Supreme People’s Court’s New Policy on Cross-border Commercial Issues and Covid-19

Screenshot 2020-06-18 at 7.32.24 AM

From left, Li Guangyu, SPC spokesperson; SPC Vice President Justice Luo Dongchuan; Judge Wang Shumei, head of #4 Civil Division

On 16 June, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) held a news conference (pictured above), to announce that it had issued “Guiding Opinion on the Proper Handling of Civil Cases Involving the Novel Coronavirus Outbreak in Accordance with the Law (III)” (SPC Guiding Opinion III).” SPC Guiding Opinion focuses on the most important cross-border commercial issues that have arisen in the Chinese courts this spring as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.  This brief blogpost provides some comments and an overview of the document, leaving the detailed analysis to the law firms that are sure to analyze it.

What is this document?

SPC Guiding Opinion III is a judicial policy document (司法政策性文件). As this blog has often commented, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) must serve the greater situation and deal with practical legal issues, so that the SPC itself and its senior leadership are correct, politically, and professionally. One of those ways is by providing properly calibrated guidance to the lower courts and other related authorities with the appropriate political signals.  For this document, Justice Luo Dongchuan provided the political background and signals in his introductory remarks at the SPC news conference. The document itself is practically oriented (as those in the system say “problem-oriented”–“问题导向”)(and the practitioners say “干活”).

From the photo above it is clear that the #4 Civil Division, headed by Judge Wang Shumei, which focuses on cross-border commercial and maritime issues, took the lead in drafting. That division is one of the smaller divisions of the SPC and “punches above its weight.”

A judicial policy document is not a judicial interpretation but as the SPC editors of a collection of these documents noted, “it is generally recognized that they have an important guiding impact on the trial and enforcement work of the courts at every level.”  SPC Guiding Opinion III is one example of the many types of SPC “stealth” guidance to the lower courts.  I describe it as “stealth guidance” because it affects how cases are handled, heard, and decided, but cannot be cited in a court judgment or ruling. For that reason, only the highly observant will note the impact of judicial policy documents.

I anticipated that the SPC would issue further Covid-19 pandemic guidance when I spoke [links to video] in April at a virtual event sponsored by Berkeley Law School’s Center for Law & Technology. Some of the guidance reveals frequently used litigation tactics of Chinese parties.

Selected comments on the content

The document is divided into four sections:

  1. Civil procedure mechanics–parties, evidence,  deadlines, and statutes of limitations (Articles 1-5): This section draws on the recently amended and effective civil evidence rules

Article 1 directs Chinese courts to approve applications for extensions for foreign (cross-border) parties who are delayed in being able to provide notarized and authenticated documents to evidence the identity.  Delays in obtaining notarized and authenticated powers of attorney are to be treated similarly. If China had acceded to the 1961  Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents, for all of China, this requirement would no longer be necessary. The Convention is applicable to Hong Kong because of UK-PRC handover arrangements, which enabled conventions originally applicable to Hong Kong pre-1997 to continue in effect.

Article 3 reveals one of the frequently used litigation tactics of Chinese parties in cross-border litigation in China–that is disputing the authenticity of a document because it has not been properly notarized and legalized. The SPC Guiding Opinion III advises lower courts to notify parties that they may reserve their arguments concerning these formalities, and focus their arguments on relevance and persuasiveness of the evidence.

      2. Ascertainment (determination) and application of law

These articles remind Chinese courts to use the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Law Applicable to Foreign-Related Civil Relationships to determine governing law (assuming a contract does not designate a governing law), and to look to the SPC Guiding Opinion I for guidance on force majeure under Chinese law.  The SPC also reminds lower court judges not to substitute Chinese law if foreign law governs.  This is not the first time that this type of reminder has appeared in SPC policy documents, indicating this is an ongoing problem.  This section also includes guidance on the application on the UN Convention on the Sale of Goods.

Articles 8 and 9 relate to letters of credit, standby letters of credit, and demand (independent) guarantees. It reminds lower courts to correctly apply the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC)’s UCP 600 (Uniform Customs and Practice for Documentary Credits), the ICC’s URDG 758(demand guarantee rules), and the related SPC judicial interpretation concerning demand guarantees.

This likely means that Chinese contractors who have provided independent guarantees or standby letters of credit for construction projects overseas are seeking to prevent the owner of the projects from drawing on these guarantees through litigation in the Chinese courts. This case decided by the SPC in April, 2020, reverses the judgment of the Shandong Higher People’s Court in favor of the Chinese contractor.  The dispute relates to a Shandong Electric Power Company (SEPCO) project in India. Previous reporting in the Indian press seen here.

3. Transport contracts

Articles 11-17 relate to various types of transportation contracts as well as shipbuilding contracts.

4. Green channel.

This last section reminds courts to use online procedures and cross-administrative region arrangements if convenient and that Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan related commercial cases should be handled with reference to this guidance.

How was the document drafted?

As to how the SPC determined the FAQs of the lower courts, it did what all corporates and institutions around the world do these days–convened a video conference. The participants presumably came from the maritime courts and the foreign-related civil divisions of the provincial courts.

Why did the SPC issue it?

The number of cases directly affected by this guidance is relatively small. According to statistics released with President Zhou Qiang’s report to the NPC in May, there were 17,000 first instance foreign-related commercial cases and 16,000 foreign-related maritime cases in the Chinese courts in 2019, compared with 31.5 million cases in the Chinese courts overall.

However, foreign-related cases tend to be more sensitive because, as Zhou Enlai said “外事无小事” (foreign matters are never small matters” –foreign-related matters, because they involve relations with other countries and the prestige of the Chinese state, are sensitive. That means that judges hearing cross-border cases have a particular pressure to handle these disputes in a way that is consistent with the law (of course), acceptable to the leadership of their court & to the outside world.  One important aspect of SPC Guiding Opinion III  is the impact on Belt & Road projects, In many of these projects Chinese companies are often contractors, or also contractors and equipment suppliers (and Chinese banks provide financing). On the civil/commercial side cross-border cases possibly involve treaty/convention obligations (or treaty-like arrangements, in the case of Hong Kong).

As issues dealt with in SPC Guiding Opinion III relate to the most important Chinese cross-border commercial issues that have arisen during the pandemic, it has an impact on the Chinese (and foreign) business community, far beyond the number of foreign-related cases in the Chinese courts, and is likely to have an impact on related arbitrations governed by Chinese law.