By Alexandra Harney

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China's national legislature on Saturday approved a pilot program to allow plea bargaining in its some of its courts.

The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress passed a proposal to allow defendants in minor criminal cases to plead guilty and avoid trial in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Plea bargaining could help lighten the load on China's busy courts.

China's courts heard more than one million criminal cases a year, Shen Liang of the Supreme People's Court told a news briefing in Beijing on Saturday, according to a record of the briefing posted on a government website.

The plea bargaining pilot would take place in 18 cities including Beijing, Shen said. Chinese state media earlier reported the other cities include Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing.

Plea bargaining is widely used in criminal cases in the United States, but it remains controversial there.

(Reporting By Alexandra Harney; Editing by Kim Coghill)