Beijing Municipal Higher Peoples' Court, where Chen Te had worked for 14 years. More than 500 judges quit their job in courts at various levels in Beijing from 2010 to 2014. Photo from Internet
Standing at the gate of Beijing Municipal Higher Peoples' Court, Chen Te gave a last glance at his workplace of 14 years. His former colleagues were still working overtime in their offices, as he had often done.
Chen quit as a judge in April because he felt his professional potential was unfulfilled. The 40-year-old was once a rising star in Beijing's legal community, with his research programs recognized as top-class.
The Supreme People's Court (SPC) invited him to help write judicial interpretations of traffic and medical lawsuits, an honor that made him feel part of the country's legal progress. "My views were adopted as part of the understanding of the law," he recalls.
Chen had been hoping to sit on the country's highest judicial body, but the SPC never opened that far to him. Chen gradually realized he wouldn't fulfill his professional ambitions on the bench. He decided to become a lawyer.
Chen is part of a growing exodus of judges and prosecutors from the judicial system.
Mu Ping, president of the Beijing Municipal Higher Peoples' Court, says more than 500 judges quit from 2010 to 2014, and the number is growing.
Shenzhen's intermediate and local people's courts lost 15.5 percent of their judges from 2009 to 2013, and Shanghai saw more than 300 judges resign in the same period. In 2014, Shanghai's courts saw 86 judges leave, followed by 18 more in first quarter of 2015.
The judiciary is losing its luster for law graduates. Last year, fewer applicants took the judicial and procuratorate recruitment examinations in east China's Zhejiang and Fujian provinces.
This year, some local courts and procuratorates in at least eight provinces have canceled the recruiting examinations due to a lack of applicants, according to Southern Metropolis Daily.
While the brain drain continues, China's leaders are striving to advance the rule of law, a key aspect of deepening reforms and rejuvenating the country.
Since the fourth plenary session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in October 2014, China has embarked on a series of reforms to improve judicial justice and credibility, including prioritizing trials in litigation procedures, building a lifelong responsibility system for judges to prevent miscarriages of justice, and improving jury and public supervision.
China's Supreme People's Court set up a circuit court in Shenyang, capital of the northeastern Liaoning Province in Jan. 31, 2015. Photo from takungpao.com
New judicial organs have been established. The SPC has set up three intellectual property rights courts in late 2014 and inaugurated two circuit courts in Shenzhen City, south China's Guangdong Province, and Shenyang City, capital of the northeastern Liaoning Province, this year.
However, the low pay and mounting workloads are driving professionals from the legal system to law firms.
A recruitment ad by Shangge Partners, a Beijing-based law firm, welcomed judges with court experience of at least five years. As well as a starting income of 20,000 yuan (about 3,220 U.S. dollars) a month – almost triple the earnings of the Beijing judge with similar experience – it also offers bonuses such as a car or a deposit on an apartment in that city.
The firm has received dozens of resumes and already hired two former judges. "Most of the judges contacting us are in their 30s, quite experienced," says a personnel executive from Shangge.
An assistant judge of three to five years experience in a local court is paid about 2,000 yuan (about 322 U.S. dollars) per month. In less developed regions, a chief judge in an intermediate court with 10 years of experience can earn only 4,000 yuan a month.
The latest judicial reform has recommended pay rises to bridge the gap between the judges and lawyers.
But even that could fail to compensate for the rising caseloads of judges, especially in local people's courts.
SPC Chief Justice Zhou Qiang revealed in the court's 2015 work report that in some developed regions, local court judges deal with more than 300 cases a year – more than one each working day.
A reform that came into effect on May 1 ended a review system that allowed a judge to review a case and decide whether to allow it into the court system.
Under the new registration system, the court has to immediately register cases filed with legitimate formalities, or it must give a written request for the litigant to re-file the case or issue a written rejection stating the reasons for rejection.
The day it took effect, Shenzhen's Futian District People's Court registered 234 cases, up from 99 cases the day before.
The rising pressure is the last straw for many local court judges who suffer disrespect in the courtroom too.
It's not about money, says former judge Zhang Wei, who quit in June last year after 16 years on the bench in Beijing.
Becoming a judge had been Zhang's ambition before he passed the qualification examination. The robes, the gavel, and solemn atmosphere in the court made him proud.
Zhang Wei (center) used to be very proud as a judge. The photo shot in July 2011 shows a litigant sent him a silk banner praising Zhang's impartiality. Photo from Beijing Youth Daily
But his professional esteem was undermined by increasing disrespect from some litigants. Zhang and his colleagues were yelled at, and sometimes threatened, by dissatisfied litigants who claimed to be unfairly treated. The court did little to prevent the harassment.
Days before his resignation, Zhang refused to accept a lawsuit due to lack of evidence. The elderly man who filed the case rushed into the court, shouting at him and smashing his gavel and his esteem as a judge.
"Working extra hours on low pay doesn't bother me, as long as it is for the law and justice," says Yang Tianbao, a prosecutor of 10 years in a district procuratorate in Chengdu, capital of southwest China's Sichuan Province.
What does bother him are the extra duties demanded of all civil servants, including judges and prosecutors.
Several times a year, Yang and his colleagues and judges are required to join other civil servants to clean the streets and pick up cigarette butts for the city's hygiene campaign.
Yang is not alone, as their peers in other cities, Beijing for example, also take part in hygiene campaign, or even keep order at train stations during the Spring Festival travel rush, according to Beijing Evening News.
The latest reform encourages experienced lawyers and legal researchers to take up posts on the bench. As the judicial system improves, it is hoped judges and prosecutors might be more desirable careers.
Yang still believes being a judge or prosecutor is a good option for law graduates. "Compared with private practice, the job is stable and easy to enter. Young graduates can acquire experience, and find a better job when the time comes."