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Tuesday, May 02, 2017, 18:16
Judicial assessment industry faces major shakeup
By Cao Yin
Tuesday, May 02, 2017, 18:16 By Cao Yin

Exorbitant fees and poor standards will be eradicated in a bid to improve the services offered by private verification institutes. Cao Yin reports.

An employee assesses samples at an authentication institute in Beijing. (Photo by Wang Zhuangfei / China Daily)

Third-party judicial appraisal institutes face strict new regulations after a businessman sparked a social media storm by posting details of the sky-high fee he was charged for verification of evidence required for a court case.

"I was shocked when I was told it would cost more than 170,000 yuan (US$24,630) to verify a signature, a fingerprint and two company stamps for a civil case," He Xianxiang said.

In China, privately operated third-party appraisal institutes are often employed by litigants in civil cases to assess the authenticity of documents - including handwriting, official seals and fingerprints - and submit reports to courts as evidence.

The 47-year-old entrepreneur, who runs several companies in Sichuan province, refused to pay the fee, and with the help of his lawyer, Wang Wanqiong, he posted the story on social media.

When contacted by China Daily, the institute declined to discuss the dispute, which is ongoing.

He's post not only triggered public outrage, but also attracted the attention of the Ministry of Justice, the country's top authority on the management of expert testimony provided by private institutes.

In March, during the two sessions, the meetings of China's most-important legal and political bodies, Zhang Jun, the minister of justice, pledged to overhaul the industry.

Zhang confirmed that some private institutes overcharge clients and many are poorly managed. He said those factors have prompted the authorities to strengthen supervision and raise qualification thresholds for expert witnesses who testify in courts.

"We're building a unified system to manage the industry, and plan to establish an association to ensure the quality of appraisals and improve discipline within the sector," he said.

Lack of legality

Wang, He's lawyer, praised the minister's response and called for greater regulation of the industry. She added that the 170,000 yuan appraisal fee was based on a price standard issued by the ministry in 2009, but abolished last year.

Though the ministry ordered appraisal institutes nationwide to release new price standards before May last year, 17 regions and provinces, including Sichuan, have yet to comply, according to Wang: "In other words, there is no legal basis for their work at present."

The institute's original fee was much higher than 170,000 yuan, according to He: "At first, I was asked to pay 230,000 yuan. That's crazy. I never thought authenticating my fingerprint, signature and two stamps would be so troublesome."

Appraisal fees are often calculated according to the amount of money involved in a civil case, but sometimes the number of documents that require verification is also used as a basis, he added.

Wang said: "Irrespective of how the fee was calculated, there was no cap."

Last month, the ministry responded, and regions without price standards were ordered to formuate new ones and set price ceilings before June.

The size of the fee led He to conduct his own research into pricing. He discovered that in Beijing and Shanghai - which have unveiled new price standards - he would have been charged no more than 70,000 yuan.

"I'm waiting for the new price standard in Sichuan. I'm hoping it will bring good news," he said.

An assessor checks the validity of company seals at a center in Nanjing, Jiangsu province. (Photo by Wang Chengbing / for China Daily)

Uneven quality

The ministry said that in addition to clamping down on high fees, it has prioritized improvements in the quality of work carried out by third-party appraisal institutes.

By the end of last year, 4,872 institutes and 54,198 assessors - who provide verification of materials related to medical checks, documents, voice traces and environmental damage - had registered with the ministry.

Private institutes conducted more than 2.13 million assessments last year, but not all of them were qualified to do so.

"Every year, we discover about 3,000 or 4,000 unqualified assessors and close hundreds of unqualified institutes," Zhang, the minister, said. He added that last year, 132 were closed and removed from industry lists, while about 4,400 assessors were banned from working in the industry.

"The large number of closures and removals has alerted us that our supervision is still not good enough," he said.

Luo Yaping, a professor at the People's Public Security University of China, said the sector is chaotic, and some of the verification methods used by private appraisal centers require urgent regulation.

For example, people can take a DNA test if they become involved in a civil dispute, she said: "However, there are different views on the identification of DNA, which often results in confusion. A unified DNA verification system would ensure the quality of appraisals and contribute to the industry's development."

Disordered evaluations

Luo suggested the ministry should strengthen annual supervision of private appraisal institutes and improve the qualification threshold for assessors.

At present, assessors are only required to have a relevant qualification, such as a degree in medicine or biology. "After that, the process of evaluation and examination is not good enough", she said.

"Stricter entry exams, more checks of facilities in private institutes and regular training for assessors are required."

She added that those measures were adopted long ago in expert testimony departments operated by the public security authorities.

Last year, the authorities in Beijing raised the number of random evaluations and examinations for assessors, and also built a database containing 1,083 examples and scenarios to help assessors become more familiar with the skills required to provide verification.

The justice ministry also provided training for more than 6,000 forensics officers from private appraisal institutes across the country.

Chen Shuangxiang, a 54yearold document assessor.

Stricter regulation is urgently needed

After graduating from college in 1985, I started work in the evidence identification department of the Public Security Bureau in Jinhua, Zhejiang province.

I really loved the work, which is why I decided to take a job with a third-party judicial appraisal institute in the province when I retired in 2014.

My hours are 8:30 am to 5 pm every weekday, but most of the time, I don't get home on time, especially if I accept an important case or if the evidence is hard to verify.

My job is to assess evidence related to documents, such as whether two samples of handwriting are by the same person, and distinguishing real signatures from false ones.

The work is important because it can make or break a case. Sometimes, it is the strongest evidence in a litigant's favor.

I once dealt with a case in which a man refused to return 100,000 yuan ($14,500) he had borrowed because the contract didn't have a signature or details of the amount loaned. When we scrutinized the document with high-precision equipment, my colleagues and I realized the man had used a pen with special ink that evaporated and left no visible signs.

As a result of our work, he was ordered to repay the money.

At times like that, when my efforts help to solve a dispute, I feel a great sense of achievement and forget all the difficulties, such as how much time and energy I have expended and the piles of materials I have reviewed.

I don't deny that there are problems in the profession, including the wide fluctuation in fees across the country and unregulated methods of assessment.

I agree with plans to regulate the industry. It's imperative that we improve the accuracy of the equipment we use so assessors can play a bigger role in solving court cases.

Chen Shuangxiang spoke with Cao Yin.

Pan Haojie, 34, a DNA identification officer.

Challenging, but valuable work

I majored in biology at Northwest University in Shaanxi province, but after graduation I worked as a manager at a pharmaceutical company for about 10 years.

In 2013, I was invited to join the Chain Forensic Science Department in Zhejiang province. I accepted because I was passionate about evidence identification and I wanted to use my knowledge of biology to help people in trouble.

My job mainly involves verifying DNA samples and detecting poisons. I have witnessed numerous cases in which parents have found a missing child thanks to our DNA identification. I always appreciate their thanks and the sense of achievement my work provides.

Despite that, there have been some challenging moments. For example, at the end of last year, I accepted a case that involved a hit-and-run accident.

I was unable to find any evidence at the scene until I discovered some of the driver's DNA on a small gas container that had been in the car when the accident occurred.

The man's DNA was already on police files, so, as a result of my discovery, he was identified and the case was solved quickly.

I also remember a farmer who asked for my help when police refused to act after several of his cows died unexpectedly.

My investigation proved they had not died of natural causes, but had been poisoned with arsenic.

The death of livestock causes large economic losses for farmers, which was why I made every effort to help him. After my discovery, the police began an investigation and identified the man responsible. It's very satisfying when my discoveries help investigators to uncover the truth.

Although I enjoy my work, I often have concerns about the profession, such as the extremely high fees charged in Sichuan province. Currently, the fees in some regions are calculated in line with the amount of compensation a person has applied for.

I don't think that's reasonable. Many civil disputes involve millions or even billions of yuan, so is it appropriate for verification fees to soar without limit?

I don't think so. I believe a price ceiling should be established as soon as possible.

Also, we need to establish a national qualification standard for employees of judicial appraisal institutes, and we must raise the quality threshold for expert witnesses in court cases.

Pan Haoji spoke with Cao Yin

Businessman claims personal details were falsified

He Xianxiang has become a well-known figure on Chinese social media since he posted details of the 170,000 yuan (US$24,630) fee he was charged for expert testimony in a civil dispute.

In 2015, the 47-year-old Yunnan province native was informed he was in breach of contract and was being sued at Chengdu Intermediate People's Court in Sichuan province.

He claims that when he reviewed the documents the court had sent, he realized his personal details had been falsified. "When I looked at the contract that accompanied the letter, I knew immediately that the signature, stamps and fingerprints had been forged. They were not mine," he said.

In 2012, He started an energy company with three colleagues in Sichuan. As a sleeping partner, He held 30 percent of the shares and did not participate in the company's management.

Later, one of the other shareholders told He the business was seeking funds because it was attempting to purchase another company.

In August 2013, He was told a bank loan had been arranged and his agreement was required. "At the time, I was in Yunnan, so a bank official visited and asked me to sign a contract agreeing to the loan," He said. "As a businessman, I knew it was not unusual and there was no problem with the procedure, so I provided my signature, seals and fingerprint," he said.

In 2014, He sold his shares and quit the company. However, he later received a letter from the court informing him that he was being sued for failing to comply with a clause in the contract that guaranted repayment of the loan.

According to He, the contract was not the one he had signed two years before, but under Chinese civil law, he is obliged to prove he didn't sign it, so he decided to employ independent assessors to verify that his details had been falsified.

That was the beginning of his ongoing dispute with the third-party institute.

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