The Chinese leadership has responded to the growing load of online-shopping related disputes by setting up a special type of court: The Internet Courts (互联网法院) not only specialize in issues brought about through the internet, but also conduct the entire proceedings online.
Since 2017, the Internet Courts in Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Beijing enable litigants to file a claim, attend the hearing, and receive the judgment all without needing to go to a court (check out the pioneer among them, the Hangzhou Internet Court, here). These digital courtrooms may be frequented for certain administrative and civil cases, such as lawsuits regarding sales contracts, including product liability matters, services and loans.
In his recent analysis, Max Planck Institute’s Benjamin Knut Pißler finds the Internet Courts to be a useful new tool in the hands of consumers to secure their rights. This new type of court, which ist likely to be replicated in several other cities in China in the near future, constitute the latest innovation in a rather young field of law in China with surging importance: costumer rights protection. As an addition to the legal mechanisms developed in the past decades, namely the individual actions, representative actions and public interest litigation, the Internet Courts appear to make lawsuits more accessible for the general public, “File a law suit in only 5 minutes”, as the Hangzhou Court advertises on its website.
However, in his analysis recently published in the German Journal of Chinese Law (article in German), Pißler also identifies fundamental problems. “There are some indications that defendants can avoid the proceedings relatively easily,” he points out, as it is unclear what the consequences are if the defendant does not act upon receiving the electronically transmitted notification that he or she has been sued. The relevant regulations laid down by the Supreme People’s Court leave several questions unanswered, and it remains to be seen whether for example a legal duty to regularly check emails and text messages will arise due to the fact that the Internet Courts rely on such communication channels instead of traditional mail.
Further, it is found that the courts are the result of a decision of the Communist Party and a judicial interpretation of the Supreme People’s Court and thus not created in line with the official procedures for founding courts, including a relevant motion on the part of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
Apart from their regular judicial adjudication work however, the Internet Courts also provide a field for experimentation with new technologies in court proceedings. As innovative institutions outside of the judicial bureaucracy of traditional courts, the Internet Courts could become the arena where the application of artificial intelligence in court decisions, which is vigorously researched in China, may find a testing zone, Pißler indicates.
Read Benjamin Knut Pißler’s Paper here (in German).