On 23 December 2020, the Supreme People’s Court (“SPC”) of China released its bilingual 2019 Annual Report on Judicial Review of Arbitration Cases in China (the “Report”). It is the very first report issued by the SPC summarising the courts’ approach for judicial review of arbitration-related cases.
The Report aims to promote the SPC’s efforts over the course of last year in standardising judicial review approach in dealing with arbitration-related matters. In particular, it includes the SPC’s summary of its approach for judicial review of arbitration-related matters in 2019, such as on issues of validity of arbitration agreements, enforcement or revocation of domestic arbitral awards, as well as recognition and enforcement of offshore arbitral awards. Whilst the full content of the Report itself has not been made available online at the time of our blog, we set out below the key highlights based on the press release and information provided at the press conference of the SPC.
The SPC “reporting system”
The SPC “reporting system” applies to enforcement of arbitral awards in Mainland China.[i] Under the reporting system, lower courts are authorised to confirm validity of arbitration agreements, and order enforcement of onshore and offshore awards (or a Mainland Chinese foreign-related award). However, if a lower court is minded to deny validity of an arbitration agreement or to refuse enforcement of an arbitral award, it must refer the case to a higher court to confirm the decision.
For domestic awards, the higher court will conduct the final review without involving the SPC unless where (1) the parties are from different provinces in Mainland China; or (2) the refusal to enforce the award is based on an “infringement of public policy”.
For foreign-related arbitration cases, the higher court must refer the matter to the SPC for a final decision if it agrees that enforcement should be refused.
In 2018, the reporting system was further supplemented by the establishment of the First and Second International Commercial Courts.[ii] These courts are empowered to hear revocation and enforcement cases of foreign-related arbitral awards with disputed amounts exceeding RMB300 million or awards of significance released by five arbitration institutions.[iii]
According to the statistics provided by the SPC at the press conference, PRC courts heard a total of 11,029 cases concerning revocation of arbitral awards in 2019, only 5.8% of which the courts decided to set aside or partially set aside arbitral awards. Among the 201 cases reviewed by the SPC in 2019, 32% of lower courts’ decisions were overruled.
Recognition and enforcement of offshore arbitral awards
Recognition and enforcement of offshore arbitral awards in China is governed by the New York Convention as well as the Civil Procedure Law of China.
The SPC mentioned during the press conference that in 2019, a total of 32 applications were made to recognise and enforce offshore arbitral awards in China, among which 20 applications were successful and 1 application was denied because the award exceeded the scope of the arbitration agreement. The other applications were either withdrawn by the parties or dismissed due to lack of jurisdiction.
Interim injunctions in support of arbitration
The Arrangement Concerning Mutual Assistance in Court-ordered Interim Measures in Aid of Arbitral Proceedings by the Courts of the Mainland and of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (the “Arrangement”) came into effect on 1 October 2019. Parties to Hong Kong-seated arbitrations administered by an eligible arbitration institution in Hong Kong have the right to apply for interim measures from Mainland Chinese courts.
According to the SPC, between 1 October 2019 and 31 October 2020, 32 applications for interim measures have been granted by Mainland Chinese courts in relation to Hong Kong arbitration, among which 29 cases concern property preservation measures, two cases concern evidence preservation and one case concerns action preservation.
Pro-arbitration principles in judicial review
SPC mentioned at the press conference that the Report summarises the criteria and principles that Mainland Chinese courts should take into account in their judicial review of arbitration-related cases.
Six general principles are emphasised:
- Courts shall respect parties’ agreement to arbitrate and interpret the arbitration agreements/clauses in favour of validity;
- The grounds for setting aside arbitral awards shall be strictly limited to those provided by law;
- Arbitration awards are in principle final and binding and the judicial review of arbitral awards shall only be limited to the extent of necessity;
- The public policy defence shall be interpreted stringently to avoid being abused;
- Courts shall accurately identify foreign governing laws, recognise and enforce foreign arbitral awards accordingly to law and create an “arbitration friendly” judicial environment; and
- Courts shall recognise and enforce Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan arbitral awards according to law, and assist in interim measures in aid of Hong Kong arbitral proceedings in Mainland China.
According to the SPC, the Report also addresses recent development in arbitration practice, such as the formation of Belt and Road Mechanism for Resolution of International Commercial Disputes[iv] and China Pilot Free Trade Zone Arbitration Mechanism[v].
[ii] See Article 2 of Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court on Several Issues Regarding the Establishment of International Commercial Court (Fa Shi  No.11).
[iii] The five arbitration institutions are members of “One-stop” Diversified Settlement Mechanism for International Commercial Disputes in China, including China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission, Shanghai International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission, Shenzhen Court of International Arbitration, Beijing Arbitration Commission, and China Maritime Arbitration Commission.
[iv] Opinions of the Supreme People’s Court on the Provision of Judicial Services and Guarantee by People’s Courts for the Belt and Road Initiative (Fa Fa  No.29) (Chinese text only).
[v] Opinions of Supreme People’s Court on the Provision of Judicial Services and Guarantee by People’s Courts for the Construction of China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone Lin-gang Special Area (Fa Fa  No. 31).