December update on judicial review of arbitration

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photo of Beijing traffic, December 2017

The latest buzz within the Chinese international commercial legal community on Belt & Road related legal developments appears not to have surmounted the Great Wall of the Chinese language. The buzz is that a comprehensive judicial interpretation relating to arbitration is on route to promulgation.

On 4 December the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued a news release that its judicial committee had approved a judicial interpretation on judicial review of arbitration in principle, entitled Provisions on Some Issues Related to the Trial of the Judicial Review of Arbitration (Judicial Review of Arbitration Interpretation) (最高人民法院关于审理仲裁司法审查案件若干问题的规定).  “Approval in principle”  (原则通过) is not mentioned by the SPC’s 2007 regulations on judicial interpretations but is one of the SPC’s long-established practices.  It means that the judicial committee has approved it, subject to some “minor” amendments. Minor amendments are more than typographical errors and relate to specific substantive matters.  However, the news release did not specify what those “minor” issues were or set a deadline for issuing the interpretation. In December of last year (2016), the SPC’s judicial committee also approved in principle the #4 Company Law interpretation, but that interpretation was not formally issued until August of this year. This observer surmises (without any basis in facts or rumors) that the interpretation will be promulgated before Chinese new year so it can be one of the 2017 accomplishments of the SPC’s #4 Civil Division (but then again, that may be overly optimistic.

The new interpretation will focus on the issues that courts frequently encounter when arbitration-related cases come before them, dealing with gaps in current judicial interpretations (and likely the outdated Arbitration Law, (The Arbitration Law is also the subject of discussions among practitioners, academics, and others.)  The interpretation will incorporate new provisions on the types of cases, case acceptance, jurisdiction, procedure, the application of law and other questions.  It appears that it will incorporate the provisions described in the Notice concerning some questions regarding the centralized handling of judicial review of arbitration cases (the subject of the last blogpost).  It is hoped that the new interpretation will provide for a hearing procedure when cases involving the SPC’s prior approval procedure.

For those not familiar with the intricacies of China’s judicial review of arbitration issues, a 1995 SPC circular sets out a prior approval procedure, requiring local  court rulings to refuse to enforce foreign-related/”greater China”/foreign arbitration awards to be submitted for eventual review by the SPC.  It is currently an internal administrative type procedure, with no explicit option of a hearing.

The SPC announcement described the drafting of the Judicial Review of Arbitration Interpretation as having begun in 2016.  This blog reported in late 2014 that Judge Luo Dongchuan, then head of the SPC’s #4 Civil Division, mentioned that a new judicial interpretation on the judicial review of arbitration-related issues will go into the Court’s judicial interpretation drafting plan in 2015 and that the SPC intends to reform jurisdiction in judicial review of arbitration issues, to consolidate them in specialized courts.

A follow up post will describe the latest buzz on the Belt & Road international commercial tribunal.

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SPC reveals new Belt & Road-related initiatives

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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.