The Court’s September 2013 notice on the CIETAC split: When will greater transparency come to the Court?

In early September, 2013, the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) issued the Notice on Certain Issues Relating to Correct Handling of Judicial Review of Arbitration Matters (最高人民法院关于正确审理仲裁司法审查案件有关问题的通知)(Fa [2013] No. 194) (the Judicial Review Notice).  This clunky sounding notice relates to the split between CIETAC and its former sub-commissions, the Shanghai International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (the Shanghai International Arbitration Center) and the Shenzhen International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (the Shenzhen Court of International Arbitration). It is therefore relevant to the thousands of companies (and their lawyers) that have CIETAC Shanghai or CIETAC Shenzhen/South China arbitration clauses in their contracts.

The Judicial Review Notice dispute was not published on the Court’s official website or the website of the national court system (which it also operates)  but the text was distributed by local lawyers associations (one is linked here) and was published by Peking University’s Chinalawinfo service.   It became the subject of law firm alerts and other publications in Chinese and English (some English alerts are linked here and Chinese alerts are linked here).

The Judicial Review Notice is not a judicial interpretation and is not required to be made public.  It is a Court normative document (discussed in an earlier blogpost). Court normative documents address new issues or phenomena where the Court is of the view that the law is not settled enough for judicial interpretations. The Judicial Review Notice, which (as described in the above client alerts) requires certain lower court rulings related to the CIETAC split to be considered by lower court judicial committees and reported up level by level to the Court.  On the topic of judicial committee, see my earlier article on the subject–Article on judicial committees and as mentioned in an earlier blogpost, the Court is reconsidering)  These new procedures affect the rights of litigants in these cases as well as parties (or potential parties) to arbitration proceedings in the Shanghai International Arbitration Center and Shenzhen Court of International Arbitration.  However, relevant regulations do not require that all Court normative documents be made public.

The Court leadership is requiring more transparency of the lower courts.  They need also to turn their attention to their own documents and consider where the Court can be more transparent, because that will also be a step forward in (as the Court’s slogan has it) “Vigorously Strengthening a Fair Judiciary and Continuously Increasing Judicial Credibility”.

The Court Misses an Opportunity to Consult the Public on the Demand Guarantee Interpretation

On 6 December the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) issued for a nine day comment period for public consultation their draft “regulations concerning some issues related to the trial of disputes involving independent guarantees” (draft demand guarantee interpretation).   The Court missed an opportunity for real public consultation on a judicial interpretation with significant domestic and international commercial implications.

Why was it a missed opportunity?

In the best of worlds, what could have happened?

  • The Court could have used the draft to showcase the Court’s new openness and transparency (which had begun even before the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party (Third Plenum)).
  • The Court could have set a public consultation period long enough for interested parties (domestic and foreign) to provide meaningful input on the draft.  Interested parties could have had a chance review and consider the draft in light of issues that often arise in transactions when demand guarantees are issued by Chinese institutions, and compare it to the “international  standard” on the subject,the  International Chamber of Commerce’s Uniform Rules for Demand Guarantees (URDG).

The reasons why are the Court did so are explained below.

The demand guarantee regulations are classified as a type of judicial interpretation, which, as explained in a prior blogpost, are an important source of legal rules in China.

Why is the draft demand guarantee interpretation important?   Chinese banks often issue demand guarantees to foreign companies on behalf of Chinese contractors, exporters, and investors. When projects go wrong, Chinese companies often go to Chinese court to try to stop payment on their guarantees.

This blogpost describes:

  • What a demand guarantee is;
  • Why the Court drafted this interpretation;
  • What issues the interpretation raises;
  • How the Court handled public participation and possible reasons for doing so; and
  • Avenues for advocating a greater role for public consultation.
  1. What is a demand guarantee?

A demand guarantee (most often called an independent guarantee in Chinese (独立保函)), is often used in construction, engineering and other projects, when the owner of the project requires a contractor to guarantee his performance, often with a guarantee issued by a bank, so that if the contractor fails to meet his obligations, the project owner can be easily compensated.

2. Why the  Court drafted this interpretation

The Court drafted the demand guarantee interpretation because the lower courts are faced with the situation of trying an increasing number of cases involving demand guarantees, with inadequate legislation.

These cases arise because Chinese construction and engineering companies, taking an increasing share of the contracting market outside of China, seek to avoid paying on the demand guarantee to the foreign project owner.  Large construction or engineering contracts are usually secured by a demand guarantee.  The Chinese construction and engineering companies usually obtain these demand guarantees from Chinese banks. When foreign project owners make demands under the demand guarantees, because the construction project does not meet specified standards, Chinese contractors often apply to the Chinese courts to withhold payment to the foreign project owner.  A recent article by a Dacheng Law Firm partner described his experience acting for a Pakistani project owner.

3.  What issues does the interpretation raise?

The issues below concern banks and project owners, Chinese and foreign:

  • Whether demand guarantees should be applicable to domestic transactions;

The Security Law takes a negative view but see further discussion on this issue here;

  • Whether the court should be able to review the underlying transaction when reviewing demand guarantee disputes;

(Article 27 of the draft states yes, that in relation to fraud (as characterized by Article 18), the court should be able to engage in limited review of the underlying transaction)

  • Governing law of and applicability of Chinese mandatory regulations to demand guarantees; and

(the law agreed by the parties, and if the guarantee is silent, the law of the habitual residence of the guarantor; the mandatory provisions of security given to foreign parties are applicable);

  • Procedures for proceedings to withhold payment under a demand guarantee.

4. How the Court handled public consultation and why

The Court handled the public consultation quickly and quietly.   The possible reasons are described below.  The Court did not publicize the draft on its Weibo or Wechat accounts, nor did the Court’s newspaper, the People’s Court Paper, feature an article calling attention to the draft interpretation.  The nine day public consultation did not violate the Court’s own rules, which do not set out consultation periods or methods of consultation.

Why the brief consultation period?

  • Court officials may have felt that they had solicited enough expertise to issue the draft.

The No. 4 civil division, in charge of foreign-related cases and arbitration, had been working on this judicial interpretation for over two years and had organized several invitation-only conferences in 2012 and 2013 to discuss the draft.  This is standard practice in Chinese legislative drafting (as discussed in a this blogpost) and this article. Participant experts at these conferences included:

    • the Ministry of Commerce;
    • CIETAC;
    • the Beijing Arbitration Commission;
    • leading Chinese lawyers.
    • and likely representatives from the principal Chinese banks and major state-owned companies.
  • Personnel changes slowed the issuance of the interpretation.  During 2013, the Court leadership nominated a new head of the No. 4 civil division, but his appointment was subject to National People’s Congress Standing Committee confirmation, delaying action on this and other matters.
  • There may be a push to issue the interpretation before year-end, so that the lower courts can rely on it to resolve cases, a performance indicator for the lower courts.

5.  Can the Bilateral Investment Treaty Negotiations Push for a More Public Consultation of Judicial Interpretations?

The Chinese government is negotiating Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) separately with the United States and the European Union.  The 2012 U.S. Model Bilateral Investment Treaty contains a framework for including this type of judicial interpretation in BIT transparency obligations.  Those obligations require (to the extent possible) giving interested parties the chance to comment on “proposed regulations of general application of its central level of government.”  The WTO has jurisprudence on what this means.

If the language ultimately agreed between the United States and China is broad enough to encompass judicial interpretations related to investment, this will ultimately trigger an amendment to transparency requirements for judicial interpretations.

Chinese and foreign individuals and businesses would benefit from greater transparency in judicial interpretations.