Although the legal gate will allow any dispute to be considered as a possible case, gatekeepers prevent some disputes from becoming cases. Only after passing multiple stages of checks and approval can disputes receive a passport and meet the legal requirements of laws (Bonsignore 2007). By analyzing the case-filing procedure and its practical logic in a county court, this work tentatively uncovers the mode and process of dispute-case transformation and finds that disputes in the life world can be admitted by legal procedure only after a process of dispute formatting. This work also attempts to advance the concept of dispute formatting, which means that disputes brought to courts are filtered (adulterated) and packaged according to legal procedures, before finally meeting the format of legal cases. From the case-filing perspective, this whole procedure that summarizes how disputes are transformed to become legal cases can be called dispute formatting. It includes defining, naming, formalizing, and documenting disputes; it exhibits two stages, including internal filtering and external packaging, and forms the mechanism of “filtering and packaging”.
The meaning of dispute formatting
In the stage of internal filtering, defining a dispute means evaluating whether or not a case can be tried. Legal rules and political and social stability both intervene in this stage and shape the conception of the scope of legal power and the legal system. Dispute formatting also reflects the competition between the special power relationship and the inner logic of legal operations in the practice of law. The case checking process excludes many cases using the logic of political law, by constraining the rights of plaintiffs to appeal. This is also the reason for “case-filing difficulty”. In order to implement the basic strategy of governing the country by law, our country has, since May 1, 2015, pushed forward the new scheme of case registration, which forbids admission conditions other than legal rules. Many illegal policies regarding case filing have been revised or abolished.Footnote 22 However, case registration does not reduce the difficulty of bringing a lawsuit. It only focuses on checking over disputes brought to courts and still emphasizes legal formatting. On the one hand, the new law still emphasizes the conditions of lawsuits in the dispute check process. Courts are required to explain to a plaintiff why a case cannot be tried.Footnote 23 It also stresses that laws should not be ignored because of other factors and that courts should more closely follow the legal requirements to formalize and filter disputes. On the other hand, regarding the complexity of disputes, “Comments on Case Filing” (2015) and “Rules of Case Filing” (2015) both illustrate the types of cases that cannot be admitted,Footnote 24 especially those not considered to be under the domain of the people’s courts. This fact indicates that the new process of case registration does not necessarily mean all disputes can be accepted by the courts. This reform does not refuse case examination by the courts, but in fact asks courts to include the previous hidden procedure of dispute checking within the formal procedure, in order to give plaintiffs enough protection in the case-filing procedure (Xu and Yuanjie 2015).
The naming of a dispute (the case reason) displays the constructed and conceptualized facts and the source of facts obtained from explanations in daily legal practice. The interpretation right is inconsistent with the determination right of case reasons. With the help from the power of language, having a broader set of instances for when certain case reasoning apply can be an important approach to court and dispute management. In local courts, insufficient legal sense, legal knowledge, lawsuit ability, and experience leads to difficulty in identifying and choosing an appropriate case reason. Then case-filing judges’ explanations of case reasons can exert a strong influence on plaintiffs. On the one hand, judges need to provide the necessary guidance and explanations to plaintiffs according to the spirit of “justice for people”. On the other hand, legal practice requires that plaintiffs’ right to bring a lawsuit be respected. In order to meet the format of case reasoning, adjusting case reasons is reflected as follows: plaintiffs advance disputes to courts and ask for legal solutions; but whether or not disputes are suitable for legal solutions or can be tried must be understood within the system of legal concepts and rules. Disputes are converted to cases after being defined and named. To describe this internal-filtering process, this work adopts the analogy of wine filtering and adulteration. After legal filtering and adulteration, disputes are modified to accommodate legal demands.
During the stage of “external packaging”, disputes are formalized, as can be seen in the process of writing the text of the lawsuit, as well as in preparing evidence and identity materials. A lawsuit text that follows the appropriate formula displays a case structure and thus appears as a lawsuit appeal, and even references appropriate legal items. However, the structure of cases sometimes differs from the social facts about a dispute. The key point of writing a lawsuit appeal is to meet the legal requirements of case format. In order to construct daily problems within a professional and abstract legal structure, evidence, which serves as a passport to the legal world, plays an important role. The tension between evidence requested by laws and people’s daily behavioral patterns grows across time. Moreover, the preparation of identity material requires defendants’ information, in order to meet the requirement of case format. It is obvious that a plaintiff must have a lawsuit appeal with evidence and identity materials presented within an appropriate format for a dispute procedure, before the materials can be converted to a case. Disputes that do not meet the conditions of transformation and translation cannot be packaged as cases.
The documentation of disputes is a process through which courts use a series of forms to display disputes in the format appropriate for case files. Among these files, the “Form of Case-filing Approval” includes a case-filing date and a case-filing number, while “Notification of Admission of Cases” confirms plaintiffs’ lawsuit appeals and informs them of their rights and responsibilities. A subpoena and a case arrangement form both mark the trial date of a case. Through the packaging that occurs with the arrangement form, each dispute has a corresponding case file that includes some digital information, such as a case-filing number, a case-filing date, a trial date, a lawsuit appeal, an approval form, a notification, and a subpoena. Then a dispute is maintained digitally with the support of multiple legal documents. With such elegant packaging of case files, cases also obtain a date of production and an inquiry number. The production of case files displays disputes in a documentation format that has been through as many processes as a well-packaged wine. This concludes the formatting process.
It is obvious that all steps of dispute formatting are designed to protect procedural justice. Although the operation is complicated, case-filing judges are willing to accept this procedural operation, which both alleviates any pressure they feel in handling disputes and decreases the number of responsibilities they must assume. As long as a case follows the required formula, case-filing results under the filtering-packaging mechanism can meet legal requirements. In the process of formatting, laws become a constraint on actions and limit the number of possible strategy options (Zheng 1997). In other words, some disputes have legal meanings and the values required in a trial, and can be solved by courts, whereas other disputes (such as emotional issues) are separate from legal relationships and cannot be connected to laws. The case-filing procedure controls the quality of a dispute: whether or not it meets the legal format. Only qualified disputes can be transformed so as to create a legal pathway for a solution.
Extending the discussion over dispute formatting
The extension of dispute formatting can be reviewed by comparing it to other related studies. This approach can also clarify the boundaries of this concept.
First, regarding the transformation of disputes, the aforementioned “process model” and “meaning model” represent two major pathways within existing studies. Among them, the process model acknowledges different stages of dispute transformation. However, it does not further focus on the state of a dispute once it is submitted to legal institutes. This work follows the idea of the process notion and attempts to fix the gap by analyzing the case-filing procedure. This work explains how disputes are transformed into legal cases from the perspective of case filing, emphasizing the mechanism of dispute transformation—filtering and packaging. I also include this transformation process as part of “dispute formatting”. The meaning model advances the distinction between a problem explanation and a case explanation, and the competition between factors determining the property and state of a dispute (Merry 2007). Merry’s study focuses on the fact that only if a dispute can be interpreted as a case can it be filed as a case and then enter into legal procedure. This work does not limit the scope only to the meaning of disputes, but attempts to further our understanding of case reason. After a dispute is filed as a case, the multiple explanations of a case reason require both legal knowledge and language power, which leads to an inconsistency between the interpretation right and the determination right of a case reason. Case-filing judges in local courts determine the interpretation right of case reason, by using their professional expertise and technical language. In contrast, a plaintiff’s right to determine a case reason usually cannot be realized, because of their shortage of legal knowledge and related experience.
Second, regarding the case-filing procedure, this work emphasizes the importance of case filing and primarily studies it. The aforementioned models of pyramids, pagodas, recurrent disputes, and the filtering effect should be distinguished during the case transformation procedure. It is worth noting that not all disputes can be converted to cases. The key to this transformation is the case-filing procedure. Otherwise, there is a blank and gap in the transformation of disputes. However, regarding the key issue of case-filing logic, normative studies of mainstream legal scholarship lack detailed empirical materials for analysis. Also, studies of legal sociology are scattered: they include organizational perspectives, ethics, and languages. This study on dispute formatting attempts to answer two key questions of case-filing logic: First, what is the mechanism of case filing? This work advances the filtering-packaging mechanism of dispute transformation. Most previous studies on case filing (Zhang 2009a; Fu 2011) focus on the difficulty of case filing (including case checking) but pay less attention to the inner mechanism of the case-filing procedure. Second, how does the case-filing mechanism operate? This work describes and analyzes the multiple interactions between subjects and judges through definition, naming, formalization, and documentation of disputes. Previous studies on legal sociology rarely examined the contour of the legal system through case filing. This work attempts to address this gap.
In general, neither theories of process and meaning nor existing studies fully answer the classic question of whether or not disputes brought to courts are cases. This work studies dispute formatting and attempts to address this question as well as to explain corresponding procedures and mechanisms.
Thirdly, the drying mechanism has explanatory power to explain the legal process. This work offers three extensions to the dispute formatting process: First, for research objects, the drying mechanism mainly has secret and informal effects, which occur throughout the lawsuit process until the trial is held (Liu 2014). Most studies on this mechanism focus on the whole lawsuit process and do not emphasize the key point of dispute transformation in case filing. Also, very few studies from legal sociology specifically focus on the case-filing procedure. This study specifies the effect of the drying mechanism on the case-filing process. Second, previous studies on the drying mechanism are mostly based on cases of divorce (Liu 2014) and deeply analyze the competing ethics between the two parties. They rarely focus on the case-filing procedures for general disputes, nor do they consider the working mechanism inside the courts, such as procedural operations, labor division, and the naming of case reasons. This study of dispute formatting amends these aspects. Third, drying and its auxiliary mechanism mainly describe a physical process, while the study on dispute formatting that analyzes the internal-filtering procedure includes a physical-chemistry process. This process is similar to the production line that begins with the original wine and transforms it into a saleable product: in a similar process, the legal meaning of the dispute changes. Meanwhile, the stage of formalizing and documenting the external packaging (into standard materials) further embodies disputes with rich legal meanings. The external packaging of disputes is enriched with more legal characteristics than had existed in the previous step. The transformation from dispute (original wine) to case (packaged wine) does not only include drying but also the follow steps of adulteration and packaging. The mechanism of internal filtering and external packaging can better explain dispute transformation. In summary, the drying mechanism has some limitations in explaining the process of case filing, while dispute formatting and the mechanism of filtering-packaging can help reflect, specify, amend, and push forward the explanatory power of the drying mechanism in dispute transformation.
Conclusion and limitations
The transformation of disputes into cases that can be tried also involves the connectivity between two different social fields (Xu and Ou 2015). In terms of form, case filing is an abstract stage in the lawsuit procedure. In fact, every dispute must go through this stage before being admitted into the national legal system. Admitted cases are in the legal world, while others are within the power domain of societal or governmental administration (Chu 2012). Case filing is a window into lawsuit subjects, but it is also the only way to enter the court system. Courts can only admit disputes that can be tried, in order to function efficiently and realize legal and social goals. This is the important context for governing society using laws.
Moreover, by examining the interactions between ordinary people and legal procedures, this work carefully analyzes the whole case-filing procedure and finds that contradictions exist between systematic legal logics and living logics, as well as between legal practice and daily actions. “The detachment between the system and living world” mentioned by Habermas (1984: 196) has new interpretations from the perspective of the case-filing procedure. For instance, although courts are regarded as places for justice that follow facts and rules, rules in courts are based on legal items that demand a strict corresponding relationship between evidence and legal items. The rules for ordinary people are more general: they have apparent local characteristics and are less strict in the corresponding relationship. Laws are based on legal rules, while rules of the ordinary people refer to only ethics of justice. They have different domains. Also, for the goal of resolving a dispute, although both laws and ethics pursue justice, the court’s goal is to achieve justice by examining detailed events and objects, while the goal of ordinary people is to achieve a synthetic and continuous justice that is a combination and balance of ethics, rules and laws (Wang and Wang 2012). Also, in the legal language of case filing, courts use normative, neutral, and straightforward legal language, whereas ordinary people use living language that is irregular, strongly emotional, general, and filled with moral judgment. Research on these contents as a part of the lawsuit procedure should be extended and deepened in the future.
In summary, case filing is needed for disputes to move to lawsuits and transforming disputes into legal problems that can be ruled by laws (Bourdieu 1999). Meanwhile, the living world formed through interactions and the legal system exhibits the decoupling relationship in a Habermasian sense. The behavioral logic of the living world can hardly affect the operational logic of the legal system. In a highly differentiated and self-sufficient legal system, legal agents use different languages and logics from those adopted by ordinary people in daily life (Liu 2007). As Habermas (2003) has said, laws are not only normative, but also about facts. In the realm of law, the inner tension between legal facts and norms is reflected in the tension between definite rules and the application of laws. This tension guarantees the ruling power of the legal world on the living world and helps the legal world obtain basic elements from the living world. This tension prevents the legal world from detaching from the living world and also represents legal rules in the living world, as these two parties maintain a mutually constraining relationship.
This work attempts to deepen our understanding of the complexity of dispute transformation, but also has some limitations. First, focusing on details of case filing may lead to insufficient understanding of the entire legal practice. Second, this study attempts to clarify the importance of studying case filing through both dispute transformation and dispute resolution. By using empirical studies on the case-filing procedure to respond to various theories of dispute transformation and dispute resolution, the focus of this study is a little scattered. Third, this study attempts to advance the concept of dispute formatting in order to uniformly discuss and evince the process of dispute transformation during case filing. Although this concept is defined and compared from the perspectives of inner meaning and outer extension, this concept requires further refinement.