From Bench to Bar: Meet China’s Ex-Judges
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2016-05-05 11:27:36

On a recent winter morning, a group of more than 30 people made their way to campus to argue legal case studies. These early birds weren’t aspiring law students, but some of the most talented legal professionals in the city. Until recently, they were all judges.

In China, being a judge means low pay, a high workload, and other hardships. Over the years, a small trickle of judges have decided to leave their courthouses. More recently, this trickle has become a steady stream, with some news reports even referring to an “exodus of judges.”

Shanghai’s ex-judges keep in touch online, and from time to time they meet in cafeterias or on university campuses to share stories or, like today, join a seminar. This recently formed group has already grown to nearly 100 members.

Like many others in the classroom, Wu Bin, 33, is an ex-judge who recently became a lawyer, and he is using these regular get-togethers to sharpen his knowledge and help his transition from the bench to the bar.

“After you leave the system’s job security, you have to look after yourself,” said Wu, who previously worked for seven years in a district court in Shanghai. “We share similar backgrounds and we understand each other well.”

In 2014, Mu Ping, president of the Beijing High People’s Court, disclosed that the capital had lost more than 500 judges between 2008 and 2013. Over the same period in Shanghai, an average of 67 judges per year abandoned their posts, according to reports by Jiefang Daily, a Shanghai-based Communist Party newspaper.

One reason the ranks of ex-judges have swelled in recent years is the latest round of judicial reforms, announced in 2014. Though these aim to make the courts more efficient, more impartial, and better places to work, they have also given an already beleaguered profession more reasons to call it quits.

A policeman stands next to a glass door at the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court, Shandong province, Aug. 21, 2013. Carlos Barria/Reuters

A policeman stands next to a glass door at the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court, Shandong province, Aug. 21, 2013. Carlos Barria/Reuters

Reasons to Leave

Many problems judges face in their careers stem from the convoluted system that governs them. Nominally, courts fall under the control of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC). However, so many other government institutions are responsible for small parts of the judicial system that the SPC is left with little jurisdiction. He Fan, a judge at the SPC, said that “apart from awarding judges with the title of ‘best grassroots judge’ from time to time, the SPC plays a very limited role.”

According to He, official ranks for court staff and the quota for each rank are determined by the Organization Department of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee. Income and welfare considerations fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, while construction and maintenance of buildings are supervised by the National Development and Reform Commission.

For a judge, this organizational maze means they have to answer to, and are constrained by, many bosses. 

This also means judges are sometimes called upon to do other work, such as meeting with people who petition the government — so-called stability maintenance work. “In China, every judge has three identities: a government cadre, a civil servant, and a judge,” said He.

Judges are also regularly required to volunteer their time outside of the courts. One former judge who was only willing to give his surname, Fu, told Sixth Tone that he was sometimes called upon to direct street traffic. “It’s funny that a few hours ago I was a traffic management assistant,” said Fu. “And a few hours from now, I will put on my judge’s robe and appear in a stately courtroom.”

Judges are sometimes assigned to keep subway passengers in order, and Fu said he knew of colleagues in less developed regions assisting with harvesting crops for days on end.

Other recurring reasons given by ex-judges for leaving the profession were dim career prospects, a heavy workload, and a low income.

With their salaries linked to those of other civil servants, many judges feel they are underpaid. Fu said that when he left the profession in 2014, he earned less than 8,000 yuan (just over $1,200) a month. Including quarterly and yearly bonuses, his average monthly income was close to 10,000 yuan. Although their incomes are above average for white-collar workers in Shanghai, many judges feel their remuneration is not an adequate reflection of their myriad responsibilities.

After a trial, four judges walk out of the Yunyang County People's Court building, Chongqing Municipality, Nov. 24, 2015. Rao Guojun/VCG

After a trial, four judges walk out of the Yunyang County People's Court building, Chongqing Municipality, Nov. 24, 2015. Rao Guojun/VCG

By the time he quit, Fu had been promoted to a mid-level position. Now in his late 30s, he believes there is limited opportunity for young people to thrive in the court system. “There isn’t sufficient attention given to the training of young judicial staff,” said Fu. “Everybody is busy dealing with an endless number of cases.” Before he quit, Fu said he was closing around 250 cases per year. “But that is not even close to what the busiest judges have to handle,” he added.

Changes in the System

The 2014 judicial reforms were launched on a trial basis in seven provinces and municipalities, including Shanghai. The Xuhui District People’s Court, where the former judge, Fu, worked, was one of the courts included in the pilot program. The court declined Sixth Tone’s request for comment.

The reform program was designed in part to give the public greater ability to sue. This resulted in the introduction of a new case registration mechanism, which came into effect in May 2015. In practice, these changes have meant that it has become compulsory for the courts to accept most cases, adding to judges’ already-heavy workload.

According to a paper on China’s judicial reform released at the end of February, the country’s civil courts registered a total number of 9.94 million cases between May and December of last year, an increase of nearly 30 percent from the previous year. Cui Yadong, president of the Shanghai High People’s Court, said at a meeting of the Shanghai People’s Congress in January that judges in Shanghai on average handled 187 cases in 2015, an increase of 17.3 percent from the previous year.

The new reforms split personnel management of judges from that of other government workers, with the aim of enhancing judges’ incomes. While such salary increases have yet to be realized, Shanghai judges in the future will be able to earn up to 43 percent higher salaries than the average for other civil servants.

“It’s true that life is much more difficult outside the system. But we are much better motivated now, and we’re definitely making more money than before.”

Still, salary was not a major concern when Tang Jirong resigned in 2013. Rather, he felt trapped in a position where he couldn’t use his skills and had become pessimistic about his future in the courts. “I knew clearly that whether I got promoted or not would have nothing to do with my professional performance,” Tang said. “It’s all up to being in the good graces of your boss.” To Tang, the low income was a problem he could have coped with if he was at least given the chance for a promotion, but he decided not to wait it out.

The ongoing reforms aim to make promotion based less on the decisions of superiors and more on a judge’s professional competence. In a commentary published in People’s Daily in mid-April, Xu Jiaxin, the director of the Supreme People’s Court’s political department, said promotions will be decided based on how judges handle cases, the moral integrity they reveal in their work, how long they have worked as a judge, and the diversity of their work.

But the reforms’ most impactful change is that fewer court employees will be able to call themselves judges. In China, court employees are given the title of judge faster than in most other countries.

In Shanghai, 56 percent of all court employees were judges before the reforms. Since the reforms, the new quota for Shanghai has been set at 33 percent, meaning that more than 700 of Shanghai’s total of 3,100-plus judges will lose their titles.

To retain their judgeship, each judge now has to pass a rigorous exam.

This downward adjustment of the quota for judges also means most junior staff members will have to wait longer for their promotions than they might have expected. Before the reforms, law school postgraduates would only have to serve as court clerks for two or three years before they could undergo training and become judges by their mid-20s. Achieving a judgeship now takes considerably longer than just a few years.

Two judges cross a bridge on their way to a village courthouse in Rongshui, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, May 21, 2015. Long Tao/VCG

Two judges cross a bridge on their way to a village courthouse in Rongshui, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, May 21, 2015. Long Tao/VCG

One judge who lost his patience is a 35-year-old surnamed Sha, who started his judicial career in a district people’s court in Taizhou City, in China’s eastern Jiangsu province. Sha worked there for five years and had become a judge, but then in 2012 he decided to move to Shanghai to be with his wife.

However, because there is no way for judicial staff to transfer to another province and maintain their seniority, Sha had to start his career in a Shanghai intermediate people’s court from the bottom, beginning with an entrance examination.

Sha declined to disclose his full name, saying he is grateful to his former employers and does not want them to think him disloyal.

Sha was supposed to receive his judgeship training the same year judicial reforms were announced. “The training program was suspended,” he said. “It would have taken between five and eight years for me to become a judge. It was a big blow to me and other young people in the court.”

Sha said he lost all hope. He figured he had to make a career change sooner rather than later. He submitted his resignation in April 2015 and got the approval to leave after two months.

Su Zelin, a politician and the former vice president of China’s Supreme People’s Court, said in an interview with Southern Weekly, a Guangzhou-based newspaper, that the reforms are meant to make sure only the best can become judges. The government hopes to achieve this through a stricter selection process, a lower quota, and an increase in judges’ salaries. “Some judges are leaving in this transitional period,” Su said. “But as the requirements imposed on judges become tougher, their incomes will definitely be hiked, and their social status will improve. The whole society will show them more respect.”

Diverging Ways

After working as a court judge for eight years, Wu Bin left his post in June 2015 to become a lawyer. Although the court where he used to work was not included in the pilot project of the judicial reforms, Wu noticed many of his colleagues were thinking about leaving. He wanted to beat them to the exit.

“When we get out of the system, we have to face market competition,” Wu said. “That means if too many people hunt for a job as a lawyer at the same time, labor will become cheap.”

The prospect of leaving the courthouse can be daunting. A judge is assigned work, and the salary, though low, is guaranteed. Lawyers, on the other hand, need to find their own clients. But after constantly hearing good stories from those who had left the court before him, Wu decided to take the plunge.

“It’s true that life is much more difficult outside the system,” said Wu. “But we are much better motivated now, and we’re definitely making more money than before.”

Many ex-judges told Sixth Tone that life as a judge was not even close to what they had imagined. Sha said that at the Jiangsu court he worked in before he moved to Shanghai, there was a lot of interference from his superiors. So-called presiding judges and sometimes even the court’s chief judge in the past had to sign off on verdicts made by lower-level judges.

“If you happen to arrive at the same conclusion as your presiding judge, you’re lucky,” Sha said. “But if not, it’s highly likely that you will have to change your verdict. I can’t tell if it’s a win for the law. But I can tell you for sure that if you want a promotion, you won’t hesitate for a second to follow directions from your leader.”

According to a survey conducted by Hu Changming, a judge at the Beijing High People’s Court, 31.2 percent of the 2,660 judges polled across the country said they felt disturbed by interference from their leaders or others during trials. These judges said they were worried about their promotions or the possibility of being assigned to other positions outside the courtroom if they didn’t cooperate.

Under the new reforms, judges are now given the right to issue rulings and opinions independently — the verdicts they give no longer need to be signed off on by the courts’ chief judges. This change should in theory offer judges more room to rule based on their understanding of the law, but there are still cases where they feel powerless to administer justice.

Lin Sang grew up admiring Bao Zheng, a judge during the Song dynasty (960-1279) who was nicknamed “Justice Bao” on account of his uprightness. Lin dreamt about becoming a judge, and eventually he enrolled at a law school for his postgraduate studies.

However, after he joined a district-level court in Shanghai and realized his dream of becoming a judge in 2013, Lin felt frustrated because he was not convinced the verdicts he gave could fully serve justice. “I couldn’t feel any professional dignity as a judge,” he told Sixth Tone.

Before Lin resigned in April 2015, he used to deal with mostly private lending disputes. Lin said many loan sharks were experts in such cases, and when they sued someone, they would present all the necessary “evidence.” Even though he sometimes suspected that the loan sharks exaggerated their figures and were actually demanding more from the accused than they were actually owed, Lin had no choice but to support them in light of the solid and complete documents they provided.

“That’s why some people say courts have become a protection umbrella for loan sharks,” Lin said. “What I could do was demand as much material as possible from them and then check and verify it. It’s impossible for us to go out and investigate the whole picture. We always had stacks of cases waiting ahead of us. But ideally, if time allowed, I would have been able to dig further into such cases.”

As a judge, Lin presided over nearly 200 cases every year.

Even judges who like the job sometimes see no other option but to quit. When Wang Lei, a 38-year-old judge in northwest China’s Shaanxi province, resigned, he created a small media storm. Paying for his mother’s cancer treatments on a modest 5,000-yuan monthly salary, Wang had racked up a debt of 300,000 yuan. He had expressed concern that this financial burden could negatively influence his decision-making.

On his last working day in late February this year, Wang said that he had a strong feeling that he would return to his judge’s seat one day. “When I achieve financial freedom, I will probably be back,” he said.

Another former judge, surnamed Zhang, wanted nothing but to handle cases, but she wasn’t given the opportunity. Before she resigned in April 2013, Zhang had worked in a district-level court for six years, two of them as a judge.

After becoming a judge in 2011, Zhang ended up spending more time away from the bench than on it. She told Sixth Tone that she had handled no more than 20 cases in total. “That’s exactly the reason I quit,” she said. “I wanted to be a frontline judge in a courtroom, but instead my boss arranged for me to deal with paper work.” Zhang declined to give her full name out of fear of negative repercussions for her former employer.

In 2013, after six years of experience in a court, Zhang started her new life as a lawyer. Although the transition was extremely hard in the beginning, Zhang remains resolute when it comes to chasing her ideals. “I don’t want to abandon my dream to uphold justice,” she said.

As to whether she has ever regretted giving up her life as a judge in China, Zhang replied: “Not even for one second.”

(Header image: A judge adjusts his uniform before a trial at his office in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, July 21, 2015. Chen Hemu/VCG)