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China's cyber court opens for business; a gavel-free zone?

Focus is to be specifically on online cases

China has just opened a new court that will solely deal with internet-related cases.

Based in Hangzhou – where many large Chinese internet companies are located – the Net Court (Hangzhou Internet Court) will hear cases covering everything from domain names to ecommerce disputes to online defamation.

The court accepts complaints and filings electronically and tries cases via livestreaming. Its first case on Friday was between a novelist and an internet company that offered her novel to subscribers without gaining copyright permissions. It took about 30 minutes and everything was carried out online, with the public able to watch a video feed of proceedings.

A pilot of the court was run earlier this year in Zhejiang and seemingly proved so popular and successful that Hangzhou launched its own version. The number of lawsuits over ecommerce has rocketed in recent years, leading to concerns that the legal system will be swamped if a more modern approach to physical courts wasn't introduced.

"The internet court breaks geographic boundaries and greatly saves time in traditional hearings," said its vice president Wang Jiangqiao.

Although the approach is novel, the court still operates in the exact same way as physical court and follows the same laws, although over time the expectation is that the court will build significant expertise in online issues and so provide both faster and more consistent internet law judgments.

Those wishing to file a complaint first need to register an account with the court and then verify their identity through the online payment service of online marketplace Alibaba (called Alipay). The court audio and video and any evidence presented is encrypted and accessible to both parties online (that service is also provided by Alibaba). Notifications and judgments are sent via email.


China may be the first to run active cases through a cyber court, but other jurisdictions are looking at the same approach. Canada has an online tribunal for small claims and the UK has run several pilots of online court in the past year in Liverpool, Leeds and Kingston-upon-Thames as part of a broader effort to transform and update the legal system – although in those cases the main factor was that the court allowed witnesses to pre-record their testimony rather than having to appear in person and give live testimony in court: something that most people find intimidating.

The UK has also experimented with allowing fines for fare dodging and traffic penalties to be done online. In those cases, defendants can log into the system, see the penalty, and then decide whether to accept it and pay it, or dispute it. ®


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