Dodging Decisions:  Avoiding Responsibility in Chinese Courts

by Professor Benjamin L. Liebman

Date: November 14, 2019 (Thursday)
Time: 1:30pm – 2:30pm
Venue: A824, 8/F, Cheng Yu Tung Tower, Centennial Campus, HKU
Language: English


This talk examines how Chinese courts, in particular trial courts, avoid making decisions in contentious cases and diffuse responsibility for decisions they do make.  We argue that judicial avoidance is a key element of the institutional design of China’s courts, one that is often overlooked by scholarship that focuses on how judges assert or expand their authority.  We use computational tools to examine four different types of judicial avoidance in administrative cases:  hot potato rules, door slamming, kicking it upstairs, and safety in numbers.   Although all four techniques are used to avoid cases that may result in unrest, particularly in land disputes, we also highlight differences among the strategies.  We suggest that judges refer cases to adjudication committees to avoid pressure from local governments.  In contrast, judges enlist large panels to avoid pressure from litigants, particularly in cases with large numbers of plaintiffs.  We also show how courts adapt to new legal rules to devise new ways to avoid responsibility, by shifting the reason they give for rejecting case filings.  We argue that avoidance continues to be a key element of judicial behavior even after reforms designed to make it easier to bring administrative cases to court.

About the Speaker:

Benjamin L. Liebman is the Robert L. Lieff Professor of Law and director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies at Columbia Law School. His research focuses on Chinese courts, Chinese tort law, Chinese criminal procedure, and the impact of popular opinion and populism on the Chinese legal system. His recent publications include “Regulating the Visible Hand: The Institutional Implications of Chinese State Capitalism,” (with Curtis J. Milhaupt), Oxford University Press, 2015, and “Leniency in Chinese Criminal Law: Everyday Justice in Henan,” Berkeley Journal of International Law, 2015. Prior to joining the Law School’s faculty in 2002, Liebman was an associate in the London and Beijing offices of Sullivan & Cromwell. He also previously served as a law clerk to Justice David Souter and to Judge Sandra Lynch of the First Circuit. He is a graduate of Yale University, the University of Oxford, and Harvard Law School.

Please register HERE to reserve a place.

For enquiries: please contact Ms. Shelby Chan (


Centre for Chinese Law
Faculty of Law, The University of Hong Kong
10/F, Cheng Yu Tung Tower
Centennial Campus
Pokfulam Road
Hong Kong

Tel : +(852) 3917 4267    

Fax : +(852) 2549 8495

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