China International Commercial Court starts operating

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The author in front of CICC #1,  December 2018

In the last few months of 2018,  the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and China International Commercial Court (CICC) took measures to enable the CICC to start operating, although the CICC was established earlier in 2018.  As SPC President Zhou Qiang reported to the National People’s Congress (NPC)  in March 2018 that the CICC would be established, I expect that he will report to the NPC in March of this year that the SPC established the CICC and it has successfully begun operating. (It is likely that the National Appellate IP Court will merit a place in Zhou Qiang’s report as one of the SPC’s 2018 accomplishments, but see fellow blogger Mark Cohen (and co-authors)’s post on that development). This blogpost will summarize (and provide some commentary on) some of the recent CICC developments.

Those developments included:

  • issuing rules on the international commercial expert committee;
  • personnel measures–designating the heads of the of the #1 and #2 CICCs and the heads of the case management offices in the two offices and appointing seven additional judges;
  • designating several (mainland) Chinese arbitration and mediation institutions to be part of its integrated one-stop dispute resolution;
  • accepting several cases;
  • issuing rules on CICC operations (to be discussed in a following blogpost).

Rules on the international expert committee

On December 5 the SPC General Office issued the working rules of the international commercial expert committee (expert committee) (approved by the SPC judicial committee in late October) (最高人民法院国际商事专家委员会工作规则). The date of the notice of the General Office is 21 November.  It answers some frequently asked questions about the expert committee. My comments are in italics.

What do members of the expert committee do?

1) preside over mediations (Article 3 (1): This was clear from the CICC Provisions.  It remains to be seen how many expert committee members will feel comfortable mediating disputes. It could be that some of the Chinese members will feel more comfortable mediating disputes than the foreign or Hong Kong-based members, as some of those members have long experience as arbitrators in China, where combining mediation and arbitration (med-arb) is usual. A significant number of expert committee members are from jurisdictions where being a mediator and mediating us regarded as separate profession and skill from arbitration and adjudicating.  Articles 9-13 describe the mechanics for doing so.

(2) provide an advisory opinion on specialized legal issues such as those relating to international treaties, international commercial rules, finding and applying foreign law [foreign and greater China jurisdictions] relating cases heard by the CICC and the People’s Courts at all levels (Article 3 (2): This contains a surprising expansion of the role of the experts on the committee by authorizing Chinese courts at various levels to request an expert committee member to provide an advisory opinion on international legal, international commercial and foreign law issues. A note on terminology–the English version on the CICC website uses “foreign law” while the Chinese original uses the term  “域外 ” (extraterritorial), intended to include the jurisdictions of Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as well as the law of foreign jurisdictions.  This blogpost will use the term “foreign law” as meaning “域外 ” extraterritorial law.

The fact that expert committee members have been so authorized indicates that ascertaining (determining) foreign law is a significant practical problem for Chinese judges.  I previously mentioned in this 2017 blogpost that Judge Zhang Yongjian listed ascertaining foreign law(he uses the term 外国法·) as one of many problems confronting Chinese judges hearing cross-border issues. Several articles on the Chinese version of the CICC website (plus one on the English version (by CICC Judge Gao Xiaoli) discuss this problem.  Judge Gao gently pokes fun at some Chinese scholars who fail to understand relevant judicial interpretations on ascertaining foreign law. The CICC website lists the methods available to a Chinese court in ascertaining foreign law. Among the alternatives include designating one of four authorized centers to provide an expert opinion on foreign law.  Articles 14-15 describe some of the mechanics by which one or more expert committee experts can provide an advisory opinion.

Under Article 15, a litigant may request through the CICC’s Expert Office that the expert appear in court to explain his or her opinion.  It is up to the expert to decide whether to appear. Presumably, expenses involved, including travel and translation, would be the responsibility of the requesting party.

The rules do not clarify a number of practical questions related to this. Could a court request an advisory opinion from an expert and from a designated discernment center, and if so, what relative weight will be attached to each?  Presumably, a court would give it greater weight than an opinion from an expert provided by a party.  It is unclear whether experts can charge for these services. Another concern for experts could be liability, and the standard for an opinion found to be negligently made.  Additionally, for the many foreign experts on the committee who do not know Chinese, it is unclear who will be responsible for translation.  Presumably, the court that requested the opinion or the International Expert Committee office (see 6 (2), which states that the office provides services to experts. Perhaps the forthcoming Code of Ethics of the Expert Members will address these questions.

(3) provide advice and suggestions on the development of the International Commercial Court; (4) provide advice and suggestions on the formulation of judicial interpretations and judicial policies of the Supreme People’s Court; (5) Other matters entrusted by the International Commercial Court; The first two provisions set out a formal structure for foreigners to provide advice, suggestions, and comments on judicial interpretations, judicial policy and other developments to the SPC, a first. Article 18 anticipates that the Expert Office will direct requests for comments or advice on specific draft judicial interpretations, policies, etc. to one or more experts, as the CICC considers useful rather than expert committee members being informed about ongoing developments.  However, it does enable expert committee members to make suggestions or proposals on their own initiative.  

Personnel developments

The last few months have seen a number of CICC personnel developments, including the appointment of seven additional judges. In early November, Judge Zhang Yongjian, deputy head of the #1 Circuit Court and head of the #4 Civil Division, was appointed as head of the #1 CICC and Judge Zhang Ming, deputy head of the #6 Circuit Court, was appointed head of the #2 CICC.

Judges Xi Xiangyang and Ding Guangyu, presiding judges on the #1 and #6 Circuit Courts respectively, and CICC judges, were at the same time appointed heads of the case management offices of the two courts.

Judge Song Jianli has been appointed the head of the CICC Expert Office.

The additional seven judges are:

  1. Wang Shumei (deputy head of the SPC’s #4 Civil Division, specializing in maritime law);
  2. Wei Wenchao, who has had a number of roles at the SPC, most recently as deputy head of the #5 Circuit Court. He had previously served as deputy head of the Environmental and Natural Resources Division;
  3. Song Jianli, head of the Experts Office, who studied at Southampton Institute (now Solent University) (in addition to his studies in China), and was a visiting scholar at Cambridge, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Max Planck Institute of Comparative and International Law, and has primarily worked in the SPC’s #4 Civil Division;
  4. Zhang Xuemei, of the SPC #2 Civil Division (domestic commercial issues);
  5. Yu Xiaohan, also of the #4 Civil Division, and like Wang Shumei, a maritime law specialist;
  6. Ding Guangyu, who studied at the University of Manchester and has had a number of roles at the SPC, including at the China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence, and in the #4 Civil Division;
  7. Guo Zaiyu, who spent many years at the Hubei Higher People’s Court before transferring to the SPC’s #4 Civil Division.

It is clear from these announcements that at this time, the CICC is a part-time responsibility for the judges involved, who have their ongoing responsibilities at the SPC, either at one of the Circuit Courts, the new Intellectual Property Court, or SPC headquarters.  And some senior people, such as Judge Zhang Yongjian, have triple administrative roles.

One-stop diversified dispute resolution mechanism

As an earlier blogpost flagged, the institutions clearly intended to be part of the one-stop diversified dispute resolution mechanism were the leading Chinese arbitration and mediation institutions handling foreign-related matters.  Most of these institutions sent senior representatives to attend the first meeting of the experts committee, so I was not surprised to see the following institutions listed:

  1. China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (CIETAC);
  2. Shanghai International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission;
  3. the Shenzhen Court of International Arbitration (SCIA);
  4. Beijing Arbitration Commission;
  5. China Maritime Arbitration Commission;
  6. the Mediation Center of China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT); and
  7. Shanghai Commercial Mediation Center.

SCIA has an arrangement with the Hong Kong Mediation Centre since 2014 by which Mediation Centre settlements may be enforced in mainland China through a consent award issued by SCIA.

First cases

At the end of December 2018, the CICC accepted several cases, all of which can be categorized as general international commercial disputes, with none specifically related to Belt & Road projects.  The disputes include: an unjust enrichment dispute involving Fujifilm and several Chinese companies, a product liability dispute involving Italian pharmaceutical company called Bruschettini (which sells its products through Sinco Pharmaceuticals Ltd., a Hong Kong-listed company), several disputes related to Thailand’s Red Bull (from this report, I surmise that the case was referred by the Beijing Higher People’s Court), and several disputes involving the validity of arbitration clauses, including one involving China Travel Service (Hong Kong) and one of its hotels.   ____________________________

The author is a member of the international commercial expert committee but her views do not represent the committee, the CICC, or the SPC.

 

Bulking up the Chinese maritime courts

December, 2015 Maritime courts conference

December, 2015 Maritime courts conference

The South China Sea continues to be in the news. But one of the many unnoticed developments related to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and the Chinese seas is the recent “bulking up” of the Chinese maritime courts.

The Chinese maritime courts, established 30 years ago, are said to be the busiest in the Asia Pacific region, and hear cases arising in Chinese waters, coastal and inland. In 2015, the maritime courts heard about 31,000 cases, a 43% increase year on year, with cases involving foreign parties accounting for about 15%.

The “bulking up”  of the maritime courts has occurred through the following recent events:

  • establishment of a maritime court training campus and research base;
  • two conferences convened by the SPC in December, 2015  on reforms to the maritime courts; and
  • two February, 2016 judicial interpretations revamping the jurisdiction of the maritime courts.

These developments are responding to both international and domestic factors and link to earlier government/Party initiatives

This blogpost will highlight some of the international developments.

Party initiatives guiding the reform of the maritime courts

Reforming the maritime courts was foreshadowed in the 4th Plenum Decision, Supreme People’s Court 4th Five Year Plan for reforming the courts and more specifically in One Belt One Road Opinion:

From the 4th Plenum:

Adapt to the incessant deepening of opening up to the outside world, perfect foreign-oriented legal and regulatory systems, stimulate the construction of new structures for an open economy. 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.

From the court reform plan:

Reform the maritime case jurisdiction system. Further clean up the system for trial of maritime matters. Scientifically determine the scope of jurisdiction for maritime courts, establish working mechanisms better suited for maritime courts hearing of cases.

The One Belt One Road SPC Opinion highlighted some of the current reforms to the maritime courts, in some detail.

SPC new training center

December’s national maritime courts conference was held in Qingdao, where the maritime court training campus was established.  SPC President Zhou Qiang, who presided over the conference, described its purpose as:

to implement the decisions and arrangements of the CPC Central Committee, to accelerate the trial of maritime personnel training, promote maritime judicial theory and innovative practice.  It is an important measure for promoting the development of maritime trial work and advances international maritime justice.

A senior staff member of the Central Political Legal Committee and officials of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, State Ocean Administration, and other government agencies also attended the conference.

New regulations on jurisdiction of maritime courts

As mentioned above, in February, 2016, two regulations on the jurisdiction of the maritime courts were issued by the SPC.  Those regulations had been previously highlighted in several conferences and SPC documents, including the November, 2014 4th National Work Conference on Foreign-Related Commercial and Maritime Adjudication, OBOR Opinion, and December, 2015 Maritime Courts conference.  These regulations had been issued for less than two weeks in November for public comment, making it difficult if not impossible for interested foreign parties to comment.

One of the new regulations relates to the geographical jurisdiction of several maritime courts, principles for determining jurisdiction in administrative cases and objections to jurisdiction.  The other expands the scope of cases that can be heard by the maritime courts, setting out over 112 categories of cases that can be brought. In the section on ocean and sea navigable waters exploitation and environmental protection related disputes, ocean and sea navigable waters construction disputes are included, such as underwater dredging construction, land reclamation and ..artificial islands.

International maritime justice

Zhou Qiang had the following to say about the goals of reforming the maritime courts to improve their international  prestige.

  • Make the maritime courts  internationally influential.  We have already established ourselves as the Asia Pacific area maritime judicial center (确立了亚太地区海事司法中心的地位).  (A corollary to this (derived from conference presentations) appears to be a push to move the locus of maritime dispute resolution from London and other centers in Europe to China, where Chinese parties will encounter a more familiar dispute resolution system);
  • Increase China’s influence over the development of international maritime rules.  Improve China’s contribution to international maritime law, effectively safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests. (This is directly related to the 4th Plenum Decision.)
  • Strengthen the sense of national sovereignty (要强化国家主权意识), exercise jurisdiction over all types of maritime development and utilization of marine waters within the jurisdiction of the country.  This refers to all the marine waters China claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere, according to a Chinese maritime law expert.

Commercial issues

From comments by (foreign) maritime law practitioners, it appears that major European and American shipping companies have concerns about the Chinese maritime courts.  Concerns include:

  • Chinese courts, particularly the maritime courts, have repeatedly refused to enforce choice of court clauses when the chosen forum has no actual connection with the dispute.    Chinese maritime courts rely on the principle in Article 34 of the Civil Procedure Law that the choice of court selected by the parties must have a connection to the matter (although China’s choice of law legislation does not require a choice of law to have a connection) to disregard choice of courts clauses in bills of lading or other documentation, even if  proceedings have begun in other jurisdictions. This often occurs in cases involving bills of lading.
  • Related to this is that the Chinese maritime courts are sometimes the site of parallel proceedings, when there may be proceedings elsewhere in the world relating to the same dispute.  Some of these cases were described in a talk at the University of Hong Kong by Professor Vivienne Bath of the University of Sydney and will be incorporated into a forthcoming article.

The larger issue, of course, is that while the Chinese maritime courts now include some very highly trained and experienced judges, the emphasis on Chinese national interests and national sovereignty leads non-Chinese and private enterprise litigants to question whether their dispute will be considered fairly.