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Civil Courts System in China and their Jurisdiction

By: Siddharth Sutaria


The government defines the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a “socialist legal system.” Despite the official definition, however, China’s legal system is based primarily on the Civil Law model. The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China is the highest law within China. People’s Republic of China (PRC) adopted the current version in 1982 with further revisions in 1988, 1993, 1999, and 2004. There are four levels of the court system in China: the grassroots, intermediate, higher and supreme people’s courts, and special courts such as the military, maritime, railway and forestry courts.


When the People’s Republic of China was established on October 1, 1949, to establish a clear boundary between the new socialist state and the old capitalist society, it abolished everything under the Kuomintang government, including the Republican legal system, which oriented from civil law system but not fully integrated into the general law or official Chinese customs. Before 1954, when the Constitution and Organic Law of Courts were drafted, China’s judicial system had long been used as a tool to fight the enemies of the new government, including political and criminal forces. In civil disputes where no “enemies” were prominent, they could be resolved mainly by the neighboring community (an independent organization led by the Chinese Communist Party), prominent dignitaries nearby or party leaders in the area. Even those civil cases that went to Court, involving mainly property disputes from the Agrarian Reform, divorce disputes and personal injury claims, would also be handled rather than dismissed by a judge. Formal trials were rare, and judges ignored judgments as a matter of procedure. The situation of “civil unrest” became worse during the Cultural Revolution when legal leadership prevailed.

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The rise of civil reconciliation continued until 1982 when the Civil Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China (Trial Implementation) (“1982 Civil Procedural Law”) was finally enacted. Although the Act still emphasized reconciliation, it required a judge to enter a judgment in time if the parties failed to reach an arbitration agreement (Art. 6). In 1991, a new Civil Procedure Law was issued as the first and, to this day, the end of the Chinese code of conduct (“1991 Civil Procedural Law “), replacing the 1982 code. The new regulation has enormously strengthened the protection of the parties’ rights and the court authorities’ limitations. Given the nature of the party’s status (Art. 13), the parties have been given the right to appeal against the Court’s decision to arbitrarily dismiss and abuse the power (Art. 140), and to limit the abuse power’s appeal within the parties’ request (Art. 151). The 1991 Civil Procedural Law also reduced the importance of reconciliation by emphasizing the commitment and legitimacy of reconciliation (Art 9). Along with the Civil Procedural Law beating in 1991, there was a legal reversal by the Supreme Court of the People (“SPC”) and was widely involved by experts. Starting with the transformation of the trial process, introducing western policy concepts to Chinese legal justice, such as party submissions, party status, the enemy system and the burden of proof.


According to the Civil Procedural Law, civil disputes in China have been defined as disputes over rights and obligations arising from property, personal injury or family matters between equal parties (Art. 3). The limitation of the extent of conflicts and the emphasis on party equality are used to distinguish disputes “in administrative disputes.” Such segregation is due to the dual nature of public and private law and administrative law’s existence.

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According to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China of 1982 and the Organic Law of the People’s Courts that came into force on January 1, 1980, the courts in China are divided into a four-level court system (Supreme, High, Intermediate and Basic):
• At the top-most level is the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) in Beijing, the premier appellate forum of the land and Court of last resort, that supervises the administration of justice by all subordinate “local” and “special” people’s courts. It has also set up six circuit courts seat outside of the state capital, which act in the same capacity, to hear cross-provincial cases within respective jurisdiction.
• Local people’s courts—the courts of the first instance—handle criminal and civil cases. These courts make up the remaining three levels of the court system and consist of “high people’s courts” at the level of the provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities; “intermediate people’s courts” at the level of prefectures, autonomous prefectures, and cities; and “basic people’s courts” at the level of autonomous counties, towns, and municipal districts.
• Courts of Special Jurisdiction (special courts)- These courts comprise of Military Courts (military), Railway Transport Court of China (railroad transportation) and Maritime Courts (water transportation), Internet Courts, Intellectual Property Courts and Financial Court (Shanghai), Except for the Military Courts, all other courts of particular jurisdiction fall under the general jurisdiction of its respective high Court.

In China, judges at different court levels are regulated separately by various election, examination, and removal doctrines. According to the Judge’s Law, except for military courts, their judges will be determined by the National People’s Congress and Standing Committee of National People’s Congress, the presidents of other courts are all determined by the general assembly at the same administrative district, and the other judges are appointed according to the committee There are no rules on who has the right to nominate candidates and how to nominate them. Qualifications for a judge of all courts are the same: a Chinese nation, for more than 23 years, compliance with the Chinese Constitution, promising political and professional quality, good morals, and good health (Art. 9). Examination and evaluation of a judge is taken up by the Court in which the judge is present (Art. 21). The Court will establish a commission of inquiry and evaluation of judges (Art. 48), chaired by a Court’s presiding judge (Art. 49).


The basic principles of the civil procedure are all regulated in the Civil Procedural Law. They are the principle of equal litigation rights (Art. 8), the principle of full argument (Art. 12), the principle of party disposition (Art. 13, para. 2), the principle of court’s conciliation (Art. 9), the principle of good faith (Art. 13), the principle of receiving supervision from the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (Art. 14), and the principle of direct hearing.

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The principle of equal litigation rights is considered as an embodiment of Art. 33 of the Constitution, which provides that “citizens are all equal in front of the law.” Art. 8 of the Civil Procedural Law claims that “all parties of the civil litigation shall have equal litigation rights. The people’s courts shall, when adjudicating civil cases, guarantee and facilitate all parties to exercise their litigation rights, and apply the law equally to all parties.”

The principle of full argument in China is different from the doctrine of adversary trial. It only ensures the parties’ right to make argument in trial (Art. 12), but does not request the court’s fact finding to be bound by the parties’ claims and evidence presented during the argument.

The principle of party disposition is controlled by category. 2, Art. 13 allows entities to relinquish their civil rights and court rights within a statutory jurisdiction. The principle of court reconciliation is a separate principle of the Chinese civil process. It shows the important role of reconciliation in the courts. Art. 9 asks the court to make amends in accordance with the voluntary principles and legitimacy. To avoid endless conciliation and delays in litigation, the document requires that the court make a decision as soon as possible if mediation agreements are not reached. Under this system, conciliation is carried out throughout the public process from the prosecution to the enforcement stage, from the initial proceedings to the sentencing proceedings.

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The principle of good faith is a new framework introduced by the 2012 amendment to the 1991 Civil Procedural Law to prevent the over-growth of false statements, fabrication of evidence, prosecution of consolidation and serious misconduct. The concrete use of this system, however, still needs to be studied and tested in practice.

The principle of receiving supervision from the Supreme People’s Procuratorate emphasizes the role of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate as the judiciary. Prior to the 2012 amendment, the CIVIL PROCEDURAL LAW’s provision of this policy was that “the human rights authority has the authority to administer justice in the judiciary,” limiting sentencing during sentencing. The 2012 amendment transformed it into a “public administrator with the mandate to administer the law in relation to law enforcement,” with the aim of imposing enforcement on Supreme People’s Procuratorate administration.

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The principle of direct hearing is not explicitly regulated in Civil Procedural Law. However, it was presented with concrete provision at the trial. For example, Art. 68 provides that the evidence shall be presented and examined by the parties to the court; Art.72 provides that any business or person who knows something about a case has a duty to testify in court; Art. 139, paragraph. 2 provides that with the consent of the court, parties may cross-examine witnesses, expert witnesses, and inspectors in court. In practice, however, the principle of direct hearing is not very effective. In China, each court has a judicial committee.


The jurisdiction of the courts in China mainly concerns the jurisdiction by level courts and the jurisdiction of the territories. “Jurisdiction at the level of the courts,” meaning that a certain level of court has jurisdiction over a particular case, depending on the value of the case and the influence of the case. According to the CPL, the basic human court will have jurisdiction over cases that are not within the jurisdiction of the human courts at other levels (Art. 17); the middle court shall have jurisdiction over serious cases involving foreign affairs, cases with a substantial impact on the jurisdiction of the jurisdiction, and cases under jurisdiction of the internal courts as determined by the Supreme Court of the People (Art. 18); high courts will have jurisdiction over cases that have a significant impact on their jurisdiction (Art. 19); The People’s High Court will have jurisdiction over cases that have far-reaching consequences, and cases that the Supreme Court of the People’s Court considers to be a separate matter (Art. 20).

Location does not appear to be a problem in the legal case in China and is not addressed under the CPL. However, when a power dispute arises between two courts, one of which could be a fair hearing, the opposing courts must first try to resolve the dispute.[1] If the consultation fails, it will be necessary to summon a higher court with jurisdiction over both contestants to elect this forum.[2]

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In China, unlike in the United States, there is no federal-state distinction, but there is only one court system. As a result, there is no problem with the top authorities in China. Each of China’s major cities,[3] except for Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjing, which are state-of-the-art metropolitan cities, have with two levels of court: the basic level court and the intermediate level court. The provincial high court presides over both the lower courts.[4] As in the United States, above the provincial high court, the one Supreme Court in Beijing presides over all Chinese courts.

Generally, a foreign action must be filed in a basic level court.[5] The action may also be instituted in the intermediate court if it is considered “essential,” where it may have a significant impact on the region of the intermediate court, or where the Supreme Court authorizes the central court to exercise original jurisdiction.[6] Each provincial or municipal court can also exercise its jurisdiction if the case has a significant impact on the province or its municipality.[7]

The Supreme Court has exercised its first and only authority in Chinese history, the trial of the so-called “Gang of Four and Lin Biao CounterRevolutionary Clique” in 1980. A major influence in the whole country, or where the Court believes that the conditions were otherwise appropriate in order to exercise original jurisdiction.[8]

In China, a court that has accepted the case may refer a case sua sponte to other courts if it finds that the case is beyond its control. It will refer the case to a public court that has jurisdiction over the case. Such transfers, however, can be used only once. The People’s Court where the case is being heard will accept the case and will not refer the case to a third party without permission even if it considers that the appeal is not within its jurisdiction. It will report to the high court of the wrong place and wait for the high court to appoint the appropriate lower court to exercise the power. Appointment of jurisdiction in a high court may also occur when a jurisdictional court is unable to exercise jurisdiction for a specific reason, or when a dispute over jurisdiction over civil jurisdiction is not resolved through consultation.

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Territorial jurisdiction refers to jurisdiction over cases arising in or involving persons residing within a defined territory. In China, the establishment of territorial jurisdiction is based on the defendant’s domicile, subject to certain exceptions. According to the CPL, the doctrine of jurisdiction may change from the defendant’s domicile to the plaintiff’s domicile when the defendant is in custody; the defendant of a personal status case is not in China or missing; the defendant’s household registration is cancelled;8 or the defendant’s domicile is not as clear as the plaintiff’s domicile in maintenance cases and divorce cases (Arts. 6, 22). In tort and contract cases, parties are given more jurisdiction choices. Besides courts that are located where the defendants have their domiciles, courts that are located where facts of the case occur have the authority to hear the case as well (Arts. 23, 28). In addition, the jurisdiction over certain types of disputes is specially regulated in law to exclude the domicile doctrine. Such disputes include real estate disputes, port operation disputes and inheritance disputes. The jurisdiction of these disputes is exclusive and cannot be changed by jurisdiction clauses. For real estate disputes, they shall be under the jurisdiction of the court located in the place where the real estate is located (Art. 33 (1)); for disputes concerning harbor operations, they shall be under the jurisdiction of the court located in the place where the harbor is located (Art. 33 (2)); for inheritance disputes, they shall be under the jurisdiction of the court located in the place where the decedent had his domicile upon his death, or where the principal portion of his estate is located (Art. 33 (3)).

Defendant, on or before the last day of his or her appeal, may lodge an appeal against the dismissal of the case against him or her due to lack of court authority on his or her behalf. Power opposition can only focus on power in the first court. The jurisdiction of the appellate court is determined by which court becomes the first court, and the parties have no right to challenge the appellate authority. A power objection will be determined by the decision and may usually be appealed unless it is a small claim procedure.

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Keeping its own modem of the legal process is a major undertaking in China where li traditionally overcoming fa and “law” was considered a reference only to criminal law. Indeed, according to China’s official guarantee, since the announcement of the CPL, China’s legal system has been in place. With detailed guidance on various civil laws, their use rules and many local regulations, an outsider or business appears to have better guidance on how to do and do business in China. The civil procedure law of China is undoubtedly still in its initial stage of development. The government and the society are gradually accepting the modern concepts of procedure law, and the Chinese legislation keeps learning from western institutions.

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[1] Art. 37

[2] Id.

[3] In China, a city administratively governs the surrounding counties.

[4] Again, Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjing, each being equivalent to a province, all have high courts

[5] CPL art. 18.

[6] Art. 19

[7] Art. 20

[8] CPL art. 78 also see arts. 77, 79-84 (detailing the requirements for service of process)