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.

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New docketing procedures come to the Chinese courts

local court case filing office

local court case filing office

New docketing procedures (case filing) (立案) have come to the Chinese courts.  Chinese courts have a separate case filing divisions, which up until 1 May of this year acted as gatekeepers to courts.  They exercised their approval authority over cases in a non-transparent manner, which meant for litigants in Chinese courts that their cases could be and were rejected without having the opportunity to argue why they should be accepted.  Case filing divisions also were known to put troublesome filings aside, without issuing a rejection, or repeatedly asked for supplementary documents, seeking to drive away litigants by repeated formalistic demands.

More background is given in these blog posts and law review article.  It has been an ongoing problem for many years, provoking endless complaints and articles by ordinary people, lawyers, academics, and NGOs, and has been one of the issues driving petitioners to the streets.

The Supreme People’s Court (Court) leadership identified case filing as one of the needed reforms (and as one of the many contributing factors to the low prestige of the Chinese judiciary), even before the Third Plenum. Because of that, the Communist Party’s 4th Plenum Decision and the 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan flagged this as a priority.  (Unsurprisingly), the language in the two documents is almost identical:

  • Reform systems for courts’ acceptance of cases, change the case filing review system to a case filing registration system, and in cases that should be accepted by the people’s courts, ensure parties procedural rights by requiring filing when there is a case, and requiring acceptance where there is a lawsuit.
  • Change the case filing review system into a case filing registration system, making it so that for cases that should be accepted by the people’s courts, where there is a case it must be filed, and where there is a suit it must be accepted; safeguarding the parties’ procedural rights.

Litigants in line at the #1 Circuit Tribunal

In late April, the Court issued case filing regulations which address many of the longstanding problems that litigants and their lawyers faced:

Case filing divisions

  • refusing to accept complaints;
  • refusing to issue notices rejecting complaints;
  • repeatedly asking for supplementary materials.

The new rules require case filing divisions to accept filings of civil and criminal private prosecution cases (brought by the victim of a crime if the state refuses to prosecute, generally relating to minor crimes) on the spot if possible, provide templates for frequently used types of cases, and to respond within statutory deadlines.  Case filing divisions are directed to make requests for supplementary materials once. (The new administrative litigation law judicial interpretation, described in this earlier blogpost, contains similar provisions.) Litigants who encounter noncompliant behavior can file a complaint with the relevant court or the court above it.

Cases that the courts must refuse:

  1. Matters that endanger national security;

Rights activists have likely noticed that these carveouts are broad and flexible enough to keep out some cases that they might want to bring.

The take-up on the reform: some “Big Data”

According to Court statistics, in the first month since the regulations went into effect, there was a 30% jump in the number of cases accepted,(1.13 million), with most of them accepted immediately. The Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shandong courts accepted over 80,000 cases, with Beijing, Hebei, and other areas accepting over 40,000.

In particular:

  • the number of civil cases was up about 28%.
  • the number of administrative cases accepted was up 221% in comparison to last year (starting from a low base), with Tianjin cases up 752.40%,Shanxi, 480.85%,and Shanghai 475.86%, reflecting both the new case registration and new Administrative Litigation Law going into force.
  • Courts in Zhejiang found that fewer litigants were mediating their cases before filing suit (down 17%), and the success rate of mediation was down by 14%.  Does this mean a better outcome for litigants?  Closer analysis is needed.

Much of the press coverage has been about litigants filing cases themselves, rather than with the assistance of a lawyer or other legal personnel, but I haven’t seen statistics that address this.

Some more detailed data from Jiangsu province:

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Case filings in Jiangsu Province, by city

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Civil 60791, enforcement 25438, administrative 1980, private prosecution 256, state compensation 56

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May, 2015 cases accepted, by location

An evaluation after six weeks

Some thoughts about the case filing reform

  • It will mean more cases in the courts and greater stress for fewer judges and other judicial staff, to assist the many pro se litigants.
  • It should reduce the dissatisfaction level of some proportion of litigants with the court system, such as the anonymous staff from a Guangzhou car finance company quoted in a press report.
  • Violence against court personnel (like medical personnel), is another factor driving qualified and experienced people away, as described in these recent articles.  Will the reforms reduce the level of frustration of ordinary people with the court system, and reduce physical and verbal attacks on judicial personnel?  It is early days to say.
  • It does not resolve underlying issues such as local courts not wanting to offend local government or locally state-owned enterprises.  The 4th 5 Year Court Reform Plan identifies cross-jurisdictional courts as a solution, and pilot projects have started on this in various locations, including Beijing, but a comprehensive framework is not yet in place.
  • For the numerically small number of foreign litigants in the system, it does not change all the documentary requirements needed, such as notarization and legalization of documents and powers of attorney. It should make it easier for foreign invested companies to litigate.
  • As a Court spokesman suggested,  the rejection of many cases could come later, leading to greater pressure on the courts later on, from appeals, more requests for cases to be re-tried, and not ultimately reduce the number of petitioners.
  • It will inevitably lead to abuse of process and frivolous cases, such as the over-publicized case of a Shanghai man suing because of the stare of a TV star caused him spiritual damage. The Court is working on rules to address this.

The tidal wave of Chinese shadow banking disputes

the "pyramiding" private lending  (potentially crushing the banks)

“Pyramiding” private lending (potentially crushing the banks)

My article in The Diplomat on shadow banking disputes was recently published. It highlights what few outside of China have noticed–that shadow banking/private lending disputes account for a substantial proportion of civil/commercial disputes in Chinese courts, creating a particular burden on the courts.  In some places, the percentage hovers close to 50%!  These disputes raise a range of issues and the law is particularly unclear.  Although some provincial (and municipal) courts have issued guidance in the absence of a more detailed judicial interpretation, the lower courts are looking to the Supreme People’s Court for a more comprehensive national legal framework.