National policy in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is established by the Vietnam Communist Party which convenes a Party congress every five years. The National Assembly is the highest organ of state power; it has constitutional and legislative powers. It appoints the president and elects the prime minister. Almost all of its 498 members are Party members, and all members of the Politburo and the Party’s Central Committee sit on the National Assembly. The National Assembly elects the president and prime minister and issues domestic, economic, foreign, and national security directives. Vietnam’s legal system is based on communist legal theory and French civil law. There is a four-tier system of Peoples Courts. Party committees screen the nomination and selection of judges.
Vietnam’s judicial system includes several levels of courts, military courts, and the Supreme People’s Procuracy. Article 19 of the 2014 Law on the Organization of People’s Courts sets forth the National Assembly’s supervisory authority over the court system: “The National Assembly and its agencies, deputy delegations and deputies, People’s Councils and their deputies, the Vietnam Fatherland Front and its member organizations shall supervise operation of people’s courts in accordance with law.”
Vietnam has 63 provinces with four levels of government: provinces, districts, communes, and special administrative-economic units. Each level has its own courts as well as a People’s Council and People’s Committee (elected by the Council), executive bodies that carry out local administrative duties.
There are four levels of general jurisdiction courts and a separate military court system:
Hover over the chart to view Vietnam's military court system.
Each level of the judiciary has a corresponding “assisting apparatus” that is responsible for administrative matters and receives guidance from the Supreme People’s Court.
The Civil Procedure Code authorizes petitions for cassation review of final judgments on specified grounds:
- Factual error that undermines the rights or interests of a litigant
- A significant procedural violation that violates the legal rights and interests of a litigant
- Legal error that harms the rights and interest of a litigant or third party, harms the public interest, or undermines the State's interests.
Only high-level court officials can instigate a cassation petition:
- The Chief Justice on the Supreme People's Court and the Procurator General of the Supreme Court's Procuracy can petition for cassation review of superior court judgments and decisions of the lower courts may also be subject to cassation if deemed 'necessary.'
- The Chief Justice of a Superior People's Court and the Chief Procurator of a Superior People's Procuracy can protest judgments or decisions of provincial and district courts within their territorial jurisdiction.
Litigants have one appeal of right and cannot initiate cassation.
Judicial Selection & Tenure
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is elected to a 5-year renewable term by the National Assembly upon recommendation of the president. The other members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the National Assembly for 5-year terms. All other judges are appointed by the chief justice of their highest court. Most judges begin their careers as court clerks working under the supervision of a judge. After completing 12 months of training, a clerk is eligible to take the judges’ exam and apply for judicial appointment. Applicants must be citizens in good health, Communist Party members, and have a Bachelor of Law degree. Judges are required to have at least 5 year’s legal experience, but most have closer to ten years’ experience before being appointed. The initial judicial term is 5 years. Reappointment to a subsequent 10-year term is determined by performance metrics.
Most court proceedings in Vietnam are open to the public. Litigants may obtain copies of their court judgment from the court clerk. These decisions are not, however, made available to the public. Only Supreme Court decisions are published and accessible to the public. The Court is developing a casebook system, a reform that may increase public access of the judiciary’s work.
Although Vietnam has no jury system, people’s assessors (similar to a lay juror) participate in civil and criminal first instance trials. People’s assessors participate in certain types of criminal appeals. Trials typically include one judge and two people’s assessors; complex cases will have two judges and three assessors.
People’s assessors are selected by the local People’s Council or local courts from citizens who work in certain fields and have judicial experience or comparable qualifications. The judge assigns assessors tasks, such as reviewing case files and solicits their opinions. The vote of an assessor is equal to that of a judge in non-specialized cases. For cases deemed more complex, such as commercial litigation, they provide advisory opinions.
Civil Case Management
Vietnam’s 2016 Civil Procedure Code includes a case management provision requiring judges to schedule pretrial meetings for the parties. These meetings facilitate the disclosure and exchange evidence and documents. Judges also must raise the option of mediation. The code permits expedited disposition of simple cases: if the parties agree on a resolution, the court will issue an expedited, enforceable, and non-appealable judgment. If the case does not settle, lawyers are required to submit witness statements and records before trial commences.
Mediation in Vietnam is encouraged and now common place. In Vietnamese culture, there is often reluctance to bring disputes to legal authorities; instead, the practice of “hoa giai,” going to a third party, is preferred. Vietnam launched a court-annexed mediation pilot program in 2018; sixteen regions participated. Mediation begins at the pre-trial stage. If the parties are amenable, their case is transferred to Mediation and Dialogue Centers within the court. The majority of mediators are retired judges, procurators, lawyers, and legal experts.
Vietnam’s justice system is based upon an inquisitorial model; however, the 2014 Law on the Organization of People’s Courts and 2018 Criminal Procedure Code both introduced adversarial principles. For example, Article 13 of the law states: “The Adversarial principle in trials shall be guaranteed. Courts shall enable procedure participants to exercise the right to adversarial process in trial.” Article 14 guarantees the right to a defense. The accused is entitled to request an attorney.
The new criminal procedure code sets forth the rights and responsibilities of defense counsel. These include the ability to meet with the accused, be present when the accused is questioned by law enforcement, seek the advice of experts and the assistance of an interpreter, gather and present evidence, inspect the prosecution’s evidence, request additional documentation and evidence. However, the implementation of these adversarial tools is taking time, as judges, prosecutors and defense counsel across the country must be trained.
The Supreme People’s Procuracy has local and military subdivisions. Vietnam’s procuracy is modeled on the Soviet system. It plays two roles: public prosecution and supervision of state organs and judicial activities. Its responsibilities include investigations, prosecution of criminal cases, enforcement of sentences, and the operation of detention facilities and prisons.
Its parameters of its work supervising the courts are broad. Article 4 of the 2014 Law on the Organization of People’s Procuracies states that procuracies must “supervise the lawfulness of acts and decisions committed or made by agencies, organizations and individuals in judicial activities.” This applies to criminal, civil, and commercial cases.
In 1986, the Vietnamese government introduced doi moi, a reform program to guide the country’s transition from a socialist planned economy to a socialist-oriented market economy. Legal and judicial reform were an integral component of this effort and continue. For example, Vietnam has introduced new IP High Courts in Hanoi, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City. It also has a pilot initiative on electronic case filing.
Another significant reform initiative is a 2014 law authorizing courts to recognize prior decisions as precedents, a departure from the traditional civil law model. The Judicial Council of the Supreme People’s Court is responsible for selecting judgments to be accorded precedential value. The Council publishes precedential cases and makes them available to the courts and lawyers.
In 2015, the Council officially defined precedent: “Precedent is legal reasoning and rulings in a legally effective judgment or decision of a court on a specific case selected by the Judicial Council of the Supreme People’s Court and announced by the Chief Justice of the Supreme People’s Court as precedent for courts to study and apply in adjudication.”