For years, China's judiciary has struggled to manage its personnel, leading to questions about its professionalism. But Shanghai is now preparing to test pilot a new system that will make hard cuts in order to boost the court's effectiveness.
Sun Xingdong is one of the first people to hold this position since China was founded.
"Judge Assistant" is a title that only came into existence last September, as part of the country's continued efforts to reform the judiciary and its personnel management system.
"Before, I worked as a court clerk. Most of my work was to handle court records and sort files when I wasn't in the courtroom. The biggest difference now is that I can get closer to each case, rather than deal with things that are relatively irrelevant to the cases. Besides, there's more communication between me and the judge which gives me a chance to learn more," Sun said.
Even for veteran judges, the change has clear advantages.
"I used to do a lot of the clerical work by myself, and it consumed my time. But now my assistant will do it for me so that I can spend more time on those difficult cases. It is also helpful for them to have a path toward becoming a judge. Each case is practice for them, and that lays a solid foundation for their future career," Lu Weiwei, judge of Shanghai No.2 Intermediate People’s Court, said.
But removing clerical work from judges' duties isn't the only measure being tested to improve professionalism in Shanghai's courts.
The next anticipated move is known as the quota system.
Shanghai plans to divide its judicial staff into three categories.
Judges and prosecutors, will be limited to 33-percent of all court employees. Assistants to these judges and prosecutors will form 52-percent. And the remaining 15-percent will be administrative staff.
This bold plan will cut the current number of judges by nearly 20-percent. That means that more than 700 people now in the first category will no longer be there after the quota system is implemented. And that has caused concern for both those leaving and staying in their positions
"On average, I close one case per day. Just imagine how many cases I have every year. And the workload is still increasing. My concern is that with the decreased numbers, we might be shorthanded in dealing with cases," Lu said.
But officials in Shanghai's Higher People's Court overseeing the change say the quota system will take into account the needs of each court and their workers.
"The goal of setting up the quota system is to improve the quality of those judicial staff who stay on the frontline. Those chosen to stay will enjoy more independence, better pay and greater responsibilities. We will increase their number of assistants so as to make sure the majority of those people are dealing with cases rather than clerical work. The old system of personnel management needed to be updated because many of the younger talents were being put in wrong positions. The new system of assistants is the right track for them," Guo Weiqing, director of Political Dept., Shanghai Higher People's Court, said.
Sun Xingdong and his fellow judge assistants will be able to apply to be considered for a position in the higher quota category after five years.
The system will be piloted in four local courts. The first allotment of positions will be announced at the end of March..
Reform often requires difficult choices. The quota system demands a reshuffle. It slims down the number of judges and prosecutors, and signals the determination to curb government intervention and promote judicial independence.