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China’s extraordinary Digital Courts: future of the law?

A SERIES OF QUIET innovations has led to the creation of an extraordinary milestone: the world’s first true Digital Court system.

You file a lawsuit, fill in the forms, present evidence, and get the legal ball rolling – and then get out of bed, because you are still in your pyjamas.

Anxious to do away with the slow and expensive rituals of the traditional methods of solving legal disputes, China has created a virtual legal system that gives citizens access to the courts through their smartphones and computers. It’s open weekdays and weekends, and runs 24 hours a day.

To be clear about this, we’re not talking about the simple digitization of court records, or the occasional use of video technology – we’re talking about a system in which a full case can be handled without the participants having to put on their best clothes and go and sit in a court room.


What’s the secret? And how on earth can you stop it being used by hackers for corrupt purposes?

China’s legal supremos have linked up with the top tech brains at Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent, among the world’s biggest tech companies, and put in blockchain technology to establish the authenticity of evidence.

Facial recognition technology is used to make sure the right people are talking to the right people.

And the same world class systems of security checks that ensure hackers aren’t scamming the world biggest commercial websites are keeping manipulators out of the Digital Court.

It’s an extraordinary achievement that is being looked at with interest by state level legal chiefs around the world. “Many of these programs have garnered praise both at home and abroad, including in the West, for increasing judicial transparency through better data collection and decreasing the cost of litigation,” said a study by the US thinktank the Brookings Institute.

A massive, complex, fast-growing society, the Chinese want to avoid the creation of a long, slow, expensive legal system. Photo of Shanghai by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash


But first, we need to deal with the elephant in the room. There’s widespread belief (for example from a UK Guardian journalist as recently as January of this year) that there is no legal system in China. The country is a terrifying dystopian surveillance state where people who commit thought crimes are put into a court system in which every accused is found guilty and then quietly “disappeared” for ever. This cartoon vision of China has been debunked dozens of times, but it is so pervasive that it remains the current belief among a stunning number of people.

If “China as a lawless commie dystopia” is your set-in-stone vision of the country, stop reading now.

For people interested in the facts, the story is a fascinating one.


China has had a complex legal system for millennia, which has vacillated from the soft, family style judgment systems favored by Confucius to the strict legalism of the State of Qin in 200 BC. But times pass. After the hugely disruptive political upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s, the legal systems took several years to settle down and start to develop into a more modern working system. In the past 30 years, China has created strong rule-of-law based legal systems which include multiple elements from around the world: for example, the country has a strong legal aid sector to help poor complainants. (Many comment that it is more generous than the one the British left in Hong Kong, for example.)


Technology’s march into today’s Chinese legal sector has really taken off in the past decade. In 2010, the Supreme People’s Court started requiring all courts at all levels to make full-time audio and video recordings of trials – it was obvious that a video would be more accurate then notes taken down by clerks writing down speech. In 2017, a revision called on courts to use intelligent speech recognition systems where possible.

At about the same time, much wider digitized court systems were implemented to deal with online disputes. The idea was logical enough. If there was a fall out between two parties in an online transaction, then there should be an online court where both sides could tell their stories and a resolution achieved.

This worked well and has started to spread into other areas of the law, with the energy coming from the government and the techies rather than from the legal sector. The use of the blockchain for encryption and storage was adopted by the Supreme People’s Court in 2018 as a way of confirming the trustworthiness of filed documents.

Hangzhou became the test bed for the online court system. Photo by Stewart Edward on Unsplash


The first real digital court, where key functions were on the Internet, went into operation in Hangzhou in 2017.  A popular tourist city in the east of the country, Hangzhou was also a favorite location for major Chinese technology companies.

In less than a year, more than one million ordinary citizens and 73,000 legal sector workers were registered on the system, and more than three million “legal activities” took place on line.

Initial moves developed into the “Smart Courts Initiative” which led to fully virtual “internet courts” that anyone with a smart phone could access. A large central data center is the backbone of the system – in the same way that a library of law books powers the justice system elsewhere.


The size of China helps. The systems were soon collecting so much data, that it was easy to check consistency in sentencing. If a judge makes a bizarre or obviously unfair decision, the system itself will highlight it, so that other judges can set it right.

Chatbots were installed so that people with different queries would be clustered into the correct groups before they communicated with humans. Facial recognition was installed so that mistakes were not made in a multi-hearing process.

What guarantees that the outcome will be fair? Can’t a corrupt individual simply hire a hacker to rewrite the evidence to suit themselves? That was a fair point – and why judges have been working with groups such as Ant Financial to use blockchain technology. This system guarantees safety by making all alterations known to all participants. The blockchain “distributed ledger” system has been widely tested in numerous applications worldwide, most famously in crypto currency,


Scholar George Zheng of Cambridge University in the UK believes the Chinese government is backing the move into the digital realm to streamline systems, cut costs, and of course ensure it contains ultimate control.

This can sound like a rather “dark” threat to supporters of the dystopia theory, but a more generous view would be that the ruling elite believe that the government and the legal sector should recognize each other’s strengths without drifting into adversarial positions. Think “Singapore” rather than “Black Mirror”.

China is developing a legal aid system to ensure access to the law. Photo by Nate Landy/ Unsplash.


Obviously there are other technology-related dangers here – the whole nature of legal disputes are about overlaps and grey areas. Humans can handle “fuzzy” concepts but machine brains can only deal with right and wrong, nothing in between.

The key to resolving this problem has been to use technology as a tool and keep humans in the mix. “Courts around China are creating expert systems to encode judges’ knowledge,” Zheng says. “Like-cases recommendation systems automatically push forward similar cases to the judges pondering over a particular case. E-filing, e-discovery, and online trial have become commonplace.”

Organizers realized that technology made a bad master but a very good servant. “The ideal is to allow judges more freedom to fulfil their essential role, namely judging,” Zheng said.


There are, of course, still downsides. The poorest of the poor won’t have access to technology, although a focus on poverty alleviating means that their numbers are dropping—as is the price of smartphone handsets, most of which are made in China.

The “grey area” problem, as mentioned above, remains a sticking point for some. Lawsuits can be emotional, and filling in a form isn’t the same as telling your story to a human being. Yet users of the system agree that talking to a chat bot instantly and getting your case underway is actually preferable to waiting weeks or months for a human listener who may be as unsympathetic as any robot. And no one wants to go the way of India, where a lawsuit can literally take decades to resolve.

Most of the world’s smartphones are made in China, and are relatively cheap. Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash


Critics will point out that China’s leadership remains “above the law” and argues that that fact alone invalidates the system. The trouble is, of course, that the leadership is above the law in multiple systems across the world. British Hong Kong is a good example in this part of the world. Britain’s governors were white males, and so their immunity to law was seen as no issue, and certainly not one that invalidated the system. In the US, Donald Trump gleefully pointed out that he can simply pardon himself.

China is a sprawling, developing country and far from perfect, but there is plenty of evidence that ensuring that real justice is done is a high priority for the government. Party officials, billionaires and other members of the elite are regularly arrested, jailed, and even executed.

Chongqing metro system: Chinese are early adopters of technology. Photo by 偉宗 勞 on Unsplash


But this doesn’t mean that robot judges are already presiding over murder cases.  At the moment, the use of digital courts remain more common for disputes in the digital realm – so that would include copyright claims, product liability issues, and so on. And these happen more in big tech-friendly cities, like Beijing, Hangzhou and Guangzhou than in smaller places.

But other more general claims are also being handled online. An online friend of the present writer had his dispute with a gym club in Shanghai handled entirely over the internet, and courts in second and third tier cities are also using online dispute resolution systems.


The number of digital cases is growing fast. The blockchain-backed legal software set up by Ant Financial and used by the Hangzhou Internet Court for online disputes has seen more than two billion transactions.

What about outside China? Will China’s digital court system work so well that it will spread to other countries? The jury’s out on that one, but the odds for a positive outcome are looking not bad at all.

Verdict: Interesting.

Image at the top by Wilson Fang/ Unsplash

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