China / Government

Pilot program modifies the jury system

By Zhang Yi (China Daily) Updated: 2015-05-14 07:43

Pilot program modifies the jury system
New jurors are sworn in at Haiyao District People's Court in Hefei, Anhui province, in December after a series of training sessions aimed at helping them to better understand the country's laws. Xie Chen / for China Daily

Public encouraged to take part in criminal trials to increase the credibility of court rulings

When Zhang Mou drove into a pedestrian in a street in Zhengzhou, Henan province, in March last year he thought he did the right thing by taking the victim to a nearby hospital.

Legally, Zhang was supposed to report the accident to police at the scene, and he failed to do so. However, the next day he went to the police station to tell them what had happened. He also later gave the victim's family 20,000 yuan ($3,200).

While aware of his duty to report the matter to police, Zhang told officers he had not intended to flee the scene of the accident. So it came as a great shock to him when they said he would be charged with being involved in a hit-and-run accident, a crime with a maximum penalty of life in prison if the victim died.

If it had not been for the two jurors hearing the case with a judge at Zhongyuan District People's Court, that is exactly what would have befallen Zhang. The judge wanted to impose the maximum sentence, given that the victim eventually died of his injuries. However, the two jurors vetoed the hit-and-run charge and overruled the judge. Zhang received a lesser prison sentence of 15 months and was ordered to pay 480,000 yuan in compensation to the victim's family.

The case suggests that jurors may be more kindly disposed to defendants than legal professionals in setting aside strict legal interpretations of the law in favor of a more people-focused approach.

Jurors will soon be seen more often in courts under a pilot program launched at the end of April in the lowest courts and intermediate people's courts in Beijing, Hebei, Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, Fujian, Shandong, Henan, Guangxi, Chongqing and Shaanxi.

The program is aimed at improving the workings of the jury system and justifying court rulings in a society that has seen a rapid increase in legal complaints. It comes after much discussion in the legal profession about how much influence judges should have in court cases.

The Supreme People's Court said it will deliver an interim report to the National People's Congress on the program's progress.

The two-year program is aimed at modifying the existing jury system by encouraging the public to take part in criminal trials, thus helping to increase the credibility of court rulings.

China's jury system - more precisely its system of "people's assessors" - has common roots with civil law systems in countries such as the former Soviet Union and Germany. It is different from that of the United States and Britain because the jurors in China normally sit side by side with a judge, and they are deemed to have the same authority in any rulings.

Since the system in China involves members of the public in the judicial process, the term "jury system" was officially adopted when the system was written into China's first Constitution in 1954. However, specific provisions concerning how a jury works are not written in law books.

The decades-old jury system in China has been questioned because of the common perception that the two jurors could be easily influenced by the trial judge and because the juror selection is not transparent.

Zhou Qiang, president of the Supreme People's Court, said changes must be made to the system, pointing out that one of its shortcomings is that jurors are not selected randomly from the public.

Zhou said courts at all levels should be required to select jurors randomly from all constituents or permanent residents in an administrative area, rather than the present method of choosing from a group of candidates recommended by communities or government organizations. Selected jurors have a five-year tenure.

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