- 8,883 criminal cases, representing 30.63% of all criminal cases, were heard online in 2020. Online court hearings for criminal cases have become common in Shanghai courts.
- Cases with a small number of defendants have a higher proportion in online litigation, as a result of a limited number of interrogation rooms available for remote video trials.
- Surprisingly, although the rule-makers believe that cases under simple procedures are more suitable for online litigation, in fact, among all the cases adjudicated online, cases under complex procedures account for a higher percentage.
- Compared with traditional offline trials, online trials have two merits - high efficiency and security.
We have published several articles on online litigation in China. Unlike our previous articles which concerns mainly online civil litigation, this article focuses on online criminal litigation.
Judge Yu Jian(余剑) and judge Pan Ziqiang(潘自强) of Shanghai First Intermediate People’s Court published an article in July 2021 about online criminal litigation in Shanghai, which provides an insight into online criminal litigation in China.
The article is titled “Practical Observation, Jurisprudential Analysis and Rule Perfection of Criminal Online Court Hearings”(刑事在线庭审的实践观察、法理检视和规则修缮) in “People's Judicature”(人民司法)(No. 25, 2021), which is summarized as follows:
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, Shanghai courts have begun to expand the scope of online video court hearings.
Throughout 2020, the number of courtrooms supporting online court hearings in Shanghai courts rapidly increased from 26 to 274, accounting for 28.8% of all courtrooms; and 40,859 court hearings, making up 8.9% of all court hearings were completed online.
Among them, 8,883 criminal cases, representing 30.63% of all criminal cases, were heard online. Online court hearings for criminal cases have become common in Shanghai courts.
The features of online criminal litigation in Shanghai are highlighted below.
I. Cases with a small number of defendants have a higher proportion in online litigation
84.6% of cases adjudicated online involve one to two defendants, while cases involving more parties are rarely done so.
This is because most online court hearings for criminal cases are conducted with defendants in an interrogation room of the detention center.
For defendants in custody, they can only appear at the detention center for online trials. Due to procedural security reasons, normally this rule also applies to those not in custody.
However, the number of interrogation rooms available for remote video trials is limited.
These detention centers cannot hold all the defendants for trial at the same time, if there are too many defendants in one case.
Consequently, online court hearings are only available for cases with a small number of defendants.
II. Whether a case can be adjudicated online is not dependent on its complexity
According to the online litigation rules issued by the Supreme People’s Court, cases involving expedited criminal proceedings, commutation, and parole and other cases under simple procedures can be heard online. Other criminal cases under more complicated procedures can only be subject to online litigation if they cannot be adjudicated offline for special reasons.
Common as cases under criminal summary procedures and ordinary procedures are, the said rule does not require such cases to be adjudicated online for their complicated procedures.
Surprisingly, although the rule-makers believe that cases under simple procedures are more suitable for online litigation, in fact, among all the cases adjudicated online, cases under complex procedures account for a higher percentage.
In the first half of 2020, among the first instance criminal cases adjudicated online in Shanghai courts, (1) 8.34% of them were heard under expedited procedures; (2) 57.25% of them were heard under summary procedures; and (3) 34.41% of them were heard under ordinary procedures.
As the statistics show, despite their complex procedures, cases under the summary and ordinary procedures are more inclined to be adjudicated online.
Therefore, cases can be adjudicated online whether their procedures are complex or not.
III. Online trial has achieved greater efficiency for courts
Compared with traditional offline trials, online trials have two merits - high efficiency and security.
Online trials have achieved greater efficiency for courts in many aspects, including:
(1) decreasing the transit time of the judicial policemen to escort the defendants.
Take Shanghai First Intermediate People’s Court as an example. All the detention centers in the same district locate beyond 10km from this court, and this figure can even reach 30km for those in the suburbs. For traditional offline court hearings, it will take judicial policemen as little as 1.5 hours and as much as 2 or 3 hours to escort the defendants to the court and return during the rush hour.
In contrast, there will be little transit-time if defendants participate in the online litigation at the detention center.
(2) increasing the utilization rate of courtrooms
Without waiting for defendants to be escorted from the detention center to the court, judges can start the trial earlier.
Moreover, the time between consecutive trials in the same courtroom has been substantially shortened because the preparations required during the interval between trials have been significantly reduced.
As a result, the utilization rate of one courtroom has increased from 2.1 cases per day to 5.3 cases per day.
The risk of defendants escaping is mitigated by online court hearings.
Under remote video hearings, the judicial policemen only need to go to the detention center for escort procedures, and take the defendants to the remote video interrogation room there to be connected to the courtroom for the trial.
Without any need to leave the detention center, defendants in custody have fewer chances to escape.
Contributors: Guodong Du 杜国栋