Court official leads offline-online transition
It never crossed Zhu Jun's mind that legal proceedings could be conducted online, like chatting on WeChat. All that changed during the city-wide lockdown last year.
Zhu, who is the director of the Enforcement Department of the Putuo District's Primary People's Court, is now spearheading the reform.
Court staff, lawyers, and litigants were locked in or quarantined last year in Shanghai due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Courts could not hear cases, thus delaying hearings and rulings.
Although the city began trialing the online system in 2018, it was somewhat flawed and only available on the court's Intranet.
To ensure its effectiveness, all departments of the courts and at all levels in the city have pushed ahead with the reform.
The 40-year-old Zhu and his colleagues were tasked with gathering suggestions from judges, which were then passed on to the technical staff of the Shanghai High People's Court, and then supervising their implementation.
"During the lockdown, there was information overload on WeChat. Many people voiced suggestions and their opinions. "Programmers were constantly responding, discussing, and even arguing with them," Zhu said.
"My phone had to be connected to the power bank all the time."
Understanding the needs of the judges and making the programmers understand them can be a difficult task.
"Judges don't understand technology, and programmers are not familiar with the legal system," Zhu said. "If they communicated directly, it would be all lost."
Zhu, a technology enthusiast, acted as the mediator. For example, some of the judges did not have a computer at home and were forced to check the case contents on their small phone screen.
Others complained about having to enlarge key evidence numbers. Few others didn't know how to connect a mobile phone to a printer!
Zhu then interacted with the programmers. These seemingly simple operations made people nervous in the early days of platform construction.
"Programmers continued to update the system based on the feedback they received. It led to more chaos, as many judges who were comfortable with the existing system discovered it had changed overnight," Zhu elaborated.
"As a result, communication became extremely important because not every judge from different age groups could use the new system in a short period of time."
When the system was nearly finished, Zhu quickly conducted a tutorial for the judges.
Eventually, it delivered results. According to Zhu, online court trials now account for between 76 and 80 percent of all trials in Putuo's court.
According to Hong Jue, deputy president of Putuo's court, the figure was the highest among the city's basic-level courts in 2022.
Nowadays, litigants can collect and hand over evidence on the online case-handling platform before the trial. They can speak with the judge, and the official can summarize both parties' arguments. The thorough preparation before the hearing resulted in a significant decrease in the rate of adjournments.
"The online system's popularity has greatly reduced the time cost," Zhu said. "Previously, the hearing had to be postponed because the parties had not prepared enough evidence for the trial. Due to the judges' busy schedules, the next hearing had to be rescheduled two or three months later."
Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the rule of law was "the most favorable environment for business."
According to Zhu, the rate of adjournment can reflect judicial efficiency and is also an important indicator in evaluating the World Bank Group's Business Enabling Environment.
Putuo's court began focusing on lowering the rate of adjournments in 2021 to improve the business environment. According to data from the local high court's statistical platform, Zhu and his colleagues can determine the number of court sessions for each case, analyze the reasons for adjournment, and solve problems.
Zhu said Putuo's court's comprehensive strength ranked first in the city's basic-level courts in 2021 and 2022 in the test of the rule of law for the business environment. Market subjects and lawyers' associations also gave it high marks.
As a pilot project to make the online system better, the court in Putuo asked the local high court to deliver pleadings online.
In the old days, printed petitions were delivered through EMS. The entire process of delivery and receipt took almost 10 days.
People can now receive a text message with the petition's web link.
"When a person clicks the link, the judge receives immediate feedback, which greatly improves work efficiency. The judge can then schedule follow-up work as soon as possible," Zhu said.
"Postal delivery is the alternative if the litigant does not check the online document."
The monthly postage costs had also dropped by 50 percent. Their success has influenced other courts to follow suit.
Zhu also organized judges from various departments to visit the innovation park to get an idea of the problems and provide advice to foster a good business environment.