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.]

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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

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.