Supreme People’s Court ramps up its judicial responsibility system

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 7.04.09 AMIn April of this year (2017), the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued its judicial responsibility guidelines.  At the end of July, the SPC issued a 73 article implementing opinion (最高人民法院司法责任制实施意见(试行)(Implementing Opinion), which went into effect on 1 August.  There have been many summary reports in the legal press, but the full text was not found until 11 August. It has since been published by several Wechat accounts, but as of this writing, no official text has been issued.  The policy basis for the responsibility system links back to the 3rd and 4th Plenum Decisions. Senior Party leadership (the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms) approved the SPC’s responsibility system.

The document establishes operating rules for the SPC  after this latest round of court reforms, and therefore sets guidelines for the lower courts. It can be expected that the lower courts will issue corresponding documents. Through the Implementing Opinion, it is possible to see how much autonomy an individual judge/three judge panel has and what matters require approval by senior SPC leaders.

Opinions (as this blog has previously explained) are not judicial interpretations but a type of judicial normative document.   A recent Wechat post by an SPC commercial subsidiary, Faxin (法信), described them as judicial guiding documents (司法指导性文件). That is the terminology being used for them in a series of books published by the People’s Court Press. Inconsistent legal terminology is not a new phenomenon.

The basic principles of the Implementing Opinion are said to implement central authorities’ requirements, let those who hear cases bear responsibility, clarify how cases are to be dealt with and put in place the Party group’s responsibility for enforcement (the phrase “Party group” actually is mentioned three times) and case handling. It appears that some provisions memorialize current practice, while others set out new rules.

The  Implementing Opinion specifies roles of different personnel and institutions within the SPC such as the court president (and vice presidents), heads of divisions, professional judges committee, judicial committee, presiding judges, judges in charge of cases, clerks, and judicial assistants. It provides guidelines on how cases are to dealt with, from case acceptance, random case assignment, to issuing decisions.

The Implementing Opinion includes the following (selected) provisions:

  • Details on staffing for judges (one assistant and one clerk in the circuit courts, and some assistants and clerks at headquarters) (Article 3);
  • those with a leadership role (President/vice president/vice/heads of divisions) should generally be the presiding judge (Article 5), while the judges in collegial panels should change every 2-5 years;
  • leaders need to hear cases, that are difficult/important/guiding, etc., but specialists are designated to assist them (Article 7);
  • rules on who will issue judgments, mentioning that the president of the SPC signs the  order for the implementation of the death penalty (this was understood to be the case already)(Article 11);
  • court leaders may not give oral/written instructions concerning a case (except as otherwise provided (i.e. cases that are considered by the judicial committee)(Article 12);
  • responsibilities of professional judges committees (a committee put into place under the judicial reforms); judicial committee (can be split into specialist civil, criminal, enforcement subcommittees) (role said to have narrowed, but include major/difficult cases affecting national interests & social stability, but also other non-case related duties such as approving judicial interpretations/judicial normative documents, etc., the judicial committees requires  views be stated in the judgment (Articles 16-19);
  • the basic rule is random case assignment, with exceptions for major/difficult cases (Article 26-27), with electronic service of process & documents if agreed (Article 32);
  • basic rule is online broadcast of SPC court hearings, unless approved by leaders otherwise (Article 33), with requirements concerning the posting of rulings/judgments and other transparency requirements mentioned in the document;
  • circuit courts are prohibited (in general) from considering requests for instructions (the rule makes sense–it would defeat one of the purposes of having circuit courts (Article 25, this is an example);
  •  Articles 41-43 relate to precedent case review (as suggested in my recent article) and require approval by leaders if the ruling in a case will be inconsistent with prior SPC rulings on the topic (this has been criticized as being inconsistent with judicial autonomy). Approval is required in several other situations, see Article 40 (2-4));
  • Articles 46-50 set forth rules for a collegiate panel to consider a case and submit it to the division leadership/professional judges committee/judicial committee;
  • Article 51 requires the judge responsible for the case (承办法官) to draft the decision reached according to the majority view, indicating that the role of responsible judge has administrative overtones. If not so, the judgment would be drafted by one of the judges who agreed with the majority view.
  • Article 58 retains existing special procedures (including special standards for transparency) for certain criminal cases, such as death penalty cases, cases involving foreigners, overseas Chinese, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwanese Chinese.
  • Article 61 provides the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) representative stationed at the SPC can be a member of the judicial committee (this seems to be analogous to the procedure under law under which a representative from the procuratorate can take part in judicial committee meetings). Additionally, anti-corruption officials stationed in each division can participate in professional judges committee meetings and collegiate panel discussions.   Article 61 does not require their views to be adopted.  It could be that their views are considered more seriously if discussions relate to matters regarding which they are competent.
  • Article 64 requires certain types of cases to be submitted for approval to higher levels of the SPC, including cases involving mass incidents, that will have an effect on social stability; difficult and complicated cases that will have a major effect on society; cases that will conflict with prior SPC cases; those that indicate the judge violated the law; death penalty review, major criminal cases, cases involving requests for instructions involving foreigners, overseas Chinese, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwanese Chinese.

The vision for the reformed SPC remains a court with administrative characteristics (官本位), with concepts derived from other jurisdictions (judge’s assistant would be an example), that enables Party guidance in sensitive cases and its operations to reflect changes in Party/government policy (serving the actual situation), but seeks to be a more professional and accessible institution, hearing cases in a professional manner. It can be surmised that certain provisions from the Implementing Opinion will be incorporated into the revisions of the Organizational Law of the People’s Courts currently being drafted.

 

 

Advertisements

Chinese courts & formality requirements

apostille

Hong Kong Apostille (from internet)

In February, 2017, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued its second judicial transparency white paper, giving the official version of what the SPC has done to respond to public demands for greater transparency about the Chinese judicial system. But what are the voices from the world of practice saying? One of the issues (for a small but vocal group, foreign litigants) is inconsistent and non-transparent formalities requirements.

Chinese civil procedure legislation requires a foreign litigant to notarize and legalize corporate documents, powers of attorney & other documents. It is a time consuming and costly process, with some jurisdictions providing documents that do not meet the expectation of Chinese courts.   China is not yet a signatory to the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents  (Hague Legalization Convention)   which substitutes the faster and cheaper apostille process (note that Hague Legalization Convention continues to be applicable to Hong Kong and Macau under the terms of the joint declarations and Basic Laws for each Special Administrative Region (SAR)).  About one year ago, a Ministry of Justice official published a Wechat article discussing the benefits of the Hague Legalization Convention (as well as the issues facing China in implementing it).

While this article addresses issues faced by foreign plaintiffs seeking to challenge Trademark Review and Adjudication Board decisions in the Beijing Intellectual Property Court (Beijing IP Court), according to other practitioners (who have asked not to be identified), these problems with inconsistent (and non-transparent) requirements concerning legalizing foreign corporate documentation are not limited to the Beijing IP Court, but face foreign parties appealing from intermediate courts to provincial high courts elsewhere in China. These requirements can have the effect of cutting off a party’s ability to bring an appeal, for example.

What is the solution?  The long-term solution, of course, is for China to become a signatory to the Hague Legalization Convention.  In the meantime, Chinese courts should be more transparent about their formalities requirements.  These requirements affect all foreign parties, whether they are from One Belt, One Road  (OBOR) countries or not. If China is seeking to become an international maritime judicial center or hear more OBOR commercial cases, the Chinese courts need to become more user friendly.  Courts with significant numbers of foreign cases (Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen….) can consider reaching out to the foreign chambers of commerce, many of which have legal committees, to understand in greater detail what specific problems foreign litigants face (and convey their views to foreign audiences). Resolving this issue can create some goodwill with the foreign business community with relatively little effort.

 

English language websites of Chinese courts

The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and other Chinese courts have established or upgraded their English language websites to promote better the image of the Chinese courts to the outside world.  These websites are linked to policy goals set by the 4th Plenum, 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan, and other related documents. That can be seen from an announcement on the English language version of the Shanghai Maritime Court’s website:

Shanghai Maritime Court established a judicial translator team, aiming at having a bigger say in global judicial disputes and fostering judicial talents with a global vision.

“Establishing a professional translator team for maritime judiciary centers is a goal for building a global maritime judicial center,” said Zhao Hong, president of the Shanghai Maritime Court.

“It is aiming to serve a maritime powerhouse and laying a solid foundation for China’s Belt and Road initiative,” Zhao said.

A quick rating of the soft power of these English language websites follows below.

SPC English website

  1. SPC’s English website: http://www.english.court.gov.cn

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 1.53.41 PM.png

The SPC English website, while an improvement over the previous version, could be substantially improved.

Too much of the information is out of date, including much of the information on the landing page of the website. The “About” section, which could be useful to foreign courts, diplomats, journalists, researchers, students, etc. has an outdated description of the SPC leadership.  In the section on Resources, the SPC white papers are published as separate pages, rather than as one downloadable PDF (as some of the Chinese maritime courts have done). The scheduled hearings section is generally out of date and also provides no information as to how an interested person would attend a hearing. The link to issues of the SPC Gazette only contains the first two pages, rather than the full issue itself.  Moreover, the landing page lacks links to other English language court websites.

National Maritime Court site

China Maritime Trial: http://enccmt.court.gov.cn/chinamaritimetrial/index.html, the English language version of the national maritime court website (partial screenshot below), apparent partner to the Foreign Related Commercial website (similar look and feel) seems to be in beta mode.Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 2.03.12 PM

Again, as with the national court website, the news on most of the landing page appears to be outdated.  The white paper page does not enable the user to download a PDF version of the report providing an overview of the first 30 years of the maritime courts.  Under the resources tab, under law & regs, are links to translations of SPC judicial interpretations relating to the maritime courts, but it is not apparent to anyone looking at the landing page. These translations are potentially a useful resource to all sorts of foreign readers. Under the resources tab, the cases menu is empty. The judgement tab links to translations of some judgments and rulings by the SPC and maritime courts, but without any headings or indications on the front page of the website.  These translations, too, are potentially a useful resource to foreign users. It does have links to the other maritime courts (some of which have English websites, but some of the links are out of date.

National Foreign-Related Commercial Cases Website

China Foreign Related Commercial Trial: http://enccmt.court.gov.cn/ChinaForeignRelatedCommercialTrial/index.html , the English language version of the national foreign-related commercial cases court website (partial screenshot below),apparent partner to the Maritime Courts website (similar look and feel) seems to be in beta mode.china foreign related trial

Again, as with the national court website, the news on most of the landing page appears to be outdated. Under the About tab is a list of courts that can accept foreign-related cases, but information about the jurisdiction of each court is missing. Under the Media Center, most of the information under Updates is irrelevant to the courts, the information under International Exchanges is missing, but the Specials has a translation of the SPC’s Belt & Road policy document (although followed by descriptions of the SPC’s cooperation with several Shanghai-area law schools).  There is no content under the Resources tab or the Judgement tab.  Translations of judicial interpretations related to foreign-related civil and commercial issues and a clearer explanation of how a foreign-related case progresses in China would be useful for the casual foreign user, including those from the Belt & Road countries.

Local court websites

Relatively few Chinese courts seem to have English language websites, but the Shanghai high court (http://www.hshfy.sh.cn/shfy/English/index.jsp) has one of them.Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 3.24.23 PM

The Shanghai Higher People’s Court website is well organized, and relatively timely, although the litigation guide has little information to guide the foreign litigant, and too much of the information, whether cases or news, is badly edited.  The information on jurisdiction is not very helpful for a litigant or counsel, because it does not convey information on the jurisdiction of the Shanghai courts.  It appears that translators lacked understanding of who the potential users of the site were, and had English language challenges, unlike the Shanghai maritime court (see more below).

Local Maritime court websites

Several maritime courts have English language websites, with Guangzhou and Shanghai taking the lead in presenting useful and clear information to the foreign user.  The Shanghai maritime court website (http://shhsfy.gov.cn/hsfyywwx/hsfyywwx/index.html) does a good job of presenting official information clearly and in a timely manner. Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 2.51.58 PM.pngThe Shanghai maritime court’s bilingual white paper for 2014 and 2015 is downloadable in PDF (under the Annual Report tab), the Court News is relatively timely,  The case digests are useful and calendar lists upcoming court hearings (however without information concerning how an interested person could attend them). Unusually for a Chinese court website, the Judges tab has photos of judges other than the senior leadership.  The Contact Us tab (unusual for a Chinese court) has only telephone numbers for the court and affiliated tribunals, rather than an email (or Wechat account).  Of course the information on the Chinese side of the website is more detailed (under the white paper tab, for example, a detailed analysis of annual judicial statistics can be found), and the laws & regulations tab might usefully set out maritime-related judicial interpretations, but most of the information is well organized and relevant.  Similar comments can be made about the Guangzhou maritime court’s website (http://english.gzhsfy.gov.cn/index.php).

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 3.19.38 PM.png

Comment

It appears that Judge Zhao Hong, president of the Shanghai Maritime Court (and former SPC #4 Civil Division judge) and her Guangzhou counterpart, Judge Ye Liudong, have a greater sense of what the world outside of China is interested to know about the Chinese courts than many other Chinese senior court judges. The team of judges (and other judicial personnel)  under her watchful eye does a good job of keeping the website current and useful.

Most of the court English language websites should be rated “room to improve,”  as they fail to convey useful and timely information to foreign users.Those running the website do not seem to have a sense of what the foreign audience wants to know. That could be solved in a couple of ways: looking at some foreign court websites, consulting with a web-development company focusing on the foreign market, or recruiting some foreign lawyers or law students to be a website focus group.

The websites need to convey to a foreign audience a range of useful information worded in accessible language if they are to accomplish their goal of promoting the image of the Chinese courts.  One useful piece of information that should be on a Chinese court website is a clear illustration of the steps in a civil or commercial case), aimed at individual or small business litigants.  How foreigners can use the Chinese courts to protect their rights, be they related to a contract, property, or employment relationship, is a practical issue both to the hundreds of thousands of foreign residents in China as well as those foreigners with cross-border disputes with a Chinese party.

Supreme People’s Court & foreign-related disputes

1489107576

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.

 

 

 

What the Central Economic Work Conference means for the Chinese courts

screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-8-41-33-am

©China Daily

The day after the Communist Party Central Committee’s Central Economic Work Conference concluded, the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC’s) Party Committee held a meeting to study the “spirit of the Central Economic Work Conference.”  According to SPC President Zhou Qiang, the Central Economic Work Conference has the following takeaways for the courts:

First, adhere to strict and impartial justice, and create an open, transparent and predictable rule of law business environment 

Among the points– “We must insist on protecting the lawful rights and interests of Chinese and foreign parties equally according to law and building a more competitive international investment environment.”

Note, of course, that the foreign chambers of commerce in China have other views of the current state of the business environment at the moment, but agree that rule of law, transparency, and predictability are critical for improving China’s economic performance.  The following is from the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China’s  Business Confidence Survey 2016 

screen-shot-2016-12-20-at-8-28-38-am

AmCham China: “Respondents now cite inconsistent regulatory interpretation and unclear laws as their No. 1 business challenge.”

Second,  use the rule of law to actively promote the supply side structural reform

Zhou Qiang called on the lower courts to work better on bankruptcy cases, give full play to the role of the information network of bankruptcy and reorganization of enterprises, actively and safely deal with “zombie enterprises”, to optimize the allocation of resources to resolve the excess capacity.

But actually, bankruptcy cases remain fraught.

According to SPC Senior Judge Du Wanhua, charged with making bankruptcy law work better, in China bankruptcy requires a unified coordination mechanism  with government and courts, under Party Committee leadership.

In recent high profile corporate bankruptcies, such as LDK Solar, the local governments say that they cannot afford to rescue the companies, and so the burden must fall on creditors. The LDK case has drawn complaints from bankruptcy practitioners that the local government-led restructuring was designed to force banks to swallow the losses. Another lawyer commented that local governments’ intervention in bankruptcy cases has often disrupted their fairness.

It is likely that we will see more developments in 2017 concerning bankruptcy.

The third is to further increase the protection of property rights

Among the points Zhou Qiang made:

  • We must strengthen the protection of property rights of various organizations and natural persons;
  • We should have the courage to correct a number of mistaken cases concerning infringement of property rights.

These statements relate to three documents issued in late November and early November on protecting property rights, linked to the Central Committee/State Council’s November 4 document on the same topic, following the document issued in late October (and describe in my recent blogpost). They include:

All three relate to (well-known) abuses of China’s justice system, including:

  • turning business disputes to criminal cases (a risk for both Chinese and foreign businesses);
  • courts freezing assets far exceeding the amount in dispute (this is one example);
  • court confiscating the personal property of the entrepreneur and his (her) family, failing to distinguish between corporate and personal property;
  • courts failing to give parties opposing freezing or confiscation order a chance to be heard;
  • courts failing to hear disputes between government and entrepreneurs fairly.

The first document (apparently drafted by the SPC Research Department, because its head explained its implications at the press conference at which the first two documents were released) repeats existing principles that state-owned and private litigants, Chinese and foreign litigants should be treated equally.  It repeats existing principles that public power must not be used to violate private property rights.

The Historical Property Rights Cases Opinion (apparently drafted by the SPC’s Trial Supervision Division, because its head explained its implications at that press conference) calls on provincial high courts to establish work groups to review mistaken cases and to avoid such tragedies in the first place, focusing on implementing the regulations restricting officials from  involving themselves in court cases and the judicial responsibility system.

The third document seeks to impose better controls on the use of enforcement procedures by the lower courts.

Comments

It is hoped that these documents can play some part in improving the quality of justice in China, despite the difficulties posed while the local courts remain under local Party/government control, and may lead to the release of unfairly convicted entrepreneurs and the return of unfairly confiscated property. Perhaps these documents may provide some protection to local judges seeking to push back against local pressure.  On the historical cases, the SPC Supervision Division should consider appealing to current or retired judges who may have been involved in these injustices to come forward (without fear of punishment), as they likely to be able to identify these cases. A defined role for lawyers would also be helpful.

On the equal protection of enterprises, it should be remembered that the SPC itself has issued documents that give special protection to some parties, such as “core military enterprises.”

It appears that these documents respond to the following:

  • years of criticism of  differential legal treatment of and discrimination against private entrepreneurs;
  • academic studies by influential institutions on the criminal law risk faced by private entrepreneurs;
  • Downturn in private investment in the Chinese economy;
  • Lack of interest on the part of private enterprise in private-public partnerships;
  • Increase in investment by private enterprise abroad, most recently illustrated by the Fuyao Glass investment in Ohio;
  • articles such as this one describing Chinese entrepreneurs as either in jail or on the road to jail.

Fourth, proactive service for the construction of “one belt one road” 

This section repeats many of the themes highlighted in the SPC’s earlier pronouncements on One Belt One Road (OBOR or Belt & Road), the maritime courts, and foreign-related commercial developments. The Chinese courts continue to grapple with the increased interaction and conflicts with courts in foreign jurisdictions. The OBOR jurisdictions are handicapped by a dearth of legal professionals with familiarity with the Chinese legal system.

We should expect to see more developments directly or indirectly linked to OBOR, including a more standardized approach to the judicial review of arbitration clauses.

Fifth, strengthen the judicial response to the risks and challenges of the economy

Among the issues that President Zhou Qiang mentioned

  •  Internet finance;
  • Internet fraud;
  • illegal fund-raising and other crimes;
  • real estate disputes;
  • cases involving people’s livelihood, increasing the recourse of migrant workers and other cases of wage arrears.

These are all ongoing, difficult issues for the courts. Legislation does not demarcate clearly the line between legal and illegal forms of financing as discussed here. Migrant workers, particularly in the construction industry, are often not hired under labor contracts but labor service contracts, which reduces their entitlements under the law. As the Chinese economy continues to soften, it is likely that complex real estate disputes (of the type seen in 2015) will burden the lower courts.

We are likely to see further developments in these areas.

President Zhou Qiang told the courts to make good use of judicial “big data” to detect trends and issues so the courts can put forward targeted recommendations for reference of the Party committee and government decision-makers. He has made this point repeatedly recently.

For foreign observers of China, judicial big data is in fact a useful source of indicating trends across the Chinese economy, society, and government.  This blog has flagged some analyses, but there is much more than can and should be done.

Why the Supreme People’s Court’s new demand guarantee interpretation is important

20161122110819_58400-1

On 18 November, the Supreme People’s Court(SPC)  issued the Regulations on Some Issues Concerning the Trial of Independent Guarantee Disputes  (Independent Guarantees Interpretation) (审理独立保函纠纷案件若干问题的规定). It was publicly released at a 22 November press conference.  This document is a judicial interpretation (see this explanation) that becomes effective on 1 December. The Independent Guarantees Interpretation is important because:

  • it relates to guarantees issued by the four main Chinese banks (total amount of USD 353 billion in 2015), so the amounts will be far greater when the other banks are included);
  • large numbers of commercial transactions by Chinese companies outside of mainland China.

Along with the enormous increase in Chinese companies investing and undertaking projects abroad and being required to provide a demand guarantee when doing so has been an explosion of litigation in China [to be updated with data when available] by companies seeking to prevent the bank that has issued the demand (independent) guarantee from doing so when the foreign party to which the guarantee has been issued seeks to be paid out under the guarantee because the performance by the Chinese company fails to comply with contractual requirements.  It has also led to litigation outside of China, such as in the English courts.

As Professor Vivienne Bath has explained in a recent article:

in a number of cases, Chinese courts have attempted to reinforce their own jurisdiction in multinational disputes by issuing stop orders to Chinese parties directing them not to make payment on negotiable instruments or guarantees issued in support of a principal contract which is the subject of litigation. In the case of a Chinese bank with international interests and assets and an international reputation,this puts the bank in a very difficult situation.

It is for that reason that Judge Zhang Yongjian, head of the #4 Civil Division of the SPC (responsible for foreign-related commercial/maritime issues) revealed (at the press conference at which the interpretation was released) that the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) and the China Banking Association have been lobbying the SPC to issue this interpretation quickly. (The drafting began in early 2013 and informal work began in 2012), while discussions about the issue date back to 2007 (if not before). A drafting group within the #4 civil division was responsible for drafting it).

For those with no background about what these are, a demand/independent guarantee (called an independent guarantee in Chinese (独立保函), is often used in construction, engineering and many other types of infrastructure projects (and trade, such has shipbuilding and turbines), when the owner of the project requires the performing party to guarantee his performance with a guarantee issued by a bank. It means that if the contractor fails to meet his obligations, the project owner can be easily compensated. The bank guarantee generally needs to be backed by company funds. These are extremely important with so many Chinese companies focusing on infrastructure projects overseas, under the Chinese government’s One Belt, One Road and Go Global strategies and Chinese companies seeking to produce goods with greater added value, as Judge Zhang noted.

The International Chamber of Commerce’s (ICC’s) Uniform Rules for Demand Guarantees (URDG 758) are the internationally agreed international standard on demand guarantees, having been officially endorsed by the UN Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) at its 44th annual session in June-July, 2011.  The Independent Guarantees Interpretation sets out the applicability of URDG 758 in Chinese disputes, governing law, jurisdiction, and other issues and draws on it, the United Nations Convention on Independent Guarantees and Standby Letters of Credit, and other international rules.  (Judge Zhang used the phrase “充分借鉴吸收” (fully considered and absorbed).

Maneuvering around existing domestic legislation

The language of the interpretation maneuvers around Article 5 of China’s Security (Guarantee Law) and Article 172 of the Property Law and their restrictions on independent guarantees in domestic transactions, because independent guarantees have grown to be a big business among domestic financial institutions (according to Judge Zhang) (The interpretation allows parties to agree that the provisions of URDG 758 will be applicable.).

The Security Law states:

A guarantee contract is an ancillary contract of the principal contract. If the principal contract is nullified, the guarantee contract shall be null and void accordingly. Where it is otherwise agreed in the guarantee contract, such agreement shall prevail.

Similarly, the Property Law states that “for the creation of a security right, a guarantee contract shall be concluded in accordance with the provisions of the law and other relevant laws. A guarantee contract is an ancillary contract of the principal contract. When the principal contract is nullified, the guarantee contract shall be null and void accordingly, unless otherwise stipulated by law.

Tightening the fraud exception

The interpretation tightens the fraud exception from the requirement to make immediate payment and specifies the conditions under which courts can issue stop orders. The SPC looked to the international agreements mentioned above, foreign legislation, and foreign cases when drafting its own provision (Article 12).  Judge Zhang admits that the misuse of this exception by local courts has led to foreign banks being reluctant to negotiate letters of credit issued by Chinese banks. (This observer suggests that one reason could be that large local companies may pressure local courts to so rule).

Consultation process in drafting

Judge Zhang noted that the drafting process was one of the highlights of the interpretation.  In my earlier blogpost on the draft interpretation, I noted that the SPC consulted with (formally or informally):

  • the Ministry of Commerce;
  • leading Chinese lawyers;
  • some of the leading arbitration commissions;
  • representatives from the principal Chinese banks and major state-owned companies.

Judge Zhang noted that they consulted with:

  • the lower courts;
  • National People’s Congress’ Legislative Affairs Commission;
  • State Council’s Legislative Affairs Office;
  • People’s Bank of China;
  • CBRC;
  • State Administration of Industry & Commerce;
  • China Banking Association;
  • China International Contractors Association; and
  • ICC China Committee.

According to an “authoritative person,” the above list is not exhaustive.

From my own contacts, and from reports of at least one conference on trade finance in Beijing attended by representatives from the ICC and the SPC, there were discussions with the ICC.

SPC judges organized research and met with financial institutions.  But Judge Zhang also said that they sought public opinion through the SPC’s website. What he did not say was that the consultation period was for nine days (as I noted in my blogpost of almost three years ago).

As I said then (and have said numerous times on this blog and to individual SPC judges), my view that it is best for the SPC to solicit public comments on important civil/commercial issues such as this one and give persons a reasonable comment period, and for bilateral investment treaties to incorporate a requirement to require this.

For anyone involved in any aspect of a project in which a Chinese contractor provides a demand/independent guarantee, reviewing this judicial interpretation is crucial. I expect the commercial translation services will translate it (and law firms, Chinese and international, will issue alerts parsing its provisions).

 

Comments on cooperation between the US and China on judicial reform

One of the lesser known outcomes of Xi Jinping’s trip to the United States is the commitment by the United States government to work with China on judicial reform.

The official White House press release (mirrored in statements by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs) states:

the United States and China commit to conduct high-level and expert discussions commencing in early 2016 to provide a forum to support and exchange views on judicial reform and identify and evaluate the challenges and strategies in implementing the rule of law.  U.S. participants are to include leading members of the U.S. judiciary, U.S. government legal policy experts, and officials from the Departments of Commerce and Justice and the Office of the United States Trade Representative.  Chinese participants are to include officials from the Central Leading Group on Judicial Reform, leading members of the Chinese judiciary, and Chinese government legal policy experts.  This dialogue is to result in an improvement in the transparency and predictability of the business environment.  This dialogue does not replace, duplicate or weaken existing regular bilateral legal and human rights dialogues between the United States and China.

This statement deserves more attention from the legal community than it has received so far.  Some brief comments below:

  • It is good for China and the rest of the world for Chinese judicial reform to be the subject of inter-government dialogue aimed at positive results.  Whatever improvements eventually result from this dialogue will eventually benefit both Chinese and foreign litigants.
  • The Communist Party’s Central Leading Group on Judicial Reform is explicitly named as one of the participants from the Chinese side.  It approves major Chinese judicial reforms (the text of the 4th five year judicial reform plan evidences that), so it makes sense for it to have one or more representatives involved in future dialogue (although technically it is not a “judicial institution.”
  • It is likely to include leading members of the Supreme People’s Court, but is unclear what other institutions will be involved.  Do the legal policy experts of the Chinese government also include the State Council’s Legislative Affairs Office?
  • The question is what issues the dialogue will focus on.  It is clear that the intent is to focus on technical legal issues, but which ones?  Perhaps the Law Committees of Amcham China and Amcham Hong Kong can draft a list of issues for the US government agencies involved in the dialogue to consider.
  • Among the issues I would nominate would be those related to better integrating the Chinese courts with its counterpart institutions in the rest of the world.  The Supreme People’s Court One Belt One Road (OBOR) opinion (see my earlier blogpost) mentioned that China was looking to expand bilateral and multilateral mutual judicial assistance arrangements, for better delivery of judicial documents, obtaining evidence, and recognition and enforcement of foreign court judgments.  My fellow blogger, Mark Cohen, recently wrote about the issues relating to the problems of litigants in the US courts seeking evidence relating to Chinese counterfeiters. The number of cases in foreign courts involving Chinese commercial activity is likely to increase and better judicial assistance structures should be put in place.
  • Related to the previous issue would be improving the international standing and influence of the Chinese courts (as the OBOR opinion states is a goal) in a positive way, by being a more neutral forum for cross-border disputes.  Statements such as the one made by Chinese judges in the Huawei vs. InterDigital case (pointed out by Mark Cohen in a recent presentation) do not give foreign litigants confidence that their cases will be heard fairly in Chinese courts.  The judges wrote: “Huawei is good at using antitrust laws as a counter-weapon, which other Chinese companies should study…. domestic enterprises [should] break through technical barriers in the development of space for their own gain, through bold use of antitrust litigation.”

If you have further issues to add to the list, please use the comment function!