But many express concerns over use of Wechat and other social media platforms to speed up trials
Over the years, Wang Yangwei has often had to spend an entire day waiting at Beijing Haidian District People’s Court to file a single case.
However, one day in December, the lawyer stayed in his office and filed more than 10 lawsuits in just one hour.
“The quicker process is due to the court’s WeChat platform. I was surprised to be notified the very next day that every case had been accepted. It was amazingly efficient,” he said.
“I use WeChat every day, but I never thought I would be able to use it to file cases.”
The court opened the platform on December 25, and so far 84 cases, mostly civil, commercial or related to verdict enforcements, have been filed through it. On January 19, the platform was extended to all the courts in the capital.
The new system saves time for both judges and litigants, according to Zhang Zhifu, deputy chief judge of the court’s case-filing department.
“Filing a case via a smartphone is just the first step; the ability to hear cases on WeChat is also on the horizon,” he added.
The platform has also impressed Wu Fei, creator of Faxiansheng, or “Mr Law”, a smartphone app that provides supplementary legal materials such as interpretations of rulings and explanations of various laws.
“The era of mobile or handheld courts is approaching,” he said, adding that the WeChat platform is a pointer to things to come.
Wu said he is optimistic about the possibility of conducting trials in Beijing via smartphone app, and cited the rising number of legal procedures, including case filing, being put online. He noted that China’s first Internet court, which provides a limited service in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, is exploring new ways of providing legal assistance via social media and the Internet.
However, some legal professionals have expressed concerns about the justice system’s growing use of apps and online facilities.
“We need to conduct more studies to identify the types of cases suitable to be heard on WeChat and how we could maintain order during online trials,” said Cheng Hu, vice-president of Beijing No 4 Intermediate People’s Court.
He added that issues such as ensuring due respect for the court and public oversight of tribunals via social media should be also taken into consideration.
According to Wang, using WeChat to submit case materials to courts and pay legal fees has liberated him from his old routine.
“The case-filing platform on WeChat leaves me more time to do other work, and I don’t have to worry about traffic jams or long periods spent waiting at the court,” he said.
Zhang said the new platform not only benefits litigants and lawyers, but also improves judges’ efficiency.
“They can review materials and file cases while riding in an elevator or on the way to meetings,” he said.
He estimated that by the end of the year, more than 40 per cent of the cases at his court will be filed via WeChat.
“It’s an innovation in justice,” he said. “If technologies, such as facial recognition, can be developed and updated quickly and efficiently enough, we will see more calls for cases to be conducted via smartphones.”
More than 3,000 kilometres from Beijing, a court in Urumqi, Xingjiang Uighur autonomous region, has occasionally experimented with hearing cases via WeChat during the past two years.
In March 2016, the court spent nearly 50 minutes hearing a case on WeChat in which the main defendant was in Shanghai.
Both parties provided their evidence and case materials, and the dispute was finally concluded via mediation. Despite developments, some observers have expressed doubts that proceedings could be conducted effectively online or via social media.
“Having a hearing on a smartphone seems efficient, but I would hesitate to conduct a case that way,” Wang, the lawyer in Beijing, said.
“When I provide case materials on WeChat, I trust the court because I know it is reliable and it will protect the information, but the courts will need to find ways of confirming litigants’ identities, for example, to ensure they are who they claim to be,” he added.
“Also, what would happen if someone involved in a case suddenly quits during a WeChat trial?”
Cheng, from Beijing No 4 Intermediate People’s Court, voiced similar concerns.
His court uses WeChat’s video system to hear cases brought against government departments in Tianjin relating to breaches of environmental laws.
However, litigants must also attend a court in the northern port city to discuss matters with a judge.
Cheng stressed that the use of technology should not affect the status of courts.
“In all cases, we should uphold the dignity and seriousness of trials. So hearing cases on WeChat would pose problems and we would need to conduct research to solve them,” he said.
Liu Junhai, a professor of law at Renmin University of China, said the move would be a natural development and would benefit the evolution of tech-friendly courts.
But according to Gu Yongzhong, a law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, it would be hard to ensure public supervision and attendance if cases were heard on WeChat because, like other instant-messaging tools, it is primarily a closed platform.
However, Zhang from the court in Haidian, said WeChat conversations could be opened to the wider public. “When they use the platform, judges have easier access to case materials because the details and evidence provided on it are recorded. Also, if the technology were to be improved, netizens would be able to watch proceedings and comment on our performance, which would make our work more transparent,” he said.
He conceded that not all cases could be heard on social media.
For example, he pointed out that judges hearing divorce cases must be able to assess people’s facial expressions, attitudes and manner of speaking to help determine the accuracy of their evidence.
Zhang Qinyuan, a judge at Beijing No 4 Intermediate Court, said: “Filing and hearing cases on WeChat would just be one option for solving disputes. It would all depend on the type of case we were dealing with, and we could not breach procedural laws to accommodate certain cases.”
Wu, creator of “Mr Law”, said unified standards and guidelines must be formulated to regulate the provision of legal services online.
“Many courts are undertaking this work on their own-and that should be encouraged-but it’s time to issue a national standard otherwise the process may become disorganised,” he said.
“After all, problems such as how to provide written judgements online and the types of cases that can be heard on WeChat are constantly emerging, and we urgently need to solve them.”