China’s Top Court Publishes Its First Annual Report on Judicial Review of Arbitration-Related Cases

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].

 

[i]           See the Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court on Issues concerning Applications for Verification of Arbitration Cases under Judicial Review (Fa Shi [2017] No.21).

[ii]          See Article 2 of Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court on Several Issues Regarding the Establishment of International Commercial Court (Fa Shi [2018] 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 [2019] 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 [2019] No. 31).

 

Helen Tang

Helen Tang
Partner
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Celine Wang

Celine Wang
Senior Associate
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Stella Hu

Stella Hu
Senior Consultant
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Hong Kong and Mainland China Enter Supplemental Arrangement Concerning Mutual Enforcement of Arbitral Awards

On 27 November 2020, the Chinese Supreme People’s Court and the Hong Kong Department of Justice signed the Supplemental Arrangement Concerning Mutual Enforcement of Arbitral Awards between the Mainland and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Supplemental Arrangement). The Supplemental Arrangement modifies and supplements the existing Arrangement Concerning Mutual Enforcement of Arbitral Awards between the Mainland and the HKSAR which was signed on 21 June 1999 and came into effect on 1 February 2000 (1999 Arrangement).

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PRC court clarifies enforcement of Mainland award made by foreign institution

On 6 August 2020, Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court made a civil ruling that an arbitral award made in Guangzhou by the ICC should be regarded as a Chinese arbitral award with a foreign element. It follows that the award should be enforced under Article 273 of the PRC Civil Procedure Law, rather than under the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards.

(2015) Sui Zhong Min Chu Si Zi No. 62 or (2015)穗中法民四初字第62号

Background

This case concerned a supply contract between Brentwood Industries (US) as the seller, Guangzhou Faanlong Machinery Engineering Co Ltd (PRC) as the buyer, and Guangzhou Zhengqi Trading Co Ltd (PRC) as the agent of the buyer. Article 16 of the contract provided that “any dispute arising from or in connection with this contract shall be settled through friendly negotiation. If no settlement can be reached through negotiation, it shall be submitted to ICC for arbitration in the place where the project is located in accordance with international convention and practice” (emphasis added). Article 17 provided that “the applicable law of this contract is PRC law”. In this case, the project was located in Guangzhou, Mainland China.

On 16 December 2010, Brentwood brought a claim against Faanlong and others (Respondents) in the Court. The Court declined to hear the case, as there was an arbitration agreement between the parties. On 9 May 2011, Brentwood applied to the Court to invalidate the arbitration clause. Brentwood was not successful. Subsequent to the Court’s ruling confirming the validity of the arbitration clause, on 31 August 2012, Brentwood commenced ICC arbitration against the Respondents. The arbitration was administered by the ICC through its Secretariat Asia Office based in Hong Kong. On 17 March 2014, the sole arbitrator made a final award in favour of Brentwood. On 13 April 2015, Brentwood applied to the Court for recognition and enforcement of the award.

The Court’s ruling on enforcement

Brentwood argued that judicial practice in Mainland China is that the nationality of the arbitral award is determined by the place where the arbitration institution is located. Accordingly, as the award was made by the ICC, which is headquartered in Paris, it should be recognised and enforced in Mainland China in accordance with the New York Convention. Alternatively, if the Court considered that the award was made by the ICC Secretariat Asia Office based in Hong Kong, the award is a Hong Kong arbitral award and should be recognised and enforced in accordance with the Arrangement Concerning Mutual Enforcement of Arbitral Awards Between the Mainland and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Mainland and Hong Kong Mutual Arrangement).

The Respondents argued that (1) the award was not “made in the territory of a State other than the State where the recognition and enforcement of such awards are sought “ (Article 1 of the New York Convention), and thus should not be recognised and enforced under the New York Convention; (2) ICC was not an arbitration institution stipulated in the PRC Arbitration Law and it was not legal for it to administer arbitration in Mainland China; and (3) the validity of the arbitration clause and the enforceability of the arbitral award were two separate legal issues under different rules. The fact that the arbitration clause was held valid did not necessarily suggest that the award made pursuant to it was enforceable.

The Court ruled that the award, made in Guangzhou by the ICC, should be regarded as a foreign-related arbitral award made in Mainland China. Enforcement of the award should be brought under Article 273 of the PRC Civil Procedure Law. It rejected Brentwood’s arguments for recognition and enforcement under the New York Convention or the Mainland and Hong Kong Mutual Arrangement and directed Brentwood to re-apply for enforcement under the PRC Civil Procedure Law.

Comment

It is a long-standing question whether foreign arbitration institutions can administer arbitration seated in Mainland China under the current PRC Arbitration Law regime. The traditional view was no, because “arbitration commission” in the PRC Arbitration Law meant Chinese arbitration institutions only. However, with the increase in commercial dealings between Chinese and foreign parties, the strict interpretation of the law no longer sits well with the demands of commercial parties. China’s Supreme People’s Court has recently, in several cases and judicial interpretations, confirmed the validity of clauses providing for arbitrations administered by foreign institutions seated in Mainland China. This latest decision made by the Guangzhou Court took a further step,  supporting that the arbitral award made in arbitration seated in Mainland China and administered by a foreign arbitration institution can be enforced under PRC Civil Procedure Law. However, as Mainland China is not a case law jurisdiction, this latest decision by Guangzhou Court, even though it should have been vetted by the Supreme People’s Court via the internal reporting system, is not a binding authority in Mainland China.

Viewed in light of the fact that foreign arbitral institutions are now permitted to operate in Beijing and extended free trade zones in Shanghai (see here), we are hopeful that there will be a final clarification in the near future on the question of whether foreign arbitral institutions can administer arbitration seated in Mainland China. Legal practitioners in Mainland China have been calling for an amendment to the existing PRC Arbitration Law to address this issue. If that happens, it would be a significant step towards China further opening up its legal services market to foreign players. Having said that, before that final missing piece of the puzzle is complete, we would recommend that parties avoid agreeing to an arbitration clause that provides for arbitration seated in Mainland China to be administered by a foreign arbitral institution.

If you have questions or would like discuss any aspect of this post, please contact Helen Tang, Stella Hu or Briana Young of Herbert Smith Freehills, Weina Ye of Kewei Law Firm, or your usual Herbert Smith Freehills contact.

Helen Tang

Helen Tang
Partner, Shanghai
+86 21 2322 2160

Weina Ye

Weina Ye
International Partner, Kewei
+86 21 2322 2132

Stella Hu

Stella Hu
Of Counsel, Beijing
+86 10 65355017

Briana Young

Briana Young
Professional Support Consultant, Hong Kong
+852 2101 4214

 

 

HERBERT SMITH FREEHILLS UPDATES ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO DISPUTES CLAUSES IN CHINA CONTRACTS

Herbert Smith Freehills has launched the 8th edition of its guide, “Dispute resolution and governing law clauses for China-related commercial contracts‎”.

Better known as “The Dragon Book“, this practical guide explains how Mainland Chinese law affects parties’ choice of law and dispute resolution in China-related contracts.‎

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New BAC Rules to enter into force on 1 September 2019

The Beijing Arbitration Commission (BAC) has updated its arbitration rules and fee schedule. The new versions will replace the current (2015) version, with effect from 1 September 2019.

Among a number of notable amendments, BAC’s revised fee structure marks a significant step towards aligning Chinese arbitral practice with international standards. The new fee schedule:

  • distinguishes between the institution’s administrative charges and the arbitrator’s fees, with a clear imposition of higher charges for the latter. Under the current fee schedule, arbitration fees are payable entirely to the institution, without transparency as to the proportion that is paid to the arbitrators;
  • applies equally to both domestic and international arbitrations, removing any differentiation between the fees applicable. In addition, parties to domestic arbitrations can now agree to have the arbitrator’s fees charged on an hourly basis whereas under the current rules, this option is only available for international arbitrations;
  • increases the minimum administrative charges as well as arbitrator’s fees. For arbitrations involving amounts in dispute below RMB 250,000, the administrative charges and arbitrator’s fees shall be RMB 5,000 and RMB 12,000 respectively, totalling RMB 17,000. Under the current rules, the minimum arbitration fees payable for a dispute up to and including RMB 1,000 is only RMB 5,100, a sum that barely covers one hour of a sole arbitrator’s hourly rate;
  • imposes a maximum on the administrative charges and arbitrator’s fees, thereby preventing disproportionately high costs for high-value cases. For arbitrations involving amounts in dispute of RMB 5 billion and above, the administration fees will be capped at RMB 8.761 million. If the disputed amount is RMB 8.682 billion and above, the arbitrators’ fees will further be capped at RMB 18 million. Where hourly rates apply, an arbitrator’s hourly fee shall be capped at a maximum of RMB 5,000.

Other highlights of the new BAC Rules include:

  • the threshold for ordinary procedures before a full panel of three arbitrators has been increased from RMB 1 million to RMB 5 million. Where the amount in dispute falls below RMB 5 million, summary procedures handled by a sole arbitrator shall apply (Article 54);
  • a claimant may file a single notice of arbitration where a dispute arises out of multiple contracts provided that (i) the contracts contain identical or compatible arbitration clauses and (ii) the contracts are collateral or the contracting parties are identical and the subject matter of the arbitration is of a similar or related nature (Article 8);
  • amendments to the emergency arbitration procedure. Drawing on its experience of administering the first emergency arbitration in China in 2017, which resulted in an award that was successfully enforced in Hong Kong, BAC has clarified the emergency arbitration regime in its new rules. This includes clearer stipulations of the procedures and fees involved in the appointment of emergency arbitrators (Article 63);
  • the period for BAC to accept a case after a claimant’s payment of the requisite fees is extended from five to 10 days (Article 9);
  • an option for certain administrative deadlines to be extended by approval of the Secretary-General of the BAC, depending on the circumstances of each case, is now expressly codified (Article 70).

The new BAC Rules and fee schedule will no doubt be warmly welcomed by users and practitioners, enhancing BAC’s reputation as one of China’s most progressive arbitral institutions.

 

Helen Tang

Helen Tang
Partner, Mainland China
+86 21 2322 2160

Michelle Li

Michelle Li
Partner, Mainland China
+86 21 2322 2162

Hew Kian Heong

Hew Kian Heong
Partner, Mainland China
+86 21 2322 2150

Stella Hu

Stella Hu
Senior Consultant, Hong Kong
+852 2101 4248

HONG KONG COURT FINDS ENFORCEMENT OF ARBITRAL AWARD TIME BARRED

In CL v SCG [2019] HKCFI 398, the Hong Kong Court of First Instance found that enforcement of a 2011 arbitral award by CL was time barred, clarifying when a cause of action for failure to honour an award accrues and the effect of the Arrangement Concerning Mutual Enforcement of Arbitral Awards between the Mainland and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (the “Mainland and Hong Kong Arrangement“) on time limits under the Hong Kong Limitation Ordinance.

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