Supreme People’s Court releases 2016 bankruptcy data

7427ea09324917a26ee719The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued 2016 data on bankruptcy cases on 24 February: 5665 cases were accepted by the Chinese courts while 3602 were closed.  This is up substantially from 2015, when 3568 cases were accepted.  This is an increase of 53.8% over 2015.   Of these, 1041 were bankruptcy reorganization cases, up 85.2% over 2015. As this blog has previously reported,  long delays in filing bankruptcy cases have meant that practically all bankruptcy cases have been liquidation rather than reorganization cases. This is contrast to the downward trend in bankruptcy cases 2005-2014, shown in the graph published on this earlier blogpost. These numbers represent only a tiny proportion of what the Chinese government terms “zombie enterprises,” but it does show that the SPC has been doing its part to serve the nation’s major economic strategies.

What has the SPC done to support this important government strategy highlighted in the 5th Plenum?  In reverse chronological order, a quick list of some of the highlights:

  1. In February, 2017, the SPC issued guidance  to the lower courts on transferring cases that are in debt enforcement proceedings into bankruptcy, so that bankruptcy reorganization has a chance of working. Justice Du had flagged the importance of this a year ago. The Zhejiang Higher People’s Court piloted measures because the courts of that province are piloting bankruptcy reforms. As reported in a December, 2016 blogpost, close to half (40-50%) of the unsatisfied enforcement cases are ones that are wholly unsatisfied, with a goodly portion involving corporate judgment debtors. Judge Du pointed out that unsatisfied judgments because of local protectionism have led to conflicts between creditors and “fierce” conflicts between courts. He called for courts not to engage in “buck passing” on enforcement cases that are transferred to another court for bankruptcy procedures.
  2. In December, 2016, the SPC and lower court judges (as well as Chinese bankruptcy practitioners and scholars) were involved in dialogue with American bankruptcy judges and practitioners on bankruptcy issues, under the framework of US Department of Commerce initiative
  3. On 1 August 216, launched a bankruptcy electronic information platform  (it harmonizes with President Zhou Qiang’s promotion of information technology in the Chinese courts). According to the SPC’s press release, close to 9000 cases are in the database. The platform has assembled relevant documents on some high profile cases, such as Dongbei Special Steel. This platform has received a good market response with 9,760,000 page views as of early February, 2017 (likely to be primarily bankruptcy professionals).
  4. In June, 2016, as this blog has reported earlier, the SPC has required lower courts to establish specialized bankruptcy divisions (4 on the provincial level, 47 intermediate courts, and 22 basic level courts).  One of the aims of the SPC is to create a corps of more competent judges to handle bankruptcy cases. Given the link between the bankruptcy of large state owned enterprises and social stability highlighted by judges writing on this topic previously, serving as a bankruptcy judge in China requires a set of skills unneeded in other jurisdictions.
  5. As more and more companies go into bankruptcy, (as highlighted in this blogpost), more labor litigation can be expected. Senior SPC judges have highlighted that people are increasingly aware of their rights. Those with the means are going to court to try to protect them. The SPC is likely to work on technical issues highlighted in the report such as: how to characterize labor claims in bankruptcy, and whether they should be treated as labor disputes or claims against the bankruptcy estate; whether labor disputes needed to be submitted first to labor arbitration; how the courts can better obtain files from labor arbitration authorities and can ensure labor disputes are addressed and not avoided; and how to ensure that bankrupt enterprises pay social insurance payments for their employees.
  6. Expect to see the SPC focus on bankruptcies (or reorganization) in important areas of the Chinese economy, such as real estate.  This analysis published by a member of the Shanghai Bar Association highlighted some of the complex interests relating to the bankruptcy reorganization of real estate companies : is it practicable;  the workers; the lender, who are often private (shadow) lenders; the individual purchasers. These cases generally involve a string of companies.

Supreme People’s Court & big data

On 22 December, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) posted four big data reports drafted jointly by its Information Center and the Judicial Cases Research Center (affiliated with the National Judicial College).

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The bar chart above, from the divorce report, shows the number of divorce cases heard in the courts in 2014-September, 2016, stating that the 2016 cases have increased almost 11% over the same time the year before. A subsequent chart shows that domestic violence as the cause for divorce in 27.8% of cases.screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-7-11-32-am

The reports appear to be products of the recently established SPC big data company.  The analysis in the reports is restricted to bullet points, rather the more detailed analytical reports that are found on the websites/Wechat public accounts of courts and lawyers.  (Suggestion to (any) readers from the SPC–  translations of these reports would be a useful addition to the English version of the SPC’s website).

Anyone looking for more than current statistics and basic analysis is advised to search for more detailed analysis done by law firms, local courts, some of the legal media companies, and some of the other divisions of the SPC.  On the topic of divorce, for example, an SPC judge published this analysis earlier this year, generally considered to be the most authoritative summary of the issues in Chinese divorce law.

The 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan (Court Reform Plan) flagged the SPC’s big data company and the stress that the SPC is placing on big data:

22. Deepen reforms of judicial statistics.Reform mechanisms for judicial statistics with the idea of “big data, big picture, and big service” as a guide; make a system of standards for judicial statistics that has scientific classifications and complete information, gradually building a model for analysis of empirical evidence that complies with the reality of judicial practice and judicial rules, and establish a national archive of court judgment opinions and a national center for big data on judicial information. (translation from @Chinalawtranslate)

The Court Reform Plan signals that the stress is on judicial statistics and using big data for internal use rather than for public access, as “complete information” is not provided to the public, with death penalty statistics the best-known example. Although judicial transparency is greater before (especially for those of us with a historical perspective), from time to time SPC media sources reiterate that judicial personnel are required to keep state secrets (as the Judges Law and other legislation require).

At the moment, transparency of judicial statistics and analysis varies greatly across provinces. Jiangsu Province’s high court, for example, has judicial statistics on its homepage:screen-shot-2016-12-26-at-9-27-32-pm

Many law firms publish big data analysis of specific types of cases in their area of practice, such as this analysis of credit card fraud cases in Guangzhou (22% of the defendants were represented by counsel) and drug cases in Guangzhou (less than 15% represented by counsel). An analysis of drug cases in Guangdong (Jieyang, a center for the  methamphetamine business) by the local court, has important insights into the routinization of criminal justice, the inadequacy of court judgments, and the way that the trial itself and the role of defense counsel (if hired) is marginalized.

Big data analyses can be found in a range of substantive areas, ranging from finance disputes to construction disputes, some by law firms and others by local courts.  My fellow blogger, Mark Cohen, recently highlighted the data analysis provided by IPHouse, a firm started by a former SIPO Commissioner.  They are useful to the lawyer/in-house counsel planning or considering litigation strategy, as well as for policy-makers and academics. Each provides a glimpse of how (and sometimes why)  the Chinese legal system works as it does.

 

Updated data on Chinese bankruptcy law

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Senior Shanghai Maritime Court judges participating in video conference 

Senior Judge Du Wanhua, tasked with making Chinese bankruptcy and corporate restructuring law work better (see these earlier blogposts), spoke recently on a video conference held by the Chinese courts, where he released a few points of big data on Chinese bankruptcy law and highlighted (in this version) current and forthcoming court policy on bankruptcy.  The data he released can be expected to be part of the conversation when the 21st US-China [or China-US, depending on your perspective] Legal Exchange takes place in Beijing and Shanghai on 13 and 15 December 2016 on bankruptcy law.

The video conference concerned one of the vexed issues of Chinese bankruptcy law, how to transfer cases from enforcement to bankruptcy proceedings, but Du Wanhua’s talking points as released were more general. Some of his points are highlighted below.

Updated data on bankruptcy cases

The Chinese courts have accepted 3463 bankruptcy cases through October of this year, up almost 30% year on year, of which 2249 have been closed, up almost 60%.  At the same time, the business registration authorities (the State Administration of Industry and Commerce (SAIC) and local counterparts), have cancelled the registration of 396,000 companies.

Transitioning from enforcement to bankruptcy procedures

Judge Du revealed that close to half (40-50%) of the unsatisfied enforcement cases  are ones that are wholly unsatisfied, with a goodly portion involving corporate judgment debtors. (As mentioned in earlier blogposts, there is no procedure to transfer cases from enforcement procedures to bankruptcy). Judge Du mentioned that the SPC had already drafted guidance which have been discussed by the SPC’s Judicial Committee and would be issued soon. He noted that unsatisfied judgments because of local protectionism have led to conflicts between creditors and  “fierce” conflicts between courts. He called for courts not to engage in “buck passing” on enforcement cases that are transferred to another court for bankruptcy procedures.

Establish coordination system for bankruptcy cases

Echoing themes in earlier statements by Judge Du and others in the Chinese courts, he calls for localities to establish a unified coordination mechanism for enterprise bankruptcy work, with government and courts, under Party Committee leadership, to plan state asset protection, safeguarding of financial safety, resettlement and reemployment of workers, and for the bankruptcy of non-state owned enterprises to proceed smoothly.

Will this coordination system improve matters?  The jury is still out.

 

Big data on China’s case database

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 12.13.38 PMThe Supreme People’s Court (SPC) database, China Judgments Online, receives good marks from most commentators inside and outside of China and it is one of the successes of the judicial reforms that President Zhou Qiang often discusses with visiting foreign guests as well as domestic officials.  Only now has a team of researchers from Peking University drilled down on the case database (but only through 2014, because the data was not complete for 2015) (short version found here and full version here). They found that there is room for improvement.

The researchers found that only about 50% of number of cases resolved in the Chinese courts (about 30.5 million during 2014-2015) have been uploaded to the case database (14.5 million).

Level and type of case

Almost 80% of the cases uploaded are from the basic level courts, with intermediate level courts accounting from almost 19%, and fewer than 1% from the SPC.

Approximately 63% of the cases are civil, with 20% criminal, enforcement 15%, and administrative cases less than 4%. 

Are courts uploading cases to the database consistently?

 

 

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Geographic distribution of uploaded judgments

 

The map above is based on an analysis of 2014 data.  Shaanxi, Zhejiang, Shandong, Anhui, and Hebei provinces were the best performers, particularly Shaanxi; Henan, Fujian, Hunan, Hubei, Guangxi, and Ningxia were in the second tier, uploading at least half.  The less transparent courts include Tibet, Xinjiang, and Guizhou.

[I personally expected that Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Guangdong would be more transparent.]

Are cases uploaded consistently throughout the year?

At least in 2014, there was a half year and year end rush to upload cases.  It appears that the uploading of cases is one of the items for judges performance appraisal.

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Issues cited

  • More than half of judicial documents have not been uploaded to the database, including judgments in some of the more controversial cases.
  • Technical issues complicate the uploading process.  Because the courts are administered locally, the IT systems are local as well.
  • The regulations set out vague standards for taking down a judgment/ruling. When objections are made, the cases are taken down with little review. [As I have commented in relation to streaming of court cases, the absence of privacy legislation is an issue, because judges lack specific guidance on what information is regarded as private.]
  • Large gaps exist between the coastal and inland provinces in uploading judgments, with long delays an issue as well, although the regulations require judgments to be uploaded 7 business days after they take effect (this provision is unchanged from the 2013 version).
  • Monitoring of the database is an issue.  The SPC has been stressing the quantity of judgments uploaded, while insufficient attention is paid to quality.  [This may have something to do with tendency of some Chinese academics to focus on theory or comparisons among jurisdictions, rather than engage in a more focused study on what their own court system is actually doing.]

Comment

The Chinese government has allocated  USD $40 billion to the Silk Road Fund associated with the One Belt One Road strategic initiative, to improve infrastructure overseas.  China’s judiciary, an important part of the nation’s legal infrastructure, requires better funding as well.  Even a tiny percentage of that $40 billion would go far to contribute to improve courts’ IT infrastructure, not to mention improved salaries, and the retention of the research departments of local courts.

Investment in the courts is needed to bolster the Chinese (not to mention foreign) public’s confidence in the Chinese courts’ ability to provide a better quality of justice.

As my law school classmate, Justice John Roberts, said several years ago, when confronted by budget cuts to the US federal judiciary:

At the top of my list is a year-end report that must once again dwell on the need to
provide adequate funding for the Judiciary.I would like to choose a fresher topic, but duty calls. The budget remains the single most important issue facing the courts….

The Judiciary continues to depend on the vision and statesmanship of our colleagues in the Executive and Legislative Departments. It takes no imagination to see that
failing to meet the Judiciary’s essential requirements undermines the
public’s confidence in all three branches of government. Both A Christmas
Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life have happy endings. We are encouraged
that the story of funding for the Federal Judiciary—though perhaps not as
gripping a tale—will too.