Supreme People’s Court and its normative documents

Court reply

Court reply

This blogpost discusses some of the documents that the Supreme People’s Court (Court) issues and what they mean, particularly to foreign legal professionals who may encounter them in practice. They reflect the bureaucratic way the Court operate (about which I (and others) have written). It is not a complete list, but a description of some of the ones I’ve written about on this blog.

The 4th Five Year Plan anticipates some reform in this area: “improve the Supreme People’s Court’s methods of trial guidance, increase the standardization, timeliness, focus and efficacy of judicial interpretations and other measures of trial guidance.”

Terminology–Some of these are described on the Court website as judicial documents (司法文件) or judicial normative documents (司法规范性文件).  They are not cited in judgments or rulings (unlike judicial interpretations), but judgments or rulings should be consistent with them. There do not seem to be clear rules on which of these documents should be made public.  Some of those documents include:

  1. Opinions (意见), issued by the Court and other institutions not authorized to issue judicial interpretations.

 Example:  Opinion on Handling Criminal Cases of Domestic Violence in Accordance with Law (Supreme People’s Court,(Law Release (2015) No. 4), The Supreme People’s Procuratorate, The Ministry of Public Security, and Ministry of Justice), discussed here, with normative provisions (instructions to the lower courts–“please implement conscientiously”).

2.  Opinions (意见), issued by the Court, but setting out judicial policy.

Opinions of the Supreme People’s Court on Fully Strengthening Environmental Resources Trial Work to Provide Powerful Judicial Safeguards for Promoting Eco-civilization Construction (最高人民法院关于全面加强环境资源审判工作 为推进生态文明建设提供有力司法保障的意见) and Opinions on Providing Judicial Services and Safeguards for the Building of One Belt One Road by People’s Courts” (关于人民法院为“一带一路”建设提供司法服务和保障的若干意见) (Instructions to the lower courts– “the following guiding opinion is set out”).

These may require further implementing regulations but judgments should be consistent with these opinions.

3. Conference summaries often address new issues or areas of law in which the law is not settled.  Conference summaries are not required to be made public, although with the internet and social media, they are now more widely available than in the early 1990’s, when I first wrote about them.

Example–the 2015  one on drugs (全国法院毒品犯罪审判工作座谈会纪要). (instructions to the lower courts-please implement this as reference, combined with the actual situation of trial work, if in implementation problems are encountered, please report in a timely manner to this Court) 请结合审判工作实际参照执行。执行中遇到问题,请及时报告我院)

4. Replies (请示复函).  Arbitration lawyers see these in published replies to the lower courts, such as those done under the Court’s reporting system relating to judgments/rulings concerning foreign-related and foreign arbitral awards.The response is binding on the lower court regarding the particular case.  The Court publishes these replies (and the report from the lower courts) in its periodical China Trial Guide: Guide on Foreign-Related Commercial and Maritime Trial, from which the following example is taken:

Example: This 2012 response to a report from the Hubei Higher People’s Court: SPC reply to Hubei High Court.

In the area of arbitration practice, the principles set out in these responses are persuasive, but not binding in later cases, and arbitration lawyers discuss these responses as a particular form of case law, such as this law firm client alert.

Replies (批复).  These are seen in requests for lower courts for approval of certain matters, such as having basic level courts hear foreign-related cases, based on relevant law and judicial interpretations.

Example, a 2013 reply by the Court to a request from the Anhui Higher People’s Court.  These are binding on the lower courts.

5. Decision (决定).  These are seen when the Court issues documents setting out an administrative approval.

Example: a 2015 decision designating certain courts as model courts for diversified approaches to dispute resolution, mentioned here.

Supreme People’s Court regulates private (shadow) lending

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private lending

On August 6, the Supreme People’s Court issued its long-awaiting judicial interpretation on private (shadow) lending.  Its provisions are applicable to P2P funding platforms and other lenders not under the jurisdiction of the financial regulators. My article in The Diplomat summarizes the judicial interpretation and its significance.

Updated musings on Supreme People’s Court Vice President Xi Xiaoming

Vice President Xi XiaomingThis updated blogpost muses on Judge Xi Xiaoming, and:

  • phenomena of “assumption of guilt” and trial in the press
  • political factors in Chinese judicial decision-making;
  •  judicial corruption;
  •  implications for related parties;
  •  investigation-centered criminal justice system
  •  effect on lower court judges;
  • the intellectual legacy of Judge Xi;
  •  effect on the credibility of the judicial system.

The comments below are made with no further information about Judge Xi’s case than what is publicly available.

The background

In the late afternoon of 12 July, Xinhua news issued a statement reporting that the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) announced that Supreme People’s Court (Court) Vice President Xi Xiaoming, was under investigation for violation of Party discipline and law.  Judge Xi has worked in the Court for over thirty years and is well known for his expertise in civil and commercial law. The announcement caused shockwaves in the Chinese legal community. Chinese press reports have linked the allegations to a case involving a 420 million RMB dispute over shareholding in a Shanxi coal mine, but the allegations have not been confirmed by the CCDI.

On 20 August, Meng Jianzhu, head of the Central Political Legal Committee, made the following statement about Judge Xi: “Xi Xiaoming has shamed the judiciary, as a experienced judge who has worked in the Supreme People’s Court for 33 years, who has colluded with certain  illegal lawyers, judicial brokers, and lawless business people by accepting huge bribes. “作为在最高法院工作33年的老法官,奚晓明却同个别违法律师、司法掮客、不法商人相互勾结,收受巨额贿赂,这是司法界的耻辱。”

 “Presumption of guilt” and trial in the press

Judge Xi is under investigation by the CCDI and it has not yet been reported that the procuracy has yet filed a case against him.  It does not seem that the lawyers involved in the Shanxi case have been prosecuted or penalized for illegal activity.  Meng Jianzhu’s statement evidences two phenomenon in Chinese criminal justice–the presumption of guilt and “trying” suspects in the press

As Zhu Zhengfu, the vice-chairman of the All China Lawyers Association warned earlier this year, there is a widespread and dangerous “presumption of guilt” among mainland law enforcers.”  Zhu proposed a law be enacted to fully protect each citizen’s right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

“An arrest is made on one day, then the next day you have the suspect confessing on television, and some are forced to confess,” Zhu said.

“After the confession, [law enforcers] immediately say the case has been solved and they celebrate their achievement. So you can imagine how much pressure the court is under if it wants to pass an innocent verdict.”

As Si Wejiang of the Debund Law Firm pointed out, CCTV often declares a person guilty even before the procuracy has approved his arrest and does not give his defense lawyer a chance to speak.

Complex politics of large commercial disputes in China

In private comments, several senior Chinese lawyers and other Chinese legal experts have suggested that Judge Xi’s case is not a simple case of corruption, but is tied to more complex political factors.
As two DLA Piper lawyers commented in a Practical Law publication, “large commercial disputes between Chinese parties are usually settled with the help of political influence and/or commercial pressure, with the rule of law methods such as litigation and arbitration either not used at all or used as a bargaining tool.”

They further noted that in recent years “there has been a return to non-rule of law methods of settlement, particularly in relation to disputes involving over CNY100 million.”

The senior lawyers noted that judges hearing cases involving politically powerful litigants (called interest groups in Chinese political jargon) may be under pressure to decide the cases in particular way (as further described in the next section). As time goes on, the litigants may not be as politically powerful as before, and the judgment (and the judges who made decisions) may be called into question.

Corruption in the courts

The corruption allegations are said to be connected to the Shanxi case, reported in further detail in the Caxin report.  But the corruption allegations may be more complicated than they appear.  As several  academic studies have noted, judicial corruption in China has several root causes related to the nature of the judicial system.  In her 2014 book,  The Judicial System and Reform in Post-Mao China, Li Yuwen, Professor of Chinese Law at Erasmus University stated:

First, the lack of judicial independence leaves room for corruption.In practice, when a case is brought to court or assigned to a judge, court officials or the responsible judge are often contacted by various people–the most influential ones are those with government positions….In addition, the lack of recognition of the nature of the judiciary to enforce law fairly and efficiently also results in a puzzling perception of courts and judges….

Secondly, judicial corruption cannot be divorced from its social context…It is unrealistic to expect judges to operate completely outside the social environment, especially in the absence of a workable system to reduce the incidence of judicial corruption….

Thirdly, certain shortcomings of the court system leave the door open for corruption. For instance, the flexible use of the re-trial system leads to the easy re-opening of cases if influential people wish to interfere in the case. This not only diminishes the finality of the case but also creates opportunities for using personal networking to change a court’s judgment. Furthermore, the relatively law judicial salary makes judges an easy target for corruption…In modern-day China, a profession’s income is too often linked to the profession’s social status. Judges’ low salaries are not conducive to building self-respect amongst the profession and, moreover, they constitute a major ground for fostering judicial corruption.

So returning to the social context of 2011. A number of Chinese lawyers and academics have privately noted that at the time of the case in question, it would not be unusual for supplemental payments to be made to Court judges in connection with commercial disputes involving large amounts of money, and refusing payment could also have been awkward for those involved.  Whether this was in fact the case for Judge Xi is not known.

Implications for related parties

It is likely that the anti-corruption investigation into Judge Xi will touch on parties, including other judges, related to the case(s) in question.  It is also likely that the full extent of the investigation will not be made public.

Investigation-centered criminal justice system

Judge Xi is now experiencing the Chinese investigation-centered criminal justice system, in which Party members are generally subject to shuanggui, where they are subject to long periods of interrogation outside the formal criminal justice system, followed by repeated interrogations if and when the case is transferred to the procuracy. His case is part of the current anti-corruption campaign.

As Professor Fu Hualing of the Faculty of Law, University of Hong Kong has written:

The anti-corruption campaign is also a highly politicized process. Investigations are selective, politically motivated, and aim to achieve particular political consequences….

Xi’s campaign further shifts power from legal institutions to the Party’s disciplinary mechanism. Compared with anti-corruption work under the previous government, the current campaign more decisively bypasses legal procedures and institutions. After a brief moment in which law seemed to be able to play a central role in the anti-corruption process, legal institutions have been effectively marginalized to the role of initiating anticorruption
purges of ‘tigers’. There is no longer any meaningful discussion
on the end goals and limits of shuanggui, the Party’s power to detain its own delinquent members and little mention of the creation of a more neutral anti-corruption body.

Effect on other judges?

What will be the effect of Judge Xi’s case on judges in the lower courts, who may not want to find themselves involved in local parallels of his case? Will it lead to further departures of experienced judges?

The intellectual legacy of Judge Xi

Judge Xi has been a major force in the area of civil and commercial law, involved in many major legal developments in China over the past thirty years. He has been involved the drafting of major judicial interpretations, edited many books, and been involved in other major legal initiatives, including, most recently, the drafting of the Civil Code and the establishment of an environmental law research center affiliated with the Court.  The many technical legal reforms in which he has been involved are crucial to the operation of the Chinese judicial system. The initiatives in which he has been involved are likely to go on with other talented people, but he is sure to be missed.

Effect on the credibility of the judicial system

Improving the credibility of the Chinese judicial system is said one of the goals of the Chinese judicial reforms.  We will need to wait and see how Judge Xi’s case progresses, and how both official and unofficial commentators, as well as members of the Chinese public and international community view his case.

Environmental public interest litigation in the Qingdao maritime courts

large_article_im2286_ConocoPhillips_oil_spill_in_ChinaChinese maritime courts, which primarily hear maritime commercial cases, also have jurisdiction over maritime pollution cases.  This short blogpost provides a brief update on the first public interest environmental case filed in the maritime courts.

Qingdao Maritime Court has announced that it accepted a case filing by plaintiff China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) against ConocoPhillips and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC).

According to its official social media Weibo, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit on July 7th, 2015, requesting the court to order two defendants to repair the environmental damage caused during the 2011 Bohai Bay oil spill. The court accepted the case on July 21st, 2015.

This is the first maritime pollution case in China brought by a social organization in accordance with the Article 58 of the Environmental Protection Law, which for the first time granted social organizations to file litigation relating to pollution activities that cause environmental pollution, ecological damage or public interest harm.

CBCGDF had previously filed cases regarding fresh water pollution and red wood destruction, which were accepted by the respective courts. Back in May 2015, another social organization brought a similar lawsuit against PetroChina in Dalian Maritime Court for oil spill, which was dismissed by the court. The plaintiff in that case did not seek to appeal the dismissal after PetroChina set aside an ecological repair fund of RMB 200 million.

The 2011 Bohai Bay oil spill has been followed by government investigation and fines, as well as related civil lawsuits. This case will be widely watched by the environmental community, including social organizations [foundations, NGOs, and others] and environmental law experts and Chinese and international practitioners.

[Contributed by Fang Jianwei (Jerry) Fang, a partner with the China-based Global Law Office in the firm’s Shanghai and Beijing offices. He was a judge in China and studied law at Columbia Law School.  For more information on this report, please contact him  at jfang@glo.com.cn.]

Supreme People’s Court and “One Belt One Road”

Judge Luo Dongchuan. chief judge,#4 civil division

Judge Luo Dongchuan. chief judge,#4 civil division, at the OBOR Opinion press conference

On 7 July the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) issued an opinion (意见) policy document on how the courts should provide services and protection to “One Belt One Road” (OBOR Opinion) (关于人民法院为“一带一路”建设提供司法服务和保障的若干意见). This blogpost explains why the Supreme People’s Court issued it, what the policy document provides and what it means for legal professionals. The typical (model) cases issued at the same time include the Sino-Environment case, subject of an earlier blogpost  (and deserve closer analysis).

Why was the One Belt One Road document issued?

One Belt One Road (OBOR) is a major government strategic initiative.  As a central government institution, the Court must do its part to support OBOR.  Major SOEs contemplating investing in OBOR projects or trading with companies on OBOR recognize that their interests are best protected through legal infrastructure and the Court has an important role in this. MOFCOM and other related regulatory agencies realize this as well. Local courts linked to the Belt or the Road, are dealing with new demands because of OBOR and are looking to the Court for guidance.

The OBOR Opinion was drafted with input from these regulatory agencies and certain legal experts, but was not issued for public comment.

What the OBOR Opinion covers

The OBOR Opinion covers cross-border criminal, civil and commercial, and maritime as well as free trade zone-related judicial issues.  It also deals with the judicial review of arbitration.

Criminal law issues: the lower courts are requested to improve their work in cross-border criminal cases, and the courts are to do their part in increased mutual judicial assistance in criminal matters.  The focus is on criminal punishment of  those characterized as violent terrorists, ethnic separatists, religious extremists, and secondarily on pirates, drug traffickers, smugglers money launderers, telecommunication fraudsters, internet criminals, and human traffickers. It also calls on courts to deal with criminal cases arising in trade, investment, and other cross-border business, and deal with criminal policy and distinguishing whether an act is in fact a crime, so that each case will meet the test of law and history.  The political concerns behind criminal law enforcement issues are evident in this.

Much of the focus in the OBOR Opinion is on civil and commercial issues, including the exercise of jurisdiction, mutual legal assistance, and parallel proceedings in different jurisdictions and in particular, improving the quality of the Chinese courts in dealing with cross-border legal issues. These issues are explained in more detail below

One of the underlying goals set out in the OBOR Opinion, is to improve the international standing and influence of the Chinese courts and other legal institutions.

What does it mean for legal professionals

The OBOR Opinion signals that the Court is working on a broad range of practically important cross-border legal issues.  Some of these issues involve working out arrangements with other Chinese government agencies and are likely to require several years to implement.  The OBOR Opinion mentions that the Court:

  • seeks to expand bilateral and multilateral mutual judicial assistance arrangements, for better delivery of judicial documents, obtaining evidence, recognition and enforcement of foreign court judgments.
  • supports and promotes the use of international commercial and maritime arbitration to resolve disputes arising along One Belt One Road.  China will promote the use of the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention) between countries on One Belt One Road and encourage countries that have not yet acceded to the Convention to do so.
  • supports and promotes the use of various types of mediation to resolve OBOR related cross-border disputes.
  • it signals that the Court will become more involved in Chinese government initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the conference of supreme courts under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and other international or regional multilateral judicial cooperation organizations.
  • is signalling the lower courts that they should limit the range of cross-border contracts being declared invalid or void.
  •  sets out the new thinking on the issue of reciprocity in the enforcement of foreign judgments, in particular that Chinese courts can take the initiative in extending the reciprocity principle to parties from other jurisdictions.  This is practically significant for foreign parties and their counsel, and has been discussed repeatedly by both practitioners and academics (such as these);
  • will improve Chinese legal infrastructure on overseas evidence, overseas witnesses giving evidence, documenting the identity of overseas parties, “to better convenience Chinese and foreign parties. ”  This would involve evolving from the current system embedded in Chinese legislation of requiring notarization and legalization of many documents (because mainland China is not yet a party to the Hague Convention on the Abolishing the Requirement of Legalization of Foreign Public Documents. This is a positive sign;
  • The Court has on its agenda further legal infrastructure on the judicial review of arbitration (as signalled at the end of last year), involving foreign/Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan parties, aimed at supporting arbitration and having a unified standard of judicial review on the following issues:
    • refusing enforcement of arbitral awards; and
    • setting aside arbitral awards.
  • has on its agenda judicial legal infrastructure for supporting the resolution of bilateral trade, investment, free trade zone and related disputes.
  • Reflecting language in the 4th Plenum, it calls for China to be more greatly involved tin the drafting of relevant international rules, to strengthen China’s voice concerning issues of international trade, investment, and financial law.
  •  mentions that an improved version of the Court’s English language website and website on foreign-related commercial and maritime issues is forthcoming.  Specific suggestions can be emailed to supremepeoplescourtmonitor@gmail.com.

The Supreme People’s Court and interpreting the law, revisited (part one)

Marriage law judicial opinion

Marriage law judicial opinion

The topic of the Supreme People’s Court and the interpretation of law is one that vexes many, legal practitioners and academics alike.  Although the Chinese constitution vests the power to interpret law with the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC SC), the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) actively issue interpretations of law. The Court more so than the SPP, because it deals with a broader range of legal issues.  These interpretations of law are critical to the operation of the Chinese legal system, because national law tends to set out broad principles that require additional legal infrastructure to be workable and the courts, in particular, need that legal infrastructure to decide cases.

A 1981 decision by the NPC SC delegated to the Court the authority to interpret law relating to questions involving the specific application of laws and decrees in court trials, while the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) was delegated authority to interpret law relating to questions involving the specific application of laws and decrees in procuratorial work.  The Organic Law of the People’s Courts re-iterates the delegation of authority to interpret law to the Court. Oddly enough, the principle is not in the Organic Law of the People’s Procuratorates. Interpretations by both the SPP and the Court are known as “judicial interpretations.”

In 2015, the Legislation Law, which had previously not addressed interpretation of law by the Court and the SPP, addressed the issue in Article 104.  This article is taken as intended to codify existing practice, because the explanation of the law recognizes the practical necessity of judicial interpretations:

  • “Interpretations on the specific application of law in adjudication or procuratorate work issued by the Supreme People’s Court or Supreme People’s Procuratorate shall primarily target specific articles of laws, and be consistent with the goals, principles and significance of legislation.”
  • It requires the Court (or SPP) in the situation described in the second paragraph of Article 45 of the Legislation Law (where the NPC SC  gives interpretations of national law), to submit a request for a legal interpretation, or a proposal to draft or amend relevant law, to the NPC SC.

(The explanation of the law  (legislative history) provides further background).

The process for drafting Court interpretations described in the 2007 regulations requires that the views of the relevant special committee or department of the NPC SC be solicited during the drafting process, and there would be pushback from the NPC SC if it was considered that the judicial interpretation had gone ‘too far.’

What types of judicial interpretations are there?

The 2007 Court regulations on judicial interpretations (linked here)  limit judicial interpretations to the following four types:

Those 2007  regulations set out various procedures for drafting and promulgating judicial interpretations, including a requirement that they be approved by the Court’s judicial committee and be made public.  As discussed in earlier blogposts, broad public consultation may be done if it affects the “vital interests of the people or major and difficult issues. These regulations also provide that judges may cite judicial interpretations as the basis for a court decision or ruling. Article 23 of the 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan mentions reform of judicial interpretations:

Improve the Supreme People’s Court’s methods of trial guidance, increase the standardization, timeliness, focus and efficacy of judicial interpretations and other measures of trial guidance. Reform and improve mechanisms for the selection, appraisal and release of guiding cases. Complete and improve working mechanisms for the uniform application of law.

As discussed in earlier blogposts, the Court also issues other documents with normative provisions that do not fit the above definition.  Those will be discussed separately.

Shine light on draft judicial interpretation on “twisting the law in arbitration”!

images-1The Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate are together drafting a judicial interpretation on Article 399a of the Criminal Law, the crime of “twisting the law in arbitration.”  My understanding is that one of the criminal law divisions of the Supreme People’s Court is involved in the drafting, rather than the #4 civil division, well-known internationally for its expertise in arbitration issues. According to an article published by the Guiyang Arbitration Commission, in late April, the State Council Legislative Affairs Office distributed the draft to some arbitration commissions for comment.  Given the many legal issues it raises for domestic and foreign arbitrators (and the Chinese government’s international/regional obligations), it should be issued publicly for comment.

What is Article 399a of the Criminal Law?

Article 399a, is part of  Chapter IX:  Crimes of Dereliction of Duty.

Where a person, who is charged by law with the duty of arbitration, intentionally runs counter to facts and laws and twists the law when making a ruling in arbitration, if the circumstances are serious, he shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than three years or criminal detention; and if the circumstances are especially serious, he shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than three years but not more than seven years.”(依法承担仲裁职责的人员,在仲裁活动中故意违背事实和法律作枉法裁决,情节严重的,处三年以下有期徒刑或者拘役;情节特别严重的,处三年以上七年以下有期徒刑.)

Article 399a,  (which seems to have been drawn from analogous provisions in Japanese and Taiwan law), was promulgated despite protests from the arbitration community. Harsh criticism continues to be published (in Chinese), such as Professor Song Lianbin’s Critical Analysis of the Crime of Deliberately Rendering an Arbitral Award in Violation of LawRecently, Duan Xiaosong, a Chinese law lecturer, published an article in a US law review on Article 399a, but the article apparently did not catch the attention of international practitioners.

Issues include:

  • Article 399a is a duty crime (one committed by officials). How is it that Chinese arbitrators who are not officials, or foreign arbitrators can commit this crime?
  • The procuratorate investigates duty crimes.  This means that the procuratorate must review an award to make a decision whether to investigate whether an award has been intentionally rendered “in violation of facts and law.” Will a procuratorate be able to conduct this review applying foreign law?
  • If a procuratorate prosecutes a case under Article 399a, it also requires a court to undertake a substantive review of an arbitral award.
  • Judicial interpretations of both the Supreme People’s Court and Procuratorate raise important issues.  As suggested in several earlier blogposts, part of the judicial reforms should include greater requirements for public comment on draft judicial interpretations. Depending on how familiar the US and EU bilateral investment treaty negotiators are with the details of Chinese law, this may be raised by negotiators.

Comment

Because this judicial interpretation has implications for China’s obligations under the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (the New York Convention) and the analogous arrangement with Hong Kong, the draft should be made public so that the greater arbitration community, domestic and foreign, is able to provide detailed analysis and commentary on it. This is the interests of the international and Chinese legal communities.