Does Procedural Justice Matter? Litigants' Evaluation of Chinese Civil Justice

程序正義重要嗎? -- 訴訟當事人對中國民事審判的評判

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date19 Sep 2017


Primarily based on in-depth interviews with court users (including a survey) in a basic level court in Guangdong, China, this dissertation offers comprehensive insight into litigants’ attitudes toward civil justice. Contrary to the widely held view that procedural justice is powerful and independent in shaping court users’ views of the legal system, procedural justice was found in this study to be insignificant. Most of the litigants in this study were impatient with the topic of procedural justice; to them, procedural justice held no inherent value, and was merely a means to realize distributive justice. In addition, procedural justice failed to act as a cushion of support—meaning, it did not alleviate the negative emotions that resulted from litigants’ unfavorable outcomes. It also did not erode the positive emotions that resulted from favorable outcomes.

My statistical analysis, which casts further doubt on the Western procedural justice theory, echoes the findings. Because it is heavily intertwined with either outcomes or distributive justice, procedural justice does not act independently. More important, it contributes little to the variance in attitudes after controlling for outcomes, thus it fails to act as a cushion of support. Ostensibly, the standard procedural justice is empirically invalid in the Chinese context. Unfair procedure is not the primary source of the litigants’ discontent.

Why then, are the litigants dissatisfied or satisfied with the court? The litigants’ views are dominated by distributive justice and outcomes: winners are more likely satisfied while losers are more likely dissatisfied. The litigants’ case outcomes explained almost 80% of the variance in their attitudes. I further explore the components of the civil proceedings towards which the litigants are unsatisfied. They link the case outcomes and distributive justice to three elements: facts that they perceived, judges who they believed should have collected all of the evidence, and morality that they believed should have been applied. Their dissatisfaction is derived from the tensions between perceived facts and legal facts, paternalistic judges and neutral arbitrators, and moral rules and legal rules.

This dissertation, therefore, provides valuable insight into the litigants’ views of the court system. This not only explains why the level of dissatisfaction toward court decisions in China is high, but also suggests that the theory of procedural justice may have its limits.