BEIJING, Oct. 22 -- Magistrates took part in 71.7 percent of first trials in China in the first seven months of the year, according to Zhou Qiang, China's chief justice, here Tuesday.
The ratio last year was 62.9 percent, a notable increase from 19.7 percent in 2006, said Zhou, delivering a report on the magisterial system at the ongoing bi-monthly session of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's top legislature.
In Chinese courts, a magistrate exercises the same power as a judge but not the chief trial judge. They form at least one third of a collegial panel.
Magistrates are ordinary citizens, aged over 23, and perform the duty part-time.
China has about 87,000 magistrates, 55 percent more than in 2006, Zhou said, adding that the number is equal to half the number of judges in local courts. Since 2005, magistrates have heard 6.28 million cases, among which 1.76 million were criminal.
Most magistrates are experienced citizens and distinguished members of their communities. They are very helpful in mediation and settling disputes, Zhou said. Magistrates also contribute their expertise in cases like intellectual property rights and those involving minors. Courts are inviting magistrates to hear controversial cases to increase transparency and credibility.
Magistrates were included in several high-profile trials this year, such as that of Zhou Xijun, sentenced to death in May for strangling an infant he found in the back seat of an SUV that he had stolen in Changchun, capital of northeast China's Jilin Province.
Despite an increase in the number of magistrates, there are far from enough of them. As the law requires them to have at least a degree from a community college; many rural residents and blue-collar workers do not meet the requirement. Courts have difficulty recruiting in rural areas and are unable to utilize as many social backgrounds as they would like. Many local courts do not have enough money to support magistrates' work. Although magistrates are not paid a salary, they usually receive subsidies to cover transportation and loss of income, Zhou said.
The Supreme Court plans to increase the pool to 200,000 in next two or three years and raise the number of magistrates from the grass-roots to a minimum of two thirds of the total, Zhou said. "We are considering lowering the academic requirements so that more common citizens can join the magisterial' ranks".
The Supreme Court is amending a judicial explanation of the magistrate system and will start a pilot program of reform at city and lower level courts in ten provinces and municipalities.