Trials that could lead to a death sentence will be subjected to further openness and transparency in a bid to ensure that the legal system is just.
"First-instance hearings of capital punishment cases must be open," said a circular released by the Supreme People's Court yesterday.
"Courts should eventually carry out public trials for appeal hearings in criminal cases," the document said. "They should also hold more public trials for appeals in civil and administrative cases."
For a variety of reasons, some appeal hearings are not open to the public.
For instance, when it is clear that a verdict was reached via an incorrect application of the law, or that the evidence submitted in the first trial was insufficient, then it is usually considered unnecessary to hold a second public trial.
Though the Criminal Procedural Law, Civil Procedural Law and Administrative Procedural Law have laid out the types of cases that can be tried in public, yesterday's circular was the first specialized document on the subject.
It emphasized the need for timely, open trials in "full scale".
A "full-scale" public trial includes an open hearing, open proof-lodging, open cross-examinations and "public announcement of the judgment".
It also requires the public release of any information contributing to the protection of litigants' rights according to trial requirements.
The country's highest court also called for more in-court announcements of judgments, with fewer mandatory sentences and pronouncements on fixed dates.
Legal experts hailed the new regulations, saying they represented an important step toward ensuring justice, curbing corruption and protecting litigants' rights.
"It will ensure fairness and efficiency and also improve judges' capacities because the public will have more chances to hear about and comment on judgments," Yuan Shuhong, vice-president of the China National School of Administration and an expert in administrative law.
In the new regulations, the Supreme People's Court says citizens can always observe trials as long as they bring proof of identity. Courts should "make necessary explanations if the number of observers is limited in some cases".
Courts are also required to establish an information system to give litigants access to information concerning their cases, and higher courts should publish more judgments in publications, local area networks and the Internet.
Courts are also encouraged to record important hearings and establish audio-visual archives, and litigants can apply to review and copy some materials.
Some courts, such as the Xuzhou Intermediate People's Court in Jiangsu Province, have been opening their proceedings to the public.
Since 2003, all appeals in civil trials, except those solved by out-of-court mediation, said Yue Cailing, a senior official with the Xuzhou Intermediate People's Court.
According to data from 2003 to this May, 67.6 percent of the court's civil trial verdicts were handed down in court.
(China Daily June 15, 2007)