Update on China’s international commercial court

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 9.16.02 PM

Judge Gao Xiaoli

Among the many developments flagged in Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang’s 2018 report to the National People’s Congress is that the SPC will establish an international commercial tribunal (court)(最 高人民法院国际商事审判庭), as approved by the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms. The timing is unknown. The international commercial tribunal (this post will use the term “court”) as is understood clearly, must fit political and technical requirements. This blogpost will look at those, particularly the technical ones, as those are the ones that have escaped the attention of most commentators outside of China.

Background

Although many  articles have been published in the media, both in and out of China after the public announcement to the press about the international commercial court in January, 2018, most of them have little detail on the issues. Some contain uninformed statements, such as the one that quotes an insider at the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade mentioning the use for dispute resolution of “the common law of the United States and European countries” (send the insider back to law school please!).

In the past three months, Judge Gao Xiaoli, deputy head of the SPC’s #4 civil division (photo above), and at least one other person at the SPC has released some information about the court, all of which seems to have eluded international discussions. For those who are not aficionados of Chinese foreign-related dispute resolution, Judge Gao (who often appears at UNCITRAL or international arbitration related conferences or seminars) outside as well as inside mainland China, is a formidable presence in the courtroom. Thanks to the SPC’s streaming of court hearings, it is now possible to see that from any corner of the world.  She is also an impressive speaker. Judge Gao is representative of the judges engaged in technical legal work at the SPC, with a PhD in law from one of China’s leading law schools and experience studying abroad.

Political requirements

On the political requirements, there are at least two, both previously highlighted in this blog.  The more general one was highlighted one year ago–the establishment of the international commercial court relates to a 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.

More specifically, it appears to be the civil and commercial counterpart to the efforts noted on this blog two years ago (concerning dispute resolution in maritime cases),  part of a push to move the locus of China-related dispute resolution from London and other centers in Europe (or elsewhere) to China, where Chinese parties will encounter a more familiar dispute resolution system.

The other political requirement relates to the need to serve major government strategies, the BRI/OBOR one in particular, discussed in this blogpost.  President Zhou Qiang’s 2018 NPC report, as his 2016 report (and presumably 2017 report) contain the phrase “provided service for the country’s major strategies.” As a central government institution, the SPC must do its part to support national major strategies. Since BRI/OBOR has been initiated, President Zhou Qiang’s report has mentioned  BRI/OBOR as one of those major strategies for which the SPC has provided service.

Technical requirements

Further background

The sources that previous commentators missed include the following:

In the press interview, Judge Gao reviews what the SPC has done so far in this area, including several developments previously highlighted on this blog:

  • SPC’s One Belt One Road (BRI/OBOR) policy document;
  • SPC’s OBOR/BRI model/typical cases (see above link and translations by the Stanford Guiding Cases project found here);
  • SPC’s judicial interpretation on demand guarantees, that blogpost explains that with so many Chinese companies focusing on infrastructure projects overseas, Chinese banks have issued billions of dollars in demand guarantees.

 Technical issues

The SPC is looking at three types of investment and trade disputes:

  • state-state disputes (for China, generally WTO);
  • investor-state disputes (ICSID and other institutions, generally using UNCITRAL rules (note that CIETAC and the Shenzhen Court of International Arbitration (SCIA) also have amended their rules to be able to take investor-state disputes, with SCIA using the UNCITRAL rules;
  • disputes between commercial parties.

Judge Gao mentioned that they at the SPC, too have noticed the worldwide trend of other jurisdictions establishing courts to hear investor-state disputes, citing Canada among them and that they are exploring whether the Chinese courts can do so as well.  However, she notes that when China acceded to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention), it made a commercial reservation, and the SPC judicial interpretation concerning the New York Convention excluded investor-state disputes, so that currently it is not possible to enforce investor-state awards through the New York Convention. Judge Gao says they are considering solutions to this issue.

Commercial disputes

Definition of OBOR/BRI disputes

Although none of the authors have mentioned this (nor have I, until now), one unrecognized issues in discussing OBOR/BRI disputes is a definitional one–what is a OBOR/BRI related dispute?  It seems that in court practice, the definition is broad, including cases between Chinese contractors and their demand guarantee issuing banks, as well as cross border cases involving Chinese and parties located in OBOR countries.  In my research (including a discrete inquiry with a knowledgeable person), a formal definition is lacking.

Judicial cooperation/enforcement issues

As this earlier blogpost mentioned, enforcement of foreign court judgments is on the SPC’s agenda.  As Judge Gao recognizes, there needs to be a structure for judgments of this international commercial court to be enforced outside of China.  She mentions (as has this blog), that China is actively participating in negotiations on the Hague Convention on the Recognition & Enforcement of Foreign Judgments, and is studying ratification of the Hague Convention on the Choice of Courts Agreements.  She flags also (as has this blog) that the SPC is drafting a judicial interpretation on the recognition and enforcement of foreign civil & commercial judgments.

Practice in other jurisdictions

Judge Gao mentions that the SPC is looking at the international commercial courts in several jurisdictions, including Dubai and Singapore (as mentioned in the earlier blogpost), but also Abu Dhabi, London’s Commercial Court (it appears that someone at the SPC has read this Financial Times article on foreign litigants there), and notes that the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium are all establishing international commercial courts that use English.

Challenges for the Chinese courts

Judge Gao forthrightly flags a list of issues (my comments in italics) that the SPC faces in establishing an international commercial court. It is likely that she and her colleagues are aware of the additional issues raised as well.

  • judges; she notes that Dubai and Singapore have foreign judges on their international commercial courts, but currently China’s Judges’ Law and People’s Court Organizational Law (being amended) present obstacles to having foreign judges, and without them, the court will not be international and will not be internationally credible (literally, be internationally influential) (但是如果不引进外籍专业性人才参与国际商事法庭的建设,则缺乏国际性,缺乏影响力). My earlier blogpost mentioned the nationality issue. Would qualified foreign judges (or those from Hong Kong) be willing to join the international commercial court? Judge Gao does not mention that the group of Chinese judges qualified to hear these cases is not that large, and they are overloaded with cases, judicial interpretation/other guidance drafting, and other work. Could highly qualified Chinese lawyers be appointed to this court?  It is unclear, and relates to issues of how they would fit into the rigid structure of the judiciary, highlighted here.
  • choice of law; she mentions that parties have freedom concerning choice of law in China, so that would not be a problem.  However, relating to choice of court clauses, Professor Vivienne Bath’s research on parallel proceedings in China (previously mentioned on this blog) shows that Chinese courts do not recognize the validity of those clauses when the choice “lacks an actual connection with the dispute” because of provisions in the Civil Procedure Law.
  • procedure; she queries whether there can be some breakthroughs in civil procedure in this area.  Foreign lawyers are likely to query whether this could mean better discovery of documents. More importantly, what is not mentioned is that China’s failure to have acceded to the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents will also be a major obstacle for the international commercial court. Under current Civil Procedure legislation,  notarization and legalization of documents is often required. The first step is when a party files suit or when a foreign party responds. Additionally, in litigation, evidence from a foreign country often must be notarized and legalized. Notarization and legalization costs time and money and a great deal of effort. At an academic conference in 2017, experts from the institutions involved discussed how to proceed on this.
  • language; Judge Gao notes that the Civil Procedure Law puts obstacles in the way of the international commercial court hearing cases in English.  Note that the pool of Chinese judges able to hear cases in English is not large, and would even further require recruiting judges from outside China’s judicial system.
  • counsel; She mentions the issue of having foreign lawyers handle cases is also an obstacle for the international commercial court, because China’s Civil Procedure Law currently does not permit it.
  • transparency; Judge Gao notes that Chinese judicial transparency and informatization has made great strides, so should be useful to the international commercial court.  However, Judge Gao and her colleagues could usefully look at the type of information accessible to both the parties and general public (and the level of detail in judgments) in other international commercial courts.
  • enforcement; Judge Gao raises the issue of recognition and enforcement of judgments, discussed above.

Where does the SPC go from here?

The article by the post-doctoral student Liao Yuxi suggested that the SPC may want to request the NPC Standing Committee authorize it to suspend some of the problematic provisions of the Civil Procedure Law that Judge Gao flagged above, such as the use of language, and the qualification of judges.  However many of the other issues cannot be resolved so easily, such as international enforcement and the requirement of notarization and legalization of evidence.

As for when we can expect to see some rules relating to the international commercial court, and whether drafts will be circulated for public (or even soft consultation), those are all unclear.  What is clear is that many complicated legal issues face Judge Gao and her colleagues.

 

 

 

 

 

SPC reveals new Belt & Road-related initiatives

Screen Shot 2017-10-06 at 11.05.55 AM

Judge Liu Guixiang (SPC judicial committee member & head of #1 Circuit Court) speaking at conference

In late September (2017), the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) held a Belt & Road judicial conference with senior judges from 16 jurisdictions in the desert oasis of Dunhuang, famed for its Buddhist caves.  As is its custom at its international conferences, the SPC released some information concerning previously unknown cross-border related initiatives, both of which have implications for the international business and legal communities.  The English language reports of the conference (in China Daily and related media outlets)  missed the implications.  A brief article in one of the SPC’s Wechat accounts reveals that:

  • SPC is drafting a judicial interpretation on the recognition and enforcement of foreign civil & commercial judgments (关于承认和执行外国法院民商事判决若干问题的规定);
  • SPC is considering establishing a Belt & Road International Commercial Court (literally “Tribunal”) (“一带一路”国际商事法庭). (chief of the SPC’s #4 Civil Division, Judge Zhang Yongjian, must have been speaking of this when he was interviewed during the 2017 National People’s Congress meeting).

Enforcing foreign civil judgments

A recent decision by a Wuhan court to enforce a California default judgment has received worldwide attention, both professional and academic. with some noting nothing had really changed and Professor Donald Clarke correctly wondering whether an instruction had come from on high.  With this news from Judge Liu, it is clear that the Wuhan decision is part of the Chinese courts’ rethink of its approach to recognizing and enforcing foreign court judgments.

Judge Liu revealed that the judicial interpretation will set out details regarding the meaning of “reciprocity” and standards for applying it (明确互惠原则具体适用的标准).  In another recent article, an SPC judge considered the matter of reciprocity in more detail.  Among the issues she mentioned were: 1) China not being a party to the Hague Convention on the Choice of Courts (this obstacle has been removed as China signed the Convention on 12 September 2017 (this article has a good overview); 2) China should actively participate in the drafting of the Hague Convention on the Recognition & Enforcement of Foreign Judgments (this seems to be happening, as this blog has reported).  The SPC judge recognized that the current Chinese position has significant limitations and can lead to a great deal of parallel litigation (see Professor Vivienne Bath‘s scholarship on this).  The SPC judge also suggested that the standards set out in mutual judicial assistance agreements could be useful in drafting standards for reviewing the recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments.

Belt & Road Commercial Court

Judge Liu also mentioned that the SPC would establish a Belt & Road dispute resolution mechanism and that the SPC was considering a Belt & Road commercial tribunal, to provide the parties of OBOR countries with fair, efficient, and low-cost one-stop legal services.  It is clear from discrete developments that the SPC is looking to Singapore’s International Commercial Court and the Dubai’s International Finance Centre Courts (DIFC).  One of those discrete developments is the cooperation agreement that the Shanghai Higher People’s Court and Dubai International Finance Centre Court signed in October 2016 (reported here), which must have required the concurrence of the SPC. The other discrete development is the memorandum of understanding on legal and judicial cooperation between the SPC and Singapore Supreme Court, signed in August 2017, relating to mutual recognition and enforcement of monetary judgments, judicial training for judges, and the Belt & Road initiative.

The details of the SPC’s  Belt & Road commercial court (tribunal) are yet unclear.  Both the DIFC and Singapore International Commercial Court have a panel of international judges, but a similar institution in China would be inconsistent with Chinese legislation.  The SPC is clearly interested in promoting mediation to resolve Belt & Road disputes. This interest is visible from the September 2017 International Mediation conference in Hangzhou, at which Judge Long Fei, director of one of the sections in the SPC’s Judicial Reform Office, spoke on the benefits of international commercial mediation.

Perhaps the SPC envisions an institution analogous to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and plans to cooperate more on resolving Belt & Road commercial disputes with UNCITRAL and other international organizations.  We will need to see how this further develops.

It is also unclear whether the SPC will issue a draft judicial interpretation or draft regulations on the Belt & Road dispute resolution center for public comment.  Although President Zhou Qiang and Executive Vice President Shen Deyong speak of the benefits of judicial transparency, it seems the benefits of public participation in judicial interpretation drafting /rule-making have yet to be fully realized.