Supreme People’s Court’s New Policy on Cross-border Commercial Issues and Covid-19

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From left, Li Guangyu, SPC spokesperson; SPC Vice President Justice Luo Dongchuan; Judge Wang Shumei, head of #4 Civil Division

On 16 June, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) held a news conference (pictured above), to announce that it had issued “Guiding Opinion on the Proper Handling of Civil Cases Involving the Novel Coronavirus Outbreak in Accordance with the Law (III)” (SPC Guiding Opinion III).” SPC Guiding Opinion focuses on the most important cross-border commercial issues that have arisen in the Chinese courts this spring as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.  This brief blogpost provides some comments and an overview of the document, leaving the detailed analysis to the law firms that are sure to analyze it.

What is this document?

SPC Guiding Opinion III is a judicial policy document (司法政策性文件). As this blog has often commented, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) must serve the greater situation and deal with practical legal issues, so that the SPC itself and its senior leadership are correct, politically, and professionally. One of those ways is by providing properly calibrated guidance to the lower courts and other related authorities with the appropriate political signals.  For this document, Justice Luo Dongchuan provided the political background and signals in his introductory remarks at the SPC news conference. The document itself is practically oriented (as those in the system say “problem-oriented”–“问题导向”)(and the practitioners say “干活”).

From the photo above it is clear that the #4 Civil Division, headed by Judge Wang Shumei, which focuses on cross-border commercial and maritime issues, took the lead in drafting. That division is one of the smaller divisions of the SPC and “punches above its weight.”

A judicial policy document is not a judicial interpretation but as the SPC editors of a collection of these documents noted, “it is generally recognized that they have an important guiding impact on the trial and enforcement work of the courts at every level.”  SPC Guiding Opinion III is one example of the many types of SPC “stealth” guidance to the lower courts.  I describe it as “stealth guidance” because it affects how cases are handled, heard, and decided, but cannot be cited in a court judgment or ruling. For that reason, only the highly observant will note the impact of judicial policy documents.

I anticipated that the SPC would issue further Covid-19 pandemic guidance when I spoke [links to video] in April at a virtual event sponsored by Berkeley Law School’s Center for Law & Technology. Some of the guidance reveals frequently used litigation tactics of Chinese parties.

Selected comments on the content

The document is divided into four sections:

  1. Civil procedure mechanics–parties, evidence,  deadlines, and statutes of limitations (Articles 1-5): This section draws on the recently amended and effective civil evidence rules

Article 1 directs Chinese courts to approve applications for extensions for foreign (cross-border) parties who are delayed in being able to provide notarized and authenticated documents to evidence the identity.  Delays in obtaining notarized and authenticated powers of attorney are to be treated similarly. If China had acceded to the 1961  Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents, for all of China, this requirement would no longer be necessary. The Convention is applicable to Hong Kong because of UK-PRC handover arrangements, which enabled conventions originally applicable to Hong Kong pre-1997 to continue in effect.

Article 3 reveals one of the frequently used litigation tactics of Chinese parties in cross-border litigation in China–that is disputing the authenticity of a document because it has not been properly notarized and legalized. The SPC Guiding Opinion III advises lower courts to notify parties that they may reserve their arguments concerning these formalities, and focus their arguments on relevance and persuasiveness of the evidence.

      2. Ascertainment (determination) and application of law

These articles remind Chinese courts to use the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Law Applicable to Foreign-Related Civil Relationships to determine governing law (assuming a contract does not designate a governing law), and to look to the SPC Guiding Opinion I for guidance on force majeure under Chinese law.  The SPC also reminds lower court judges not to substitute Chinese law if foreign law governs.  This is not the first time that this type of reminder has appeared in SPC policy documents, indicating this is an ongoing problem.  This section also includes guidance on the application on the UN Convention on the Sale of Goods.

Articles 8 and 9 relate to letters of credit, standby letters of credit, and demand (independent) guarantees. It reminds lower courts to correctly apply the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC)’s UCP 600 (Uniform Customs and Practice for Documentary Credits), the ICC’s URDG 758(demand guarantee rules), and the related SPC judicial interpretation concerning demand guarantees.

This likely means that Chinese contractors who have provided independent guarantees or standby letters of credit for construction projects overseas are seeking to prevent the owner of the projects from drawing on these guarantees through litigation in the Chinese courts. This case decided by the SPC in April, 2020, reverses the judgment of the Shandong Higher People’s Court in favor of the Chinese contractor.  The dispute relates to a Shandong Electric Power Company (SEPCO) project in India. Previous reporting in the Indian press seen here.

3. Transport contracts

Articles 11-17 relate to various types of transportation contracts as well as shipbuilding contracts.

4. Green channel.

This last section reminds courts to use online procedures and cross-administrative region arrangements if convenient and that Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan related commercial cases should be handled with reference to this guidance.

How was the document drafted?

As to how the SPC determined the FAQs of the lower courts, it did what all corporates and institutions around the world do these days–convened a video conference. The participants presumably came from the maritime courts and the foreign-related civil divisions of the provincial courts.

Why did the SPC issue it?

The number of cases directly affected by this guidance is relatively small. According to statistics released with President Zhou Qiang’s report to the NPC in May, there were 17,000 first instance foreign-related commercial cases and 16,000 foreign-related maritime cases in the Chinese courts in 2019, compared with 31.5 million cases in the Chinese courts overall.

However, foreign-related cases tend to be more sensitive because, as Zhou Enlai said “外事无小事” (foreign matters are never small matters” –foreign-related matters, because they involve relations with other countries and the prestige of the Chinese state, are sensitive. That means that judges hearing cross-border cases have a particular pressure to handle these disputes in a way that is consistent with the law (of course), acceptable to the leadership of their court & to the outside world.  One important aspect of SPC Guiding Opinion III  is the impact on Belt & Road projects, In many of these projects Chinese companies are often contractors, or also contractors and equipment suppliers (and Chinese banks provide financing). On the civil/commercial side cross-border cases possibly involve treaty/convention obligations (or treaty-like arrangements, in the case of Hong Kong).

As issues dealt with in SPC Guiding Opinion III relate to the most important Chinese cross-border commercial issues that have arisen during the pandemic, it has an impact on the Chinese (and foreign) business community, far beyond the number of foreign-related cases in the Chinese courts, and is likely to have an impact on related arbitrations governed by Chinese law.

What Is the Impact of the SPC’s Circuit Courts?

President Zhou Qiang’s May, 2020  report to the National People’s Congress (which I will analyze when time permits) revealed that the number of cases that the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has increased about 10% over last year to 38,498 cases accepted. This year’s report usefully set out a bar graph with the number of cases that the SPC accepted and concluded.

 

These (also from the report) show that in 2019, almost 60% of the SPC’s cases were heard in the six circuit courts.

This is not accidental, but the result of intentional SPC policy. Judge He Xiaorong, current head of the #2 Circuit Court (and former head of the SPC’s judicial reform office) stated five years ago–” after the circuit courts (literally tribunals) are established, the center of the work of SPC headquarters will shift to supervision and guidance, primarily trying cases that have a major guiding function in unifying the application of law, that can become guiding cases  (巡回法庭普遍设立后,最高人民法院本部应当将工作重心转移到监督指导上,主要审理一些对统一法律适用有重大指导意义、具有重大示范价值、能够作为指导性案例的案件).

There has been one academic article in English (that I am aware of) (by Professors Chen and Wang) that focuses on the circuit courts, but looking at large scale policy rather than more granular analysis of circuit court decisions, whether in the form of judgments or rulings, or how circuit courts guide the lower courts, the impact on law practice in circuit court cities, and what it means for law students.  I’ll set out some quick thoughts on each topic.

Circuit Court Judgments & Rulings

According to the research of Tsinghua Professor He Haibo and colleagues, most of the SPC documents are rulings rather than judgments.  According to their data relating to 2017, 91% of the documents were rulings (relating to applications for retrial or trial supervision), with judgments accounting for about 4%, which in the authors’ view, makes it difficult for the SPC to fully fulfill its function of supervising and guiding the lower courts. This statement has made me think more about what the circuit courts are doing, particularly behind the scenes, as “supervising and guiding” the lower courts has multiple meanings.

What appears not to be generally known is that a substantial proportion of the cases heard in the circuit courts are administrative cases, although Chinese law firms have done many big data reports of commercial cases heard in the circuit courts. I am not aware of a comprehensive study on the number and type of administrative cases in the circuit courts.  This report on the #3 Circuit notes that approximately 70% of the cases were administrative, without breaking out annual statistics. I understand that similar statistics are true for the #1, #2, and #6 Circuit Courts. This report from a Shaanxi law firm on #6 Circuit cases (based on 2017-first half of 2019) found that practically all administrative rulings (96%) rejected the applicant’s request to retry or remand the cases (see the pie chart below).
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The law firm commented that of the administrative cases that were accepted, most of them involved the taking of collective land and the condemnation of housing on state-owned land, indicating government enforcement issues (among others). The comments of the lawyers on the judgments indicated that “administration according to law” is still a long term goal, particularly in western China, as the cases revealed instances of local governments:

  1. condemning or taking land and housing without obtaining approval;
  2. taking land or housing in excess of administrative authority;
  3. taking land or housing first, then obtaining approval;
  4. failing to compensate real estate owners or land use rights holders;
  5. failing to follow required procedures;
  6. demonstrating poor awareness of law, including procedural and evidentiary requirements;
  7. failing to protect the rights of related persons;
  8. failing to comply with open government regulations.

This data is consistent with what I had understood from other sources. One informed commentator mentioned that circuit courts are reluctant to order the retrial of administrative cases. He attributed it to “holistic” thinking on the part of judges (my term–considering factors other than those relating to the case), particularly social stability, the need to uphold the prestige of government, etc.

However, in addition to judgments and rulings, circuit courts use other ways of guiding local courts, and indirectly, local governments.

 How the circuit courts guide the lower courts

Doing some further digging, I found that circuit courts use their judgments and rulings in other more traditional ways to guide the lower courts.  Among those are:

Circuit Courts and Elite Law Firms

Another impact of the circuit courts is to attract some of the elite Beijing or Shanghai law firms to establish branches in circuit court cities.  Tian Tong Law Firm appears to be one of the first, but I’ve also noticed that some of the other big Chinese law firms have followed Tian Tong’s lead. The impact on lawyer career paths remains to be seen, but it is likely to improve the level of litigation practice in some locations.

Circuit Courts and Chinese law students

Finally, having a circuit court nearby has an unrecognized benefit for Chinese law students, many of whom are educated in a very traditional way, with little experience in thinking through legal problems in a comprehensive way or are unused to using their research skills analytically.  It also enables the circuit courts to have greater intellectual support, without expanding their headcount.  From my conversations with law students who have interned in circuit courts, the experience has given them the opportunity to undertake thorough analysis on new issues and to have their work reviewed carefully by highly qualified and experienced mentor judges or judge’s assistants.  It has also given some law students an appreciation of the demands of working “in the system” rather than the more relaxed environment of a university, as several of my students found when they didn’t realize that they needed to inform their supervisors ahead of time about taking leave from their internships to return to school!