Empirical Legal Studies in China: Current Status, Emerging Trends and Indications for Legal Education

Published date01 July 2022
Date01 July 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Asian Journal of Legal Education
9(2) 135–155, 2022
© 2022 The West Bengal National
University of Juridical Sciences
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DOI: 10.1177/23220058221101986
Empirical Legal Studies in China:
Current Status, Emerging Trends
and Indications for Legal Education
Li Du1 and Meng Wang1
This study aims to fill the knowledge gap about the emerging Chinese empirical legal scholarship and its
potential for the improvement of legal education. We analysed empirical legal studies (ELS) published in
24 major Chinese legal journals between 2013 and 2020. The content analysis of 456 articles established
the overall attitude towards ELS, fields of law that deploy empirical methods, commonly used methods
and tools for statistical analysis, and why scholars use ELS. This study indicates that although ELS has
become a trend in legal scholarship, ELS has not received enough attention in Chinese legal academy.
While new interdisciplinary programmes that combine both law and data science are underway in a
few leading law schools, the use of ELS by Chinese legal scholars remain low. Law schools in China can
address the issue by developing training programmes to introduce the legal community to this growing
Empirical analysis is a data-driven and evidence-based research methodology. It gathers research
samples from social practices and empirical evidence to verify hypotheses and research conclusions.2
With the transformation and renewal of research methodology, legal scholars and practitioners have also
started to apply empirical analysis as a research methodology frequently, rather than only focusing on
deploying the traditional research methods, for example, literature analysis.3 Specically, distinguished
from the traditional approaches in legal research, which usually take legal provisions or texts as research
objects, interpret them and present the ndings in a narrative form, empirical legal studies (ELS) places
more emphasis on collecting and analysing information or data from observations, investigations or
1 Faculty of Law, University of Macau, Avenida da Universidade, Taipa, Macau.
2 Teneille R. Brown et al., Understanding Validity in Empirical Legal Research: The Case for Methodological Pluralism in
Assessing the Impact of Science in Court, 67 Hastings L. J. 1067–1086 (2016).
3 The precise concept of empirical legal studies (ELS) emerged around the beginning of the twenty-first century when journals and
associations in the United States began to use the term ‘empirical legal studies’ in their names. Some examples include: the Journal
of Empirical Legal Studies, which was launched in 2004, and the Society for Empirical Legal Studies, which was founded in 2006.
The term ‘empirical legal research’ is also occasionally employed. See Gijs van Dijck et al., Empirical Legal Research in Europe:
Prevalence, Obstacles, and Interventions, 11 Erasmus L. rEv. 105–119 (2018).
Corresponding author:
Li Du, Faculty of Law, University of Macau, Avenida da Universidade, Taipa 999078, Macau.
E-mail: stephendu@um.edu.mo
136 Asian Journal of Legal Education 9(2)
experiments, and presenting research results in the form of data.4 It is based on mathematical logic,
probability theory and the principle of statistics. By constructing models, developing hypotheses and
quantifying the collected data, ELS aims to analyse legal practices in a given social context.5 Judicial
precedents and the conduct of judges were the initial subjects of ELS.6 For example, Louis Brandeis,
who was a judge on the Supreme Court of the United States in the early twentieth century, reviewed a
large number of labour-related cases prior to concluding that long working hours would affect workers’
health, and the research ndings inuenced subsequent judicial decisions.7
This feature of being able to extract information and draw conclusions from a large number of past
cases has helped ELS especially gain prominence in the countries with case law legal tradition.8 Empirical
studies of different cases provide a basis for penalties and justifications that are deployed by judges,
lawyers and other justice professionals. With the advent of digital revolution, the possibility of building
models for automatic retrieval of provisions or cases was explored. Many courts and law firms in the
common law system started to retrieve and upload a large number of case materials to online bases,
which facilitated the research endeavours of legal scholars and practitioners.9 Consequently, the number
of articles with an empirical focus in law journals increased dramatically. Legislators and policymakers
also use ELS to investigate the operation effect of the current judicial system and predict the trend of
future policies. One example is using ELS to inform judicial reform, especially to investigate the rate of
case closure and misjudged cases.10 The methodology of empirical analysis is increasingly being applied
to various scenarios in the field of legal research and practice. Accordingly, many elite law schools have
attempted to introduce lectures and programmes on empirical research.11
The Development of ELS in China and Chinese Legal Scholars’ Views on ELS
Interest in empirical studies in China is similar to developments in other countries, that is, it began in
sociology, especially within the subeld of criminology.12 For example, the Chinese sociologist and
4 Xie Haiding, The Divergence and Cooperation of Legal Research Progressions: An Examination Based on Social Science
Jurisprudence and Legal Doctrine (Original in Chinese), 31 stud. in L. & Bus. 87–94 (2014).
5 Shari Seidman Diamond, Empirical Legal Scholarship: Observations on Moving Forward, 113 nw. u. L. rEv. 1229–[xv] (2019).
6 Earl Latham, The Roosevelt Court: A Study in Judicial Politics and Values 1937–1947 by Herman Pritchett, 14 L. & ContEmp.
proBs. 537–544 (1949).
7 Evan FitzGerald, Internationalizing Legal Briefs: A Survey of Supreme Court Jurisprudence, 20 or. rEv. intL L. 469–502
8 Robert J. Landry III, Empirical Scientific Research and Legal Studies Research: A Missing Link, 33 J. of LEgaL stud. EduC.
165–170 (2016).
9 Frank Fagan, Natural Language Processing for Lawyers and Judges, 119 miCH. L. rEv. 1399 (2021).
10 For instance, the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice was established in 2002. The Commission examines the
quality of judges’ trials and the effectiveness of judicial operation in different judicial systems through quantitative analysis, using
standardized indicators, questionnaires and field research. As a result of this evaluation and data generated, the caseload allocation
mechanism of courts and judges was optimized. See Council of Europe, Evaluation of Judicial Systems, Eur. Com. for tHE
EffiCiEnCy of Just. (Jan. 6, 2022), https://www.coe.int/en/web/cepej/cepej-work/evaluation-of-judicial-systems.
11 For example, the Harvard Empirical Legal Studies (HELS) Series explores a range of empirical methods, both qualitative and
quantitative, and their application in legal scholarship in different areas of the law. It is a platform for engaging with current
empirical research, hearing from leading scholars working in a variety of fields, and developing ideas and empirical projects. See
Harvard Law School, Harvard Empirical Legal Studies Series, Harv. L. sCH. (Oct. 1, 2021), https://hls.harvard.edu/dept/graduate-
12 Yuan Xiaoyu, Possible Contributions of Criminology to the Study of Chinese Criminal Law (Original in Chinese), CHina Crim.
Just. (Mar. 10, 2017), http://www.criminallaw.com.cn/article/default.asp?id=15979.

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