China's Judge Judy

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LISA MULLINS: If you're in a legal dispute with somebody over money or property, you can always take it to court. It's not so simple if you're in China. The justice system there isn't really geared up to deal with small claims. But there is one way. A TV show in Shanghai may hear you out. It features a Chinese equivalent of Judge Judy. The BBC's Chris Hogg introduces us now to a woman who took her case to the court of Aunty Bai.

CHRIS HOGG: Zhu Can Mei made a mistake 8 years ago, and she's paying for it now. You are in dispute with one of your relatives over who owns the land. How did this come about?

WOMAN: She said, �When she bought this house, her relative promised to change the name on the ownership certificate. The mistake she made was she never checked whether he had or not. He hadn't. Now, she's worried about the ownership of this house, because that guy wants the land back now. She worries about in 10 years time, maybe he wants this house back as well.

HOGG: Mrs. Zhu is desperate to get this settled � but no law's been broken, so she says the courts don't want to deal with it. Her only option is to try something completely different. Another type of mediator. A TV studio. And Mrs. Zhu finds herself explaining her predicament to millions. This is a nightly show on local TV that seeks to settle arguments. It's hugely popular. The man who wants her property has his say. In charge is the self-styled Aunty Bai, a fierce judge with a no-nonsense style. She settles disputes the courts can't or won't get involved in.

BAI: Going to court is expensive. The law is applied without mercy. In my studio, both sides can tell their story and we can try to resolve it. It's a lot cheaper and in many ways more friendly.

HOGG: Sometimes, disputes are passed on to the show by officials, suggesting the process has their tacit approval. The arguments go back and forth for a couple of hours as the taping continues. By the end, Aunty Bai has bad news for Mrs. Zhu. She feels the woman's relative has the lawful claim to the land, although she says Mrs. Zhu should keep the house. That decision makes her house all but worthless though. In a room next to the studio, Mrs. Zhu and her relative sign handwritten agreements promising to abide by the ruling. They're not binding, of course, but the fact that many of their friends and neighbors will see the decision Aunty Bai has come to on TV will help to ensure they abide by it. Mrs. Zhu isn't happy about the result of course, but she's philosophical.

ZHU: I have been cheated, and I want the audience to know about it and to learn from my experience. You have to be careful when you buy property, even if the person selling it is a relative.

HOGG: Back in the studio, the recording of the next edition is already underway. Two-thirds of the problems people bring here are resolved, the producers say. There's no shortage of cases, it seems, for this very public way of sorting out disputes. For The World, I'm Chris Hogg in Shanghai.