Supreme People’s Court & foreign-related disputes

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Judge Zhang Yongjian, chief judge of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s #4 Civil Division (responsible for foreign, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan related commercial issues) previously featured on this blog, gave an interview to Legal Daily on the sidelines of the NPC meeting. This quick blogpost sets out some of the useful information from the interview:

He provided some data on the number of cross border cases:

  • Total number of foreign-related cases of all types (first, second instance, retrial, enforcement) heard and resolved: 25900, up 9.38%, among which 1061 were criminal,19200 civil and 3629 administrative, and about 2000 enforcement cases. The civil and commercial cases increased almost 11% compared to last year and accounted for about 75% of all foreign-related cases.
  • Total number of Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan related civil and commercial cases closed: 27053 civil and commercial cases, Judge Zhang said that they accounted for 85% of all cases involving “greater China.”

The cases coming before the Chinese courts differ from the old trading and joint venture disputes, with many more cases involving demand guarantees, international factoring, private equity funds, stock options in companies listed overseas listed companies, cross-border telecommunications (fraud?), bonded trade disputes.

(As this observer has previously predicted), the number of cases related to One Belt One Road (OBOR) is increasing relatively quickly, while the number involving the United States, Britain, Germany, are decline. Cross-border project contracting and international logistics related cases are on the increase, as well as foreign-related intellectual property cases and maritime cases. Although Judge Zhang did not say so, it appears that many of these disputes are related to Chinese companies going out as well as OBOR, and may reflect inadequate documentation of the projects. The increase in maritime cases is linked to the ongoing decline in the shipping industry.  Chinese maritime courts have heard cases related to the Hanjin bankruptcy as well as large numbers of cases involving ship crew.

Challenges for the Chinese courts in hearing cross border cases:  encountering many “blank spaces” in Chinese legislation; conflict of laws with neighboring countries.  Other ongoing bottlenecks for Chinese courts in hearing cross-border cases–service of process to overseas parties; obtaining evidence crossborder; determining facts that have occurred abroad; determining and applying foreign law.

Judge Zhang highlighted the solutions for the Chinese courts in dealing with the difficulties:

  • SPC issuing judicial interpretations and other judicial guidance;
  • establishing a case guidance and reference system for the lower courts, including model cases, guiding cases, and selected cases (i.e. as selected by the SPC), to guide and limit judges’ discretion.
  • The SPC selecting some commercial cases (relating to free trade zones, internet finance, cross border investment financing) with an international impact as a model.
  • To enable correct and just hearing of cases, the higher and lower courts should be in touch in a timely matter and establish a system for supervision before, during and after a case. [What this means for judicial autonomy in hearing cases and the appeal system is not said.]
  • On the goals for 2017, those include establishing an OBOR dispute resolution center (推进设立“一带一路”争端解决中心的建立,促进“一带一路”建设). This is likely linked to the May, 2017 OBOR Conference to be held in Beijing.  Judge Zhang did not further specify, but it seems unlikely to mean establishing China’s own investment dispute resolution center. Perhaps this means increasing the role of Chinese courts in hearing cross-border cases involving OBOR jurisdictions.

Judge Zhang mentioned that he and his colleagues in 2017 have a variety of difficult issues that will be the subject of judicial interpretations or policy documents. This observer hopes that they will find it appropriate to consult the international legal community when drafting the following judicial interpretations that are on their agenda:

  • Enforcement of foreign civil and commercial judgments (possibly related the the Judgments Convention being negotiated under the auspices of the Hague Conference on Private International Law, and in the near term, to the enforcement of judgments through mutual judicial assistance treaties;
  • cross-border guarantees;
  • labor issues for ship crew;
  • damages in marine environmental cases;
  • jurisdiction in foreign-related cases, particularly civil and commercial cases;
  • judicial review of arbitration (this has been signalled for at least two years).

Judge Zhang signalled that they want to establish an English language website on foreign-related civil and commercial matters.  It is hoped that this new website will post information in a more timely manner than the current SPC English language website. An (unsolicited) recommendation is to hire an expatriate editor (similar to Xinhua and other Chinese media outlets) to assist in delivering content that meets institutional requirements and interests the foreign user.

All these developments relate back to one sentence in the Fourth Plenum Decision:

Vigorously participate in the formulation of international norms, promote the handling of foreign-related economic and social affairs according to the law, strengthen our country’s discourse power and influence in international legal affairs, use legal methods to safeguard our country’s sovereignty, security, and development interests.

 

 

 

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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.

Report from the Supreme People’s Court courtroom on hearing in foreign-court appointed liquidator case

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On June 11, the 4th Civil Chamber of the Supreme People’s Court (Court) held a public hearing in the case of Sino-Environment Technology Group vs. Thumb Environmental Technology Group (Thumb Env-Tech). Nils Pelzer [seen in the audience in the photo below], research fellow at the Max Planck Institute Luxembourg and visiting scholar at the KoGuan Law School of Shanghai Jiaotong University, attended the hearing. The Supreme People’s Court Observer made it possible. A slightly amended version of his report follows.

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The litigious PRC subsidiary

This hearing was the latest of a series of lawsuits between the parties.  The earlier blogpost on this case (linked here) concerned a related lawsuit between the parties but the Fujian Higher Court decision in the current case was not available on-line.

Summary of the facts

Thumb Env-Tech is a Chinese wholly-owned subsidiary of Sino-Environment Tech, a company registered in Singapore (now in liquidation). The Singaporean liquidator (the former judicial manager) had dismissed the former management board of Thumb Env-Tech and appointed the insolvency firm’s own managing partner as the new chairman of the board of directors (and legal representative). The liquidator had also decided to reduce the registered capital of Thumb Env-Tech. However, because Thumb Env-Tech’s old management did not comply with the directives of new management, these measures were not registered with the local Administration of Industry and Commerce (AIC) Bureau.

Thumb Env-Tech’s original management – on behalf of Thumb Env-Tech – sued the parent company in the Fujian Higher People’s Court to pay a capital contribution of RMB 45 million (approximately USD 7.23 million), ignoring both their own removal and the order to implement the capital reduction and challenged the right of the judicial manager (later the liquidator), appointed by the Singapore High Court, to remove the original legal representative and directors. Thumb Env-Tech alleged that the judicial manager had no right to remove the directors and legal representative. Thumb’s new legal representative, on the other hand, filed a motion to withdraw the lawsuit.  Sino-Environment Tech put forward the argument because of the lack of power of representation, filing the lawsuit was not the “real declaration of intention” of Thumb Env-Tech.

Surprisingly in the first instance, the Fujian Higher People’s Court decided in favor of Thumb, ordering Sino-Environment Tech to pay the full sum of RMB 45 million. The court reasoned that Sino-Environment Tech was unable to prove that the old management board, which was still officially registered and had used the official company stamp, had no power of representation.

The decision of the Court

On appeal by Sino-Environment Tech, the Court (unanimously) rejected this argument in the second and final instance. The Court decided that while the registration with the AIC was sufficient to file a lawsuit on behalf of the company, things have to be treated differently when it comes to the substantial claim of the subsidiary against its parent company. The aim of the AIC registry is to protect third parties acting in good faith, but this does not apply to the internal relationship between a company and its shareholders. There, the real situation overrides the good-faith protection of the registry.

Even more importantly, the Court expressly recognized the power of the Singaporean liquidator to represent the parent company in liquidation. As far as the foreign liquidator’s powers are concerned, the Court ruled that the law of the place of the registered office of the relevant company is applicable.

Evaluation

This outcome had been expected by both Chinese and foreign legal experts. Not only does it clarify that just possessing a chop and an official registration does not always come along with absolute authority, but it is also a step towards to insolvency rules in China consistent with uniform international insolvency rules in China. Further, if the Court had upheld the ruling of the first instance, this would have basically meant that parent companies might completely lose control over their Chinese subsidiaries. From this point of view, the ruling strengthened the investment environment in China.

From a political perspective, this case might mark the beginning of a more open attitude to grant access to court hearings to foreigners. As reported by Chinese newspapers, this was the first hearing of the Court that foreign diplomats were explicitly invited to attend.

Lastly, the similarities of a hearing of the Court and of Western supreme courts were striking (at least in this case). The proceedings were skilfully led by Judge Luo Dongchuan [chief judge of the 4th Civil Chamber], and the quality of the debate between the Court and the lawyers of both parties was generally very high. It is not only for this reason that the 4th Civil Chamber will probably submit the case as a suggestion for a new guiding case.

Power of foreign court appointed liquidator of overseas listed company to take over Chinese subsidiary comes before the Supreme People’s Court

 

Sino-environment hearing notice

Sino-environment hearing notice

HEALTH WARNING: PLEASE SEE THIS BLOGPOST FOR THE MOST RECENT DEVELOPMENTS.

On 11 June 2014, the Supreme People’s Court will hear a shareholders dispute.  The facts of the case (described below) are familiar to the Hong Kong and Singapore legal and investment community. They touch on the power of overseas insolvency/bankruptcy professionals to take over assets in China.

The parties to the case are Sino-Environment Technology Group Limited (Sino-Environment Tech) (a company originally listed in on the main board in Singapore (but now in liquidation) and one of its wholly owned subsidiaries, Thumb Env-Tech Group (Fujian) Co., Ltd (Thumb Env-Tech).

The case has all the elements of a China deal gone very, very bad.

What we know

The case was originally brought in the Fuzhou Intermediate Court by Thumb Env-Tech (i.e., the original management group).  It challenged the right of the judicial manager (later the liquidator) (appointed by the Singapore High Court) to remove the original legal representative and directors.  Thumb Env-Tech alleged that the judicial manager had no right to  remove the directors and legal representative and it was arbitrarily implementing an order of a Singapore court, violating China’s judicial sovereignty.  The Fuzhou Intermediate Court rejected Thumb Env-Tech’s claim, determining that it was not a proper party.Thumb Env-Tech appealed to the Fujian Higher People’s Court.  The decision can be found here, on the court’s website. The Fujian Higher People’s Court rejected Thumb Env-Tech’s appeal, stating that the case is not a simple matter of private rights but involves issues of public policy, and that Article 119 of the Civil Procedure Law did not permit Thumb Env-Tech to bring the case. Thumb Env-Tech has brought a petition to have the case reviewed by the Court. (summary from the Fujian Higher Court decision)

Sino-Environment Technology Group Limited was a listed Singapore company that was principally engaged in the provision of environmental protection and waste recovery through its subsidiaries in PRC with over SG$165 million debt. Its liquidators investigated SG$84 million worth of suspicious transactions undertaken by the group, taking steps to secure control over the company’s PRC subsidiaries by removing all existing legal representatives and directors of the PRC subsidiaries and commencing legal proceedings against them, securing the company’s cash held with a PRC bank and assessing and defending legal proceedings. (from the liquidator’s website)

Morgan Stanley sold $US 109 million in Sino-Environment Technology Group Limited convertible bonds. The company defaulted on repayment of the bonds. (from a first press report and a second press report.)

Related litigation in the Hong Kong courts can be found here.

What will the outcome be?

We will wait the outcome of this case in the Court.  It is a “typical case” in its own way, because there are many cases in which foreign companies with Chinese subsidiaries, some of them listed, get into financial difficulties.  It is part of international insolvency practice that  bankruptcy trustees/judicial managers/administrators/liquidators appointed by foreign courts will take over control of subsidiaries in China.  Chinese law and practice do not make this an easy process.  This a classic example of why Chinese legal experts, as well foreign governments, Taiwan, and Hong Kong need to persuade the Chinese government  that it is important for China that it become an active part of the international legal framework governing bankruptcy (insolvency) proceedings.