The Supreme People’s Court Encourages the Masses to Leave the Streets and Go Into the Courtroom: week ending 27 December

In the last full week of the year, the Court called on the masses to “believe in law, not petitioning” (信法不信访). To that end, the Court leadership publicized on Wechat (and through the press and the national court website) two initiatives:

  • Focusing on enforcement of 10 types of disputes  affecting the livelihood of ordinary people (涉民生案件) that it identifies as most likely to cause social disturbances;
  • Its views on the draft Administrative Litigation Law (行政诉讼法), shortly before the National People’s Congress issued its draft for public consultation.

In a five month initiative launched by telephone conference (a form of communication often used by the Communist Party), the Court is focusing on the enforcement of judgments in the following areas:

  • unpaid wages(particularly owed to migrant workers);
  • support payments (to the elderly);
  • child support;
  • alimony;
  • compensation payments (to the disabled or families of the deceased)
  • medical malpractice compensation;
  • traffic accident compensation; and
  • industrial accidents.

The Court has called on the lower courts to:

  • select cases for enforcement;
  • devote resources to the campaign;
  • use its database of judgment debtors and work with the People’s Bank of China Credit Reference Center to identify assets, so outstanding judgments can be enforced.

The Court has issued similar notices in previous years prior to Chinese New Year.  Judgments in these types of cases are often difficult to enforce for a number of reasons:

  • with China’s legal aid system inadequate for societal needs, migrant workers and other ordinary people have problems navigating the court system;
  • the enforcement system, in particular, is difficult for individuals to navigate;
  • although work has been done by both the court system and the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, the smaller companies that are the judgment debtors in many of these cases are skillful at disappearing without a trace and disguising their assets;
  • these cases are generally not priority cases for the enforcement divisions of local courts.

The intention is to avoid the yearly phenomenon of migrant workers demonstrating in the run up to Chinese New Year because their company bosses have disappeared and absconded with their unpaid wages.

Provincial high courts are tweaking the focus of the enforcement campaign to suit their local circumstances. The Gansu Province Higher People’s Court, for example, is focusing on 1300 cases that date as far back as 2011 and is working with the provincial Political Legal Committee and Finance Department to allocate more funds for those in particular difficulty.  The persons affected are fortunate if their case makes it onto the list, because for migrant workers, traffic accident victims, disabled workers, and others affected, justice delayed is justice denied.

Court officials may also have some self-interest in having these cases resolved locally, because some, when talking privately, mentioned that petitioners frequently surround the front gate of the Court.

The other initiative publicized by the Court to encourage the masses to avoid social disturbances is several of its proposed amendments to the Administrative Litigation Law.  Admitting that administrative cases are difficult from beginning to end, the Court i to focus on several major issues related to the refusal of courts to take administrative cases:

  • expanding the type of cases that the courts may accept (including government agencies infringing on private rights to land and other natural resources);
  • permitting parties to file cases orally;
  • implementing stricter procedures for case acceptance;
  • imposing more liability on courts that refuse to take cases.

In its statement, the Court mentioned that many cases involving government action as ones that should be resolved through the courts rather than through public protests.  Because of the structure of the local courts, in particular local courts being funded by local governments, it is not in the interest of the local courts that these cases receive a hearing. The court reforms announced late last year may eventually improve matters.

The Supreme People’s Court: Week Ending 21 December 2013

1.  The Chinese government cracks down on medical institution crime. On 21 December, 11 government and Party bodies, including the:

  • National Health and Family Planning Commission;
  • Supreme People’s Court;
  • Ministry of Public Security;
  • Ministry of Justice; and
  • Supreme People’s Procuratorate,

initiated 1 year movement to crack down on crime relating to medical institutions. The plan, reported here and  linked here , calls for the punishment of offenses related to medical institutions.  It also announces the framework for related reforms:

  • restructuring state-owned medical institutions;
  • resolving medical disputes with mediation;
  • improving rural health; and
  • improving security in medical institutions.

Although the Supreme People’s Court co-issued this document, it is not a judicial opinion.  It is a policy document.

2.  The Court posted structural reform issues for on-line discussion, although it is unclear what the response has been.  On 18 December, the Court posted two court structural reform issues raised by the Third Plenum Decision on the “Everyone Discuss Judicial Reform” Website (linked here) and asked for comments:

  • local courts and procuratorates–promote uniform administration of  personnel, finance, and property at provincial level and below;
  •  the four levels of the courts–clarify their role and position.

Questions raised by the Court concerning the “uniform administration of the local courts”:

  • what does this mean;
  • what are its implications,
  • will it mean further bureaucratization of the courts and procuracy,
  • what flexibility should there be,
  • what will it mean for local protectionism.

Questions raised by the Court concerning “clarify the role and position of the functions of the four levels of the courts” concern the implications for:

  •  judicial interpretations,
  • appeals systems;
  • internal organization of the courts.

The “Everybody Discuss Judicial Reform” website is a joint project of the national court website, justice website (Supreme People’s Procuratorate), and the China Law Society.  It is a forum for eliciting discussion on important issues for which the institutions must already have framework plans.

The Court Misses an Opportunity to Consult the Public on the Demand Guarantee Interpretation

On 6 December the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) issued for a nine day comment period for public consultation their draft “regulations concerning some issues related to the trial of disputes involving independent guarantees” (draft demand guarantee interpretation).   The Court missed an opportunity for real public consultation on a judicial interpretation with significant domestic and international commercial implications.

Why was it a missed opportunity?

In the best of worlds, what could have happened?

  • The Court could have used the draft to showcase the Court’s new openness and transparency (which had begun even before the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party (Third Plenum)).
  • The Court could have set a public consultation period long enough for interested parties (domestic and foreign) to provide meaningful input on the draft.  Interested parties could have had a chance review and consider the draft in light of issues that often arise in transactions when demand guarantees are issued by Chinese institutions, and compare it to the “international  standard” on the subject,the  International Chamber of Commerce’s Uniform Rules for Demand Guarantees (URDG).

The reasons why are the Court did so are explained below.

The demand guarantee regulations are classified as a type of judicial interpretation, which, as explained in a prior blogpost, are an important source of legal rules in China.

Why is the draft demand guarantee interpretation important?   Chinese banks often issue demand guarantees to foreign companies on behalf of Chinese contractors, exporters, and investors. When projects go wrong, Chinese companies often go to Chinese court to try to stop payment on their guarantees.

This blogpost describes:

  • What a demand guarantee is;
  • Why the Court drafted this interpretation;
  • What issues the interpretation raises;
  • How the Court handled public participation and possible reasons for doing so; and
  • Avenues for advocating a greater role for public consultation.
  1. What is a demand guarantee?

A demand guarantee (most often called an independent guarantee in Chinese (独立保函)), is often used in construction, engineering and other projects, when the owner of the project requires a contractor to guarantee his performance, often with a guarantee issued by a bank, so that if the contractor fails to meet his obligations, the project owner can be easily compensated.

2. Why the  Court drafted this interpretation

The Court drafted the demand guarantee interpretation because the lower courts are faced with the situation of trying an increasing number of cases involving demand guarantees, with inadequate legislation.

These cases arise because Chinese construction and engineering companies, taking an increasing share of the contracting market outside of China, seek to avoid paying on the demand guarantee to the foreign project owner.  Large construction or engineering contracts are usually secured by a demand guarantee.  The Chinese construction and engineering companies usually obtain these demand guarantees from Chinese banks. When foreign project owners make demands under the demand guarantees, because the construction project does not meet specified standards, Chinese contractors often apply to the Chinese courts to withhold payment to the foreign project owner.  A recent article by a Dacheng Law Firm partner described his experience acting for a Pakistani project owner.

3.  What issues does the interpretation raise?

The issues below concern banks and project owners, Chinese and foreign:

  • Whether demand guarantees should be applicable to domestic transactions;

The Security Law takes a negative view but see further discussion on this issue here;

  • Whether the court should be able to review the underlying transaction when reviewing demand guarantee disputes;

(Article 27 of the draft states yes, that in relation to fraud (as characterized by Article 18), the court should be able to engage in limited review of the underlying transaction)

  • Governing law of and applicability of Chinese mandatory regulations to demand guarantees; and

(the law agreed by the parties, and if the guarantee is silent, the law of the habitual residence of the guarantor; the mandatory provisions of security given to foreign parties are applicable);

  • Procedures for proceedings to withhold payment under a demand guarantee.

4. How the Court handled public consultation and why

The Court handled the public consultation quickly and quietly.   The possible reasons are described below.  The Court did not publicize the draft on its Weibo or Wechat accounts, nor did the Court’s newspaper, the People’s Court Paper, feature an article calling attention to the draft interpretation.  The nine day public consultation did not violate the Court’s own rules, which do not set out consultation periods or methods of consultation.

Why the brief consultation period?

  • Court officials may have felt that they had solicited enough expertise to issue the draft.

The No. 4 civil division, in charge of foreign-related cases and arbitration, had been working on this judicial interpretation for over two years and had organized several invitation-only conferences in 2012 and 2013 to discuss the draft.  This is standard practice in Chinese legislative drafting (as discussed in a this blogpost) and this article. Participant experts at these conferences included:

    • the Ministry of Commerce;
    • CIETAC;
    • the Beijing Arbitration Commission;
    • leading Chinese lawyers.
    • and likely representatives from the principal Chinese banks and major state-owned companies.
  • Personnel changes slowed the issuance of the interpretation.  During 2013, the Court leadership nominated a new head of the No. 4 civil division, but his appointment was subject to National People’s Congress Standing Committee confirmation, delaying action on this and other matters.
  • There may be a push to issue the interpretation before year-end, so that the lower courts can rely on it to resolve cases, a performance indicator for the lower courts.

5.  Can the Bilateral Investment Treaty Negotiations Push for a More Public Consultation of Judicial Interpretations?

The Chinese government is negotiating Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) separately with the United States and the European Union.  The 2012 U.S. Model Bilateral Investment Treaty contains a framework for including this type of judicial interpretation in BIT transparency obligations.  Those obligations require (to the extent possible) giving interested parties the chance to comment on “proposed regulations of general application of its central level of government.”  The WTO has jurisprudence on what this means.

If the language ultimately agreed between the United States and China is broad enough to encompass judicial interpretations related to investment, this will ultimately trigger an amendment to transparency requirements for judicial interpretations.

Chinese and foreign individuals and businesses would benefit from greater transparency in judicial interpretations.