• In 2002, Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court took the lead in launching an e-filing service. Since 2017, three Internet Courts have been established, with e-filing being an essential feature. To date, E-filing has gradually been widely adopted by local courts throughout the country.
• Marking that E-justice of Chinese courts is now stepping into the litigation proceedings, the E-filing system not only facilitates access to justice, but also enables coordination between courts and litigants.
• Imbalance of the use of judicial resources is one of E-filing’s drawbacks.
Chinese courts have been accelerating the promotion of e-filing in the past four years, which has become a fundamental pillar of China’s intelligent courts system.
China’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC) organized an academic seminar themed “Preventing and Resolving Major Risks in the Comprehensive Judicial System Reform” in 2020. At the seminar, there was a paper titled “On the Realization of Online Civil Case Filing” (论民事诉讼立案在线化的实现进路), discussing the e-filing system of Chinese courts.
The authors of the paper are Liao Huimin (廖惠敏), Judge of Xiamen Intermediate People’s Court and Gao Biqing (高碧青) and Xiao Anding (肖安定), Judges of Huli Primary People’s Court of Xiamen Municipality.
I. E-filing of Chinese courts
On 13 Jun. 2019, Zhou Qiang (周强), President of the SPC, required all local courts across the country to provide e-filing service to litigants by 2020 at a symposium attended by presidents of high people’s courts across the country.
In fact, the attempt at e-filing began as early as 2002. In that year, Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court took the lead in launching an e-filing service. Since then, various local courts have followed its steps.
After 2017, Internet courts in Hangzhou, Beijing, and Guangzhou were established one after another. The major feature of Internet courts is to hear Internet-related cases online, so e-filing is naturally one of its essential features. Ever since then, e-filing began to be commonly adopted by the courts throughout the country, and the SPC has been constantly promulgating regulations related to e-filing.
II. Value of e-filing
1. E-filing means that the E-justice of Chinese courts is beginning to step into litigation proceedings.
The E-justice system, also known as the “Intelligent Courts” system, goes through three phases:
In Phase One, it emphasized statistics analysis by use of the case management system, which was aimed at providing data support for judicial decision-making;
In Phase Two, it emphasized information disclosure by use of three major court information disclosure platforms (China Judgments Online(http://wenshu.court.gov.cn/), China Enforcement Information Online (http://shixin.court.gov.cn/) and China Judicial Process Information Online(https://splcgk.court.gov.cn/gzfwww/)), which aimed at providing the parties concerned with more judicial information; and
In Phase Three, it emphasized online courts development by use of three Internet courts and numerous online litigation platforms, aiming to enable the parties concerned to complete all proceedings online. The e-filing system is a part of the Phase Three development.
2. E-filing facilitates access to justice
Measures on the Payment of Litigation Costs (诉讼费用交纳办法), adopted by China's courts since April 2007, has significantly reduced the cost of court proceedings to meet the litigants' demand for access to judicial justice. Since then, the number of lawsuits in China has grown by more than 10% a year.
In order to further lower the threshold for parties to file lawsuits, Chinese courts have begun to implement the case filing system since 2015, which means that as long as the parties' application for filing lawsuits meets the formalities requirements, the court will accept the case unconditionally. This system has changed the previous practice of selectively accepting cases and resolving disputes to control the workload, but it also led to a sudden explosion of lawsuits.
The litigation explosion in China has also led to the lack of human resources in Chinese courts to deal with the parties' applications for case filing. Therefore, the courts began trying to provide the parties with online reservation service for case filing, which was further developed into contactless e-filing.
3. E-filing enables coordination between courts and litigants in the E-justice system
The parties can input the case details in accordance with the format required by the court when applying for case filing. These structured data can be easily reused by the court in subsequent proceedings, such as case review, adjudication, and execution. The court can also convert the key points summarized in the case adjudication into functions in the online system, and the parties can understand the judge's rationale while using these functions.
Structured data make it possible for courts to adjudicate cases automatically and in batches. In addition, since the parties understand the judge's rationale under the guidance of the online system, they can have a reasonable estimate of the possible judgment result, which can facilitate the two parties to reach a settlement.
III. Drawbacks of e-filing
1. Occupation of judicial resources by large institutions
With a large number of users, banks, property companies, and other companies may have a large number of disputes, even with a small rate of contract default. In order to control risks and reduce costs, such institutions usually use methods other than litigation to control the contract default rate. However, after the occurrence of the e-filing system, the threshold for filing lawsuits has been greatly reduced, so such institutions tend to resolve disputes through litigation. For example, in a local court, 17.3% of its civil lawsuits come from two banks, which undermines other parties’ access to judicial justice.
2. The cases will be led to the courts which took the lead in implementing e-filing
As different courts implement the e-filing to a different extent, in order to reduce court costs, some parties who need to litigate in different places will intentionally create connecting factors to file a lawsuit with the court with a better e-filing system, which, therefore, increases the workload of the court.
3. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanism is weakened.
Because it is easier for the court to register a case, the parties are reluctant to resort to ADR. Moreover, many institutions for ADR prefer to refer the cases to courts in order to reduce their workload. For example, the number of cases has increased where many labor arbitration institutions ruled to dismiss the arbitration application, thus pushing labor disputes to the courts for settlement; traffic management departments are no longer enthusiastic about the mediation of minor traffic accident disputes, but let the parties resort to the court for dispute resolution instead.
IV. Authors’ advice
1. From e-filing to dispute resolution in batches
The cases related to banks and other major institutions are featured by proceeding in batches and uniform formats. Courts can design structured and mass case filing systems for these cases, which may automatically generate pleadings, transcripts, and even judgments, allowing a small number of judges to hear a large number of simple cases.
2. From e-filing to online mediation
The court can integrate the e-filing system with the online pre-litigation mediation platform. On the pre-litigation mediation platform, the litigation materials uploaded by the plaintiff may be immediately electronically served to the defendant, and meanwhile, the platform can provide the chance for mediation, so as to improve the efficiency of dispute resolution. Take the online diversified dispute-resolution platform in Zhejiang Province as an example. During its trial launch in Xihu District, Hangzhou Municipality from March 2017 to 29 Dec. 2018, there were 382,966 cases mediated on the platform. The number of online mediation cases gradually increased while the number of cases accepted by courts began to decrease.