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Does Disclosure of Chinese Court Judgment Infringe Personal Privacy?

Sun, 27 Jun 2021
Categories: Insights

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Yes, answers a local court in Beijing in Liang v. Huifa Zhengxin Technology Co., Ltd. (2021), determining that publication and reproduction of the judgment containing the litigants’ names and facts are not considered a violation of privacy.

In April 2021, the Forth Intermediate People’s Court of Beijing determined in a final judgment that it does not constitute an infringement of the rights to personal information of the parties for the courts to publish the judgment containing the litigants’ names and facts, and for commercial companies to reproduce such a judgment (see Liang v. Huifa Zhengxin Technology Co., Ltd. (2021) Jing 04 Min Zhong No.71 ((2021)京04民终71号)).

In order to balance judicial power, Chinese courts implement a judgment publication system, which has played an important role in the realization of judicial fairness and legitimacy. However, this system has also aroused public and academic concerns about the disclosure of personal information recorded in the judgment.

This case is the first time that a Chinese court responded to this concern. The courts gave extremely detailed rationales in the judgment, which is quite unusual, and hence it indicates that the courts have paid much attention to this question.

I. Case background

Claimant Liang Yabing (“Liang”) was once a party in a labor dispute between Liang and her employer, the judgment of which, Judgment (2015) San Zhong Min Zhong Zi No.12289, recorded Liang’s personal information and the labor dispute itself.

Defendant, Beijing Huifa Zhengxin Technology Co., Ltd.(“Huifa”) is the operator of Huifa website (www.lawxp.com).

Huifa reposted the aforementioned judgment published by the Beijing Court Trial Information, an authoritative website of the Beijing People’s Court to release trial information. Huifa did not add, delete, or modify the original text of the judgment.

Liang believed that Huifa infringed her rights to personal information, and requested the court to order Huifa to make a public apology, compensate for her economic losses and mental damage.

The court of the first instance, Beijing Internet Court, issued the Judgment (2019) Jing 0491 Min Chu No. 17274, determining that although the relevant information belonged to Liang’s personal information, it did not contain any private information, and thus Huifa did not infringe on her right to privacy. Accordingly, the court of first instance dismissed Liang’s claims.

On 25 Apr. 2021, the court of second instance, the Forth Intermediate People’s Court delivered the Judgment (2021) Jing 04 Min Zhong No. 71, upholding the judgment of the court of the first instance.

II. Court views

Since the court of the first instance gave detailed rationales, and the court of second instance briefly supported its opinion, the following part is mainly based on the view of the court of first instance.

According to the court of the first instance, the right to personal information and interests is not an absolute right, instead, it is a protected civil right and interests, and is protected by means of social behavior control and based on specific circumstances. Therefore, it is necessary to consider whether there is any violation of the law according to the specific scenarios and methods of use of personal information by the involved behaviors.

(1) Whether the personal information of the parties in the judgment belongs to personal information or privacy

The private information such as ID number, address, and contact information had been deleted when the judgment was published. Name, gender, and case information belonged to the personal information of the parties concerned, but were not private information. Therefore, this information did not constitute personal privacy.

Privacy is a natural person's private life peace, as well as private space, private activities, and private information that do not want to be known by others. However, after the publication of the judgment, the personal information becomes public and no longer private, and thus it no longer constitutes privacy.

In order to protect the information of the parties in the judgment, the law should prevent the information from being misused, rather than passively conceal the information.

(2) Whether commercial websites’ reproduction of judgments infringes the rights of the parties

First, it is not illegal for commercial companies to collect the judgments by crawler software.

Judgment instruments are judicial data disclosed by the court to the society according to the law, and can be collected by common crawler technology. In the above-mentioned information collection process, Huifa did not use technologies such as “mirror” that are expressly prohibited by the China Judgment Online website, so currently, it does not violate China’s prohibitive provisions. Therefore, it should be determined that the data collection is not illegal.

Second, it is not illegal for commercial companies to use judgments for commercial purposes.

Huifa obtains flow by the service of providing judicial documents to the public and further obtains advertising, investment, and other interests. Therefore, Huifa Company’s use of judgment documents belongs to commercial use. However, the commercial use of judgments does not mean that the use is improper, and vice versa.

First, the content of the information displayed by Huifa is the same as the information disclosed in the judgment, and it has not improperly tampered with or processed the information, nor has it conducted data matching and information processing for improper purposes such as collecting credit from natural persons and spying on personal privacy.

Secondly, Huifa’s operating mode is to ensure and facilitate the public’s right to know relevant information through the reuse of open justice data. This is conducive to the construction of a social credit system and does not violate the purpose of open justice.

Third, the information on the judgment documents used by commercial companies comes from the disclosure of authoritative judicial institutions, rather than the authorization of individuals. If the data disclosed by open justice cannot be reposted or used by other subjects in the society, on the one hand, it would damage the open justice system, the public’s right to know, the right to supervision, and other public interests protected by the system; on the other hand, The above-mentioned data will be exclusively monopolized by judicial organs, which is inconsistent with the principle that judicial data is publicly owned and shared. Therefore, other data users may reuse the data disclosed under certain conditions.

Therefore, Huifa’s use of the judgment does not violate the prohibitive provisions of the law, nor does it violate the public order or good morals, and thus it is legitimate to some extent.

(3) To realize the purpose of open justice and supervision of justice, the court has to disclose the information of the parties to a certain extent.

First, public trial means the publication of the judgment.

Chinese laws stipulate the principle of public trial, which means that the people’s courts hear cases in open except in special circumstances provided by the law. The judgment instruments embody the entire process and content of the trial, and thus the judgment should be public according to the principle of public trial.

Second, a balance between open justice and rights to personal information.

Open justice aims to put the administration of justice under the supervision of the social public, in order to safeguard its justice and legitimacy. The publication of judgment instruments is for the same purpose.

However, the judgment document inevitably contains the litigants’ names and the case facts.

To balance the two interests, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has given certain protections to the parties’ information when formulating a system for the disclosure of judgment documents.

On the one hand, when the judgment is published, personal information such as the home address, communication method, ID number, bank account number, health status, license plate number, movable property or real property ownership certificate number of the natural person, and the information involving personal privacy in family and personal right disputes, should all be deleted. Only name and gender are retained.

On the other hand, during the litigation process, the parties should also be aware of the disclosure of judgment documents and the consequences of related litigation actions.

In summary, the court of the first instance held that the litigants’ names and case facts were the core content of the judgment instrument, and its disclosure was necessary to achieve public judicial supervision, so the use of personal information within this scope was consistent with the requirement of necessity.

III. Our comments

The court of second instance cautiously stated in its judgment that the case “involved the balance between the public interest and socio-economic interest of the reuse of judicial documents, and the personal interest of personal information rights”. Considering that personal information is a new type of right and interests, laws and regulations have not yet provided clear and specific protection approaches and exemption reasons, and the formulation of relevant rules is still in the exploratory stage, demonstrating a certain degree of uncertainty. In order to see the whole picture, the premature and arbitrary evaluation should be prevented, and thus the court of first instance only delivered the judgment based on the specific scenarios and information content of this case.

Clearly, although the court of second instance supported the view of the court of first instance, it did not express much confidence.
China specifically stipulates the right to personal information in Part IV (Personality Rights) of the Civil Code. However, in each specific scenario, where lies the boundary of personal information rights, and how to weigh the rights with other interests, are still topics currently being explored.

The publication of judgment instruments is an important measure of China's open justice, and it is also an important approach by which the judicial power of Chinese courts is checked and balanced. How to balance the needs of the judiciary to be checked and balanced with the parties’ personal information rights is not an easy task in China.

Chinese courts are still carefully searching the answer to this question. Therefore, although the court of the second instance supported the view of the court of first instance, it did not believe that there had been a solid conclusion, and it is still, as other courts in China, thinking about the answer to this question.

Contributors: Guodong Du 杜国栋 , Liu Qiang 刘强

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