On 29 June 2016, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued a policy document on diversified dispute resolution (Opinion on the people’s courts more deeply reforming the diversified dispute resolution mechanism) (Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion)(关于人民法院进一步深化多元化纠纷解决机制改革的意见). The document uses the term “diversified dispute resolution” (consistent with Chinese practice) rather than “alternative dispute resolution” (more often used outside of China) to reflect the central place of mediation, arbitration, and conciliation in Chinese dispute resolution.(This updated version reflects comments by an authoritative person (and a very careful reader).
It was accompanied by regulations on court-appointed mediators. For those interested in the way the SPC works, it is another example of an SPC policy document in the form of an “opinion” (discussed here) accompanied by regulations (a type of judicial interpretation, discussed here).
The policy document sets out in a consolidated form the SPC’s latest policies on mediation, arbitration, and its relationship with litigation. It provides a framework for further reforms. It is intended to inform the lower courts as well as related Party/government agencies of forthcoming reforms. It signals to the central leadership that the SPC is on course to achieve one of the reform targets set out in the 4th Court Reform Plan. The current head of the SPC’s judicial reform office, Judge Hu Shihao, spoke at the press conference announcing the Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion, indicating that the office took the lead in drafting it.
A summary follows below, highlighting, based on a quick reading, focusing on its:
- objectives and origin;
- signals and practical implications.
A very useful academic article on diversified dispute resolution, with survey data and more on the political background, can be found (behind a paywall) here. (To the many academics and practitioners who have written on this topic, please feel free to use the comment function or email to expand/contradict, or correct this).
Objectives & origin
The SPC issued the Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion as a way to implement one of the targets in the 4th Judicial Reform Plan:
46. Complete diversified dispute resolutions mechanisms.Continue to promote mediation, arbitration, administrative rulings, administrative reconsideration or other dispute settlement mechanisms with an organic link to litigation, mutually coordinate and guide parties to choose an appropriate dispute resolution. Promote the establishment of dispute mechanisms that are industry-specific and specialized in the areas of land requisition and property condemnation, environmental protection, labor protection, health care, traffic accidents, property management, insurance and other areas of dispute, dispute resolution professional organizations, promote the improvement of the arbitration systems and administrative ruling systems. Establish an operating system that links people’s mediation, administrative mediation, industry mediation, commercial mediation, and judicial mediation. Promote the legislative process of a diversified dispute settlement mechanism, establish a system for a systematic and scientific diversified dispute settlement system.
The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion is a product of the 4th Plenum decision. Its underlying approach was approved by Xi Jinping and other top leaders. Judge Hu, who mentioned at the press conference that at a 2015 meeting, the Leading Small Group on Comprehensive Reform approved a framework policy document (not publicly available) on improving the diversified resolution of disputes (关于完善矛盾纠纷多元化解机制的意见) and the General Offices of the State Council and Central Committee followed with an implementing document. The principal reason that this topic merited top leadership time and involvement is because of its direct links to maintaining social stability and reducing social disputes.
Similar to other SPC policy documents discussed on this blog, comments on the draft were sought from the central authorities, lower courts, relevant State Council ministries and commissions, industry association, arbitration organizations, scholars, and the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion was approved by the SPC judicial committee.
The objective of the document is to promote a more sophisticated, efficient, and effective approach to dispute resolution that will reduce social tensions. Part of the objective is to reduce the number of cases filed, heard, and tried by courts. For commercial disputes, it is intended to push disputes to institutions that can more competently, efficiently and timely mediate cases. These institutions include those affiliated with industry associations, arbitration commissions, or specialized mediation associations. The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion also calls for better mediation of cases within the courts by involving court-annexed mediators, before or after the person or entity files suit. The implications of this document for the reform of labor and rural land contract dispute resolution remain to be seen.
The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion requires better linkages between other diversified dispute resolution institutions and the courts and particularly stresses the role of mediation. Depending on the type of mediation, it may be done by mediation commissions affiliated with government, people’s mediation committees, arbitration commissions, or other institutions (further information here). One particular issue that is addressed is easing procedures for enforcing mediation agreements by courts. (Because a mediation agreement is a type of contract, it cannot be enforced directly without further procedures, such as being notarized, issued as an arbitration award, or recognized by the courts (through a special procedure under civil procedure law). It emphasizes that the courts can leverage forces outside the judiciary to resolve disputes. The document calls for reasonable borrowing of dispute resolution concepts from abroad.
Practical implications to expect in the medium to long term
- For the foreign investment community (and their lawyers), a signal that the SPC is working on a judicial interpretation concerning the judicial review of foreign and foreign-related arbitral awards (“standardize judicial review procedures for foreign-related and foreign commercial arbitration awards”) (规范涉外和外国商事仲裁裁决司法审查程序). As this blog has reported earlier, this was signaled at the November 2014 National Conference on Foreign-related Commercial and Maritime Adjudication and last year’s One Belt One Road Opinion. It is unclear whether the future interpretation will change the prior reporting procedure, for example, to give parties a chance to submit arguments orally or in writing, or whether it is intended to consolidate the principles the SPC sets out in its responses to lower courts (released to the public in one of the SPC’s publications), summarized in comprehensive overviews of Chinese arbitration law, such as this one.
- Changes to labor dispute resolution, as highlighted by the 2015 Central Committee/State Council document mentioned earlier. This is important in light of the uncertain economy and increasing number of workers being made redundant. in recent years, judges in different areas of China have published devastating criticism of the current labor arbitration system and labor dispute resolution generally. The judges pointed out the current labor arbitration system is not independent of the government, fails to protect labor interests equally, and . The judges also criticize the brief statute of limitations in labor disputes and lack of a specialized labor tribunal. It appears from reports that Zhejiang Province is taking the lead in providing greater choices and professionalism in labor dispute resolution, but it unclear how far those reforms go.
- Further attention to rural land arbitration.The Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinion mentions better linkages between the courts and rural land arbitration. This area is important, as the government seeks to encourage farmers to expand their landholdings and mortgage their land, but the merits of the system are not the SPC’s issue. A 2014 report highlights the lack of independence of these arbitration commissions, lack of arbitrators, and absence of qualified arbitrators. A 2016 paper by several China Banking Regulatory Commission staff on the mortgage of rural land notes that those arbitration commissions need improving.
- Local courts to establish “court-annexed mediation centers” to encourage and give parties “one stop shopping” for choices in mediating some of the cases most often seen in the courts–family, conflicts between neighbors, consumer, small claims, consumer, traffic accident, medical disputes;
- “Improving” criminal conciliation and mediation procedures. Reforms in this area bear close monitoring because, as discussed in earlier blogposts, criminal conciliation and mediation procedures are often used to avoid embarrassing more powerful institutions (such as schools) and people especially in cases involving claims of rape, sexual assault, and child molestation;
- Recognizing the results of and encouraging litigants to use neutral valuation organizations, for civil and commercial disputes such as medical, real estate, construction, intellectual property, and environmental protection, the results of which could be used as the basis of mediation；
- More small claims and expedited procedures for minor civil disputes;
- more lawyers to be appointed as court-appointed mediators；
- Improvements to administrative dispute resolution procedures.