Professor Benjamin Liebman Leads Discussion on China’s Legal System

Chinese Legal System Making Tenuous Progress Toward Reforms, Says Professor Benjamin Liebman

The Chinese legal system has made great strides in reforming its practices and striving for fairness, but judges remain fearful of angering Communist party leaders, Professor Benjamin Liebman told a gathering at Columbia Law School’s Reunion 2011 celebration.

During a June 11 session at the Waldorf=Astoria, Liebman, director of the Law School’s Center for Chinese Legal Studies, spoke to members of the Class of 1961 celebrating their 50th reunion.

“The quality of the Chinese legal infrastructure continues to improve,” said Liebman, who was also named the Robert L. Lieff Professor of Law at the reunion. “The Chinese system is full of well-trained people working very hard to improve it.”

Liebman said in recent years China has also done a “pretty serious job” in limiting the use of capital punishment and is beginning to curb the use of torture by police. In addition, Liebman noted there are now numerous public interest law groups working on a range of topics, from migrant worker rights to environmental law. Virtually none existed as recently as 15 years ago.

There has also been greater transparency about what goes on in the courts, with the advent of most decisions being published online, Liebman said, adding, “It’s much harder to cover up bad decisions today than it was a few years ago.”

At the same time, Liebman cautioned that at the top levels of the ruling Communist Party, there is still wariness about giving the courts and lawyers greater latitude. “Courts remain unable to resist external pressures from both the government and the media,” he said.

Liebman, who has extensively studied how Chinese courts handle torts cases, noted that “people protest decisions, and the fact that there are protests is taken as evidence the courts are doing something wrong.”

As a result, Liebman said, “party officials intervene and tell courts to adjust outcomes and make the protests go away.”

Because of the perception that courts can effectively be intimidated into ruling a certain way, Liebman observed that it’s not surprising that many party leaders are eager to keep judges on a tight leash.

“Officials at the national and political level are still wary about the development of autonomous legal institutions,” Liebman said.

China minted 50,000 new lawyers last year, and Liebman said there are “big constituencies pressing for legal reform.”

Nonetheless, Liebman added those constituencies are running up against a party structure whose top priority is to remain in power. “There is real tension that underlies current reforms,” he said. “China is attempting to create a system of authoritarian justice that I think is unprecedented.”