical “smart court” exists. An overall smart court trend is that the use of technology in judicial practice increases control, supervision and standardization of adjudication. And although many other jurisdictions are still hesitant to adopt AI technology because of rights-protection concerns, AI adjudication is suitable for China’s legal system because it reinforces much-needed standardization processes.
Taking Stock: The 2020 Report on the Informatization of Chinese Courts
The 2020 Report on the Informatization of Chinese Courts provides an insightful window into the functions and purposes of different smart systems. It is an official research report on the development of smart courts that evaluates and summarizes the experiences and achievements of different courts across the country. According to the Report, courts at all levels across the country have reached a new level in standardization, systematization, precision, and intelligence in informatization construction. At the same time, the informatization of Chinese courts still needs to be further improved in terms of promoting in-depth applications, building a unified platform, improving user experience and improving data quality.
In its introductory chapters, the Report states that 93 percent of courts in China have achieved digitalization of core functions, such as an electronic dossier directory, digitalized generation of legal documents and a digital archive. The next step is to accomplish the simultaneous generation of digital files alongside court proceedings, allowing for proceedings to be conducted completely digitally. This includes procedural steps such as transferring cases to other courts for appeals and retrials. This full-process digitalization constitutes the foundation for more advanced applications, including AI-supported decision-making. The main shortcoming so far in smart court building is the uneven progress across China. To mediate this, the Report calls to promote a more coordinated development by providing more financial guarantees and training technical personnel.
The rest of the Report is organized according to five different themes: increasing trial efficiency, strengthening trial supervision, resolving “implementation problems” (执行难, zhixing nan), improving the quality of justice for the people and judicial big data. Each theme section includes three or four case studies written by judicial officials and researchers affiliated with the relevant courts. This article discusses two of them in particular, which have unique implications for the development of China’s smart court system. Although these two cases in particular were motivated by different (even opposite) intentions, they demonstrate a surprising convergence of outcomes. Their examples might indicate that centralization is not just a driving factor behind judicial digitalization, but also an inherent and self-reinforcing characteristic of the reforms.
Two Smart Courts
The Yibin People’s Court’s Supervision Platform
One case study in the Report details the development of a supervision platform in the Yibin People’s Court of Sichuan Province, which is meant to help perfect the judicial accountability system. The Report states that many judges were resisting supervision on the grounds of wanting an independent trial. At the same time, other senior court officials worried that their supervision would be misinterpreted as illegitimate interference. In response, the Yibin Court introduced a new supervision mechanism that was integrated into a digital platform to enhance the reform’s effectiveness (Yibin City Intermediate People’s Court, July 20, 2019; Yibin City Intermediate People’s Court, July 20, 2019).
The system has specific supervisory functions. One is the hierarchical supervision function, effectively laying down a chain of command clarifying supervision between higher and lower ranked courts. Each court can predetermine what kinds of cases get flagged by the system according to their circumstances. The system can then detect and send a warning to higher-ranked courts. A human then makes a judgment regarding the case. Where the case needs further supervision, the higher-ranked court guides the lower-ranked court via the system.
The digital environment also facilitates communication between junior and senior judges, allowing a senior judge to supervise a particular junior judge’s case. Likewise, a junior judge may request supervision from a senior colleague in particularly complicated cases.
The system has a node supervision function that allows the real-time monitoring of a case’s progress. If it detects an action that is not compliant, measures are taken. For example, the system can freeze the case proceedings until supervision requirements are met, and the court president approves continuation. Moreover, it determines clear time limits for each stage of the judicial process, which the system then tracks. In case of an approaching deadline, the system may send out warnings to the case-handling judge. In this sense, the supervision system also works as a management system.
The guidance of lower-ranked courts and judges in adjudicating a particular case is not new in the Chinese judicial system. However, the novelty here is that these practices are being (semi-) automated, digitalized, and standardized. It is important to note that the system registers every single step or action. Thus, technology is used to formalize and standardize previously informal and off-the-record practices.
The Jiangxi’s High Court “Judge e-Assistant” Platform
The “judge e-assistant” platform is defined as an “intelligent auxiliary case handling platform based on the actual conditions of courts in Jiangxi Province”. Its primary purpose is to help judges to prepare and adjudicate cases. The Report says that this system helps reduce the workload of judges, empowers them and improves the quality and efficiency of trials.
The “judge e-assistant” platform uses text recognition, image recognition and analysis to automatically index and organize scanned litigation materials. The system can also cross-reference and analyze the plaintiff’s and defendant’s key information with other databases to check for overlapping or serial litigation. It can generate relevant legal documents through text recognition, semantic analysis, and summary of other materials, such as trial hearing transcripts, first-instance judgments, etc., and allows judges to generate procedural documents with one click, which are then automatically generated and stamped.
The platform also has a similar-case push system. It can analyze case information in-depth and actively suggest laws, regulations, guiding cases, similar cases, and books and periodicals to judges to provide in-depth guidance. Finally, it records all decisions made at each procedural step of the case proceedings. This can then be used for management and supervision purposes.
This specific kind of auxiliary AI system is used in different courts across China. The most widespread and developed version of this is the Faxin 2.0 Smart Push System (Smart Court Times, October 28, 2020). This type of AI-supported adjudication aligns with how overall judicial reform envisions the role of technology in standardizing the application of the law by reducing individual judges’ discretion.
The case study on Jiangxi’s “judge e-assistant” in the Report explicitly positions it in contrast to other systems that prioritize supervision and management. Other reforms, such as the judges’ quota and accountability system, have mainly impacted rank-and-file judges, significantly affecting their work. The initiative is framed as attempting to address these issues and relieve pressure for frontline judges. Its success in this regard remains open to question, but according to the study, the e-assistant has assisted in the generation of over a hundred thousand judgment documents.
While both systems fell under smart court reforms, the intentions behind them were almost opposite.The Yibin Court’s system was developed in response to resistance from the rank-and-file against the new quota and responsibility system for judges. It was motivated by a top-down, management-focused approach that had little consideration for frontline judges’ workload concerns. The Jiangxi High Court’s initiative, in contrast, was more concerned with front-line judges’ perspectives, and was specifically aimed at relieving judges’ workload pressures. It entailed a more bottom-up approach, beginning with the idea of serving judges, not management. But, technology, and particularly AI, often produces different outcomes than expected. In the cases of both the Yibin and Jiangxi court systems, despite having different motivating factors, their outcomes were largely the same: enhancing mechanisms of control and supervision while simultaneously reducing the space for judicial discretion.
What becomes clear from the Report and the case studies presented here is that different courts have different priorities. Depending on who takes the initiative in a particular court, we see a different kind of smart system. There exists no single prototype of the smart court. It is especially interesting to contrast the two case studies presented in this article, which show that the motivating factors behind the development of smart systems can vary significantly.
In this sense, China’s “smart court” system is diverse and fragmented. This can be attributed to China’s typical experimentation style in promoting reform. As the Report notes, development has been uneven, which is attributable in part to budgetary differences across provinces. These systems are also often developed in cooperation with local private legal technology companies, which could have a further silo-ing effect. It remains to be seen whether China will succeed in integrating and centralizing these different systems, as it risks creating compatibility issues during the experimental reform process.
In another sense, the Report reveals key similarities across China’s smart courts: many of the systems seem, in one way or the other, to enhance control and oversight over judicial power. Taking a step back, the unifying idea behind court digitalization can be identified as a vision of “codified justice”: it favors standardization over discretion. Other judicial reforms under Xi Jinping and his socialist rule of law rhetoric have also pointed in this direction. The smart court policy demonstrates how China is using the power of technology to drive these reforms.
Straton Papagianneas is a PhD Candidate at Leiden University, where he studies the automation and digitalization of PRC courts and its implications for judicial practice. He is also Assistant Managing Editor of the China Guiding Cases Project at the Stanford Law School.
 For examples, see: Ed Yong, “A Popular Algorithm Is No Better At Predicting Crimes Than Random People,” The Atlantic, January 17, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/01/equivant-compas-algorithm/550646/; “Divorce QLD: How Adieu app is changing divorce,” Courier Mail, March 15, 2019, https://www.couriermail.com.au/questnews/north/divorce-theres-now-an-app-for-that/news-story/c68ed2c459115e87481bd693b4ee9278; Tara Vasdani, “Estonia set to introduce ‘AI judge’ in small claims court to clear court backlog,” The Lawyer’s Daily, April 10, 2019, https://www.thelawyersdaily.ca/articles/11582/estonia-set-to-introduce-ai-judge-in-small-claims-court-to-clear-court-backlog-.
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 Chen Su (陈甦), Tian He (田禾), Lü Yanbin (吕艳滨) and Hu Changming (胡昌明), “Report on Informatization of Chinese Courts [中国法院信息化发展报告, zhongguo fayuan xinxi hua fazhan baogao],” Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe [Social Sciences Academy Press], May 1, 2020. The Report can be accessed at: https://www.pishu.com.cn/skwx_ps/bookdetail?SiteID=14&ID=11566098. Alternatively, the full Report can be purchased via Amazon Kindle: https://www.amazon.cn/dp/B0897V5BMH.
 Huang Junjie (黄俊杰), “Exploration of innovative application of new trial supervision and management: Taking Yibin Court’s “full court, full process” supervision platform as an example [新型审判监督管理应用创新探索:以宜宾法院 “全院全员全程” 监管平台为例],” in: Chen, Tian, et al., (eds.), Report on Informatization of Chinese Courts No. 4 [中国法院信息化发展报告 No. 4], Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe [Social Sciences Academy Press], 2020, 123-135.
 Xin He, “Pressures on Chinese Judges under Xi,” The China Journal, 85, January 2021, 49-74.
 Wu Shunhua (吴顺华). “An intelligent and team-based accelerator for judges’ case-handling: Jiangxi Court “Judge e Assistant” Platform Construction Application Report [法官办案智能化、团队化的加速器: 江西法院 “法官 e 助理” 平台建设应用报告],” in: Chen, Tian, et al., (eds.), Report on Informatization of Chinese Courts No. 4 [中国法院信息化发展报告 No. 4], Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe [Social Sciences Academy Press], 2020, 82-94.
 For examples, see: Andrea L. Roth, “Trial by Machine,” Georgetown Law Journal, 104, March 2016, 1245-1306; Richard M. Re and Alicia Solow-Niederman, “Developing Artificially Intelligent Justice,” 22 Stanford Technology Law Review, 2019, 242-289; Maria Jean J. Hall, Domenico Calabrò, Tania Sourdin, Andrew Stranieri, and John Zeleznikow, “Supporting discretionary decision-making with information technology: case study in the criminal sentencing jurisdiction,” University of Ottawa Law Technology Journal, 2, 2005, 1-36.