At Issue
12/14/2011 10:36:52 PM EST
Mainland China: forum non conveniens?
Alan Gibb evaluates the arguments used to persuade Hong Kong courts that although there may be significant reasons for a proceeding to be stayed in favour of the mainland, Hong Kong is the more appropriate forum for the dispute.
Posted by LexisNexis

Even though Hong Kong courts technically have jurisdiction to hear a dispute, it is often argued that another forum is more appropriate – Hong Kong is forum non conveniens – and proceedings should be stayed in favour of another jurisdiction. This is especially relevant in the case of a dispute involving a mainland party. The Hong Kong plaintiff would much prefer to have the case heard in Hong Kong for reasons of convenience, expense, superior rules on procedure such as discovery, and most importantly because there is a perception that Hong Kong judges will be better qualified to adjudicate on the dispute with less danger of bias, especially if the mainland party is a
state-owned company. The purpose of this article is to evaluate the effectiveness of arguments used in Hong Kong cases in recent years in an attempt to persuade the court that even though there may be significant reasons for a proceeding to be stayed in favour of the mainland, Hong Kong is, in fact, the more appropriate forum for the dispute.

The three stage test

The test for deciding whether court proceedings should be stayed in favour of mainland China on the basis that it is the more appropriate forum for a dispute was first laid down in The Adhiguna Meranti [1987] 2 HKC 126 (where the Court of Appeal had to decide whether Hong Kong or Indonesia was the more appropriate forum). The test has three stages: (i) the defendant must prove that the mainland, rather than Hong Kong, is the natural and appropriate forum (this burden of proof is reversed where the plaintiff does not have jurisdiction as of right but only by virtue of long-arm jurisdiction); (ii) if the defendant succeeds in proving (i), the plaintiff must then establish that if the claim went to the mainland, this would deprive him/her of legitimate personal or juridical advantages; and (iii) if the plaintiff can prove (ii), then the court must balance the advantages of the trial in the mainland against the disadvantages to be suffered by the plaintiff and decide whether ‘substantial justice’ will be done if the case is allowed to proceed in the mainland.

Location of witnesses

The fact that all the key witnesses are located in the mainland is generally not considered by Hong Kong courts as a relevant factor in deciding whether the mainland is the more appropriate forum: see Peng Fengsheng v Wong Tak Hung [2010] HKCU 899 at [40]. The only case to take a different view is New Link Consultants Ltd v Air China [2005] 2 HKC 260 where 20 of the witnesses were located in the mainland and only two in Hong Kong. Poon DJ stated at (at 286):

“I accept ... [the] submission that the spectacle of a whole team of Mainlanders having to come en bloc to Hong Kong ... and [it] must raise the question whether Hong Kong is the most appropriate forum.”

A far more typical response is that provided by Cheng J in Yu Lap Man v Good Investment Ltd [1998] 1 HKC 726 at 734:

“There certainly is no evidence that the witnesses could not come to Hong Kong. The burden on the defendant is not to show mere practical convenience, but whether there is another available forum which is clearly or distinctly more appropriate than the one chosen by the plaintiff.”

The latter decision was quoted with approval in Shenzhen Futaihong Precision Industry Co Ltd v BYD Co Ltd [2008] HKCU 1011 where all the potential witnesses were mostly in Shenzhen, which is only a 45-minute journey to Hong Kong, and this was held (at [43]) not to be a good reason for granting a stay.

Similarly, ‘the mere fact of foreign location of key documents is not supportive of the proposition that the foreign court is the more appropriate forum to try the case’, unless evidence can be produced that there is a real risk that they might not be made available locally: ibid, at [48]-[50].

PRC law

If PRC law applies to the dispute, is this a convincing reason for concluding that the mainland is the more appropriate forum on the basis that mainland judges are more qualified than Hong Kong judges in applying PRC law? If this is the case and the judge allows the case to go ahead in Hong Kong, it will result in very expensive litigation because each side will have to employ a PRC legal expert and there is also a danger that the court could reach the wrong conclusion on the issue.

The Hong Kong courts’ approach to this issue was summed up by Recorder Ma SC (as he then was) in Ramblas Marketing Co v Chow Kam Fat David [2001] 3 HKC 250 where he stated (at 266):

“The courts in Hong Kong ... given the international identity and nature of the type of commercial litigant and litigants here, are often accustomed to dealing with aspects of foreign law. It does not therefore follow at all that once it is shown that the issues of foreign law arise, that this will necessarily be a powerful, much less a decisive, factor in favour of a stay. On the other hand, however, it is unrealistic not to acknowledge the fact that complicated issues of foreign law may arise with which the Hong Kong courts will feel itself not confident to deal; it is all a question of degree.”

Where is the line to be drawn? The trend arising from the cases is for Hong Kong judges to be very quick to assert that they are competent to decide the legal point. In Shenzhen Futaihong, Au DHCJ stated that even if PRC laws were to apply, he was of the view (at [64]) that ‘the Hong Kong Courts are as equally equipped as the Shenzhen Court to deal with them’. He further cited (at [68]), with approval, Cheung JA in Pei Zheng Middle School v China Pui Ching Education Foundation Ltd [2006] HKCU 292 that ‘Hong Kong courts are generally highly competent to deal with any legal or factual issues with a Mainland element’. This confidence to deal with PRC law issues is boldly exhibited by To DHCJ in Botanic Ltd v China National United Oil Corp [2008] HKCU 1312 where he stated (at 65):

“In view of the ever increasing commercial relationship between Hong Kong and the PRC the Hong Kong courts had on numerous occasions, to deal with issues of PRC law, including some complicated ones.”

He added, among other points, that more literature on PRC law was now available and that more bilingual judges have been receiving legal education in PRC law. In light of the reasoning provided, the judge then went on to reject the view of the defendant’s PRC legal experts, that the trial of the case would involve evidence in the nature of state secrets which could not be divulged in a Hong Kong court, and concluded (at [69]), after analysing Arts 2 and 8(3) of the State Secrets Law of the PRC, that ‘their opinion does not even sound logical’.

The only reported case where a Hong Kong court has concluded that it did not have the expertise to decide issues of PRC law is New Link Consultants, where the demerger agreements at the centre of the disputes were governed by PRC law. According to Poon DJ (at 56), these were considered to be ‘policy driven instruments’ leading to the conclusion that: “PRC judges are better placed than Hong Kong judges when construing such documents in accordance with state policy ... They are more familiar with such an exercise and have the additional advantage, peculiar to the Mainland legal system, to have access to the Supreme People’s Court for guidance if necessary.” This decision is somewhat surprising because the defendants had made no attempt to show how PRC law differed from Hong Kong law in this respect or which policies were in question. In the absence of clear evidence on this point, it is respectfully submitted that the court should have applied the general conflict of laws principle, namely, it should be assumed that the foreign law is the same as Hong Kong law.

Language issues

In addition to the fact that Hong Kong judges feel increasingly confident that they are competent to adjudicate on issues of PRC law, they also appear to have doubts concerning the English language skills of their mainland counterparts. In Botanic Ltd, the fact that all the relevant documents were in English was a factor in favour of Hong Kong being the appropriate jurisdiction when the judge accepted the view of counsel for the plaintiff that there were doubts about the
English proficiency of PRC judges given the fact there was no official test of their standard of English. To DHCJ remarked (at [79]): “This observation is not meant to be derogatory of the ability of judges in the PRC as English proficiency is not their expertise ... If a judge uses his untested knowledge of English to decide the case, all kinds of problems will arise...”

Given that no empirical evidence was submitted to verify this perceived deficiency, it would seem unsatisfactory to use this bold assertion as a relevant factor in favour of Hong Kong being forum conveniens and no other case has considered this point to date.

Fair trial

One of the most controversial issues for a Hong Kong court to consider is the argument that a party will be denied a fair trial on the mainland especially in the context where the other party is stateowned. To date, there have been no reported cases where the Hong Kong court has actually concluded there is enough evidence to justify a conclusion there will not be a fair trial in the mainland. This is consistent with well-established conflict of laws principle that general assertions of bias will not be relied upon. Thus:

“Where a plaintiff alleges that justice is unattainable in the natural forum ... he must assert it candidly and support his indictment of the judicial system with positive and cogent evidence. In the absence of such proof the Court starts with the working assumption that the courts in other judicial systems will endeavour to do justice according to the law and will be free from improper interference or constraints.” ~ per Master de Souza in Samuel Hutchison Canavan v Brenton George Battenfeld [2010] HKCU 1752 at [30].

For example, in the English case of Pacific International Sports Club Ltd v Soccer Marketing International Ltd [2009] EWHC 1839, involving a dispute concerning the ownership of the Dynamo Kiev Football Club, the plaintiff argued that a stay in favour of the Ukraine, the natural forum for the claim, should be denied on the basis that it would not get a fair trial because the plaintiff had poor relations with the Ukrainian Government, and the Ukrainian legal system was corrupt and susceptible to political pressure from influential individuals such as the defendants. In support of this, the plaintiff attempted to rely on the 2006 US Agency for International Development’s Report entitled ‘Corruption Assessment: Ukraine’ that concluded ‘the judicial system usually scores as one [of] the most highly corrupted institutions in public opinion surveys in Ukraine’, and a 2007 policy paper by the Atlantic Council of the United States noting that ‘widespread corruption plagues the judicial system in Ukraine’. In addition, the court was referred to a report that Ukraine ranked 134 out of 180 countries surveyed in terms of corruption. However, the court rejected the view that these generalised statements were enough to amount to cogent evidence that the plaintiff would be denied a fair trial in Ukraine.

A similar approach was taken by the court in Duan Qi Gui v Upper Like Investments Ltd [2008] HKCU 935 where the plaintiff, who had at one stage been sentenced to death in the mainland for corruption charges, argued that she had lost confidence in administration of justice in the mainland. The CA (at [34]) rejected this argument on the basis that her bare assertion, even though sincerely held, was insufficient:

“We accept that if a plaintiff wishes to resist a stay on the ground that even-handed justice may not be done to him in the mainland, he must ... support his allegations with positive and cogent evidence. There is no such evidence in this case.”

Again, in New Link Consultants, the court rejected the plaintiff ’s PRC legal expert’s evidence of bias in favour of the state-owned enterprises and preferring the view of the defendant’s expert who concluded (at 289):

“Whilst local protectionism does exist in some places in China, one cannot generalise to say that all courts in China suffer from the same problem. Judges in Beijing are well-trained and highly qualified, the legal ‘environment’ in Beijing is superior to the rest of China, Beijing courts are fully conscious of their external image and the Beijing Government has no need to interfere with justice ... Numerous examples [exist] in which courts in China (including those in Beijing) have held against Chinese parties in favour of foreign parties.”

It seems unlikely that it will be enough for a party seeking to avoid proceedings in the mainland to merely refer to reports such as the 2009 working report of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate which revealed that there were 2620 corrupt officials in the judicial sector – 32% of them judges (South China Morning Post, 4 January 2010) or that three Shenzhen judges were jailed for taking bribes in exchange for verdicts (SCMP, 2 March 2007).

This prompts the question: What does a party need to do to establish that he/she will be denied a fair trial in the mainland? Based on case authorities, the best way to persuade the court would be to produce evidence that the party’s life would be in danger if he/she returned to the mainland. In Ho Yuen Ki Winnie v Ho Hung Sun Stanley [2008] 4 HKC 544, the CA held that Macau would not be forum conveniens due to threatening letters and assaults targeting the plaintiff and her legal advisers, which established that the plaintiff had a well-grounded fear that she and/or her legal advisers would be subject to harm if they attended proceedings in Macau. Further, in Cherney v Deripaska [2009] EWCA Civ 849, with very similar facts to Pacific International Sports Club, the English CA accepted that the plaintiff ’s life was in danger if he litigated in Russia.

Alternatively, if, as in Botanic Ltd, it can be established that important witnesses are unwilling to give evidence in the mainland for fear of reprisals, this is likely to persuade the court that Hong Kong is forum conveniens. In this case, a dispute arose with the defendant, a PRC state-owned enterprise, concerning an agreement with the plaintiff to procure a contract between a Venezuelan company and the defendant for the supply of oil. The plaintiff ’s key witnesses were
Venezuelan. They were willing to testify in Hong Kong but not the PRC because they feared for their personal safety and liberty if they gave evidence in the mainland against a state-owned enterprise. While the judge (at [52]) considered these allegations were ‘unfounded’, they were ‘understandable’ and held that this was the main reason for concluding that the mainland would not be forum conveniens.

Superiority of the Hong Kong legal system

Applying standard conflict of laws principles, the fact that greater damages can be awarded in one jurisdiction or there is a superior discovery process or more generous limitation periods, should not be relevant considerations for deciding the other jurisdiction is forum non conveniens: Spiliada Maritime Corp v Cansulex Ltd [1987] AC 460 at 482B-483C per Lord Goff. For example, in PT Bali Hospitality Utama v Mathias Echene [2010] HKCU 346, despite the lack of a formal discovery process and a remedy for the tort of interfering with a contract in the Indonesian legal system, Carlson DHCJ held (at [28]):

“It may well be that the common law adversarial system offers advantages over a continental inquisitorial one ... The fact is that the court in Bali is well able to deliver substantial justice between the parties in respect of a quintessentially Bali-based dispute.”

However, Hong Kong judges seem more willing to depart from this general rule with regard to the mainland. In Shenzhen Futaihong, where a claim was brought in Hong Kong alleging misuse of
confidential information by the defendant in the mainland, it was concluded that even though Shenzhen was the natural forum for the dispute, the fact that:

1. Hong Kong had a superior discovery procedure which required the defendant to reveal documents unfavourable to him;
2. there was no interrogatories procedure in the PRC;
3. the remedies of constructive trust, tracing and mandatory injunction were not available in the PRC; and
4. the level of damages was substantially higher in Hong Kong, persuaded the judge that, at stage (iii) level, substantial justice would not be obtained in Shenzhen .

This decision should, however, be treated with caution because it goes against well-established principles that the superiority of another legal system is not a basis for deciding the inferior legal system is forum non conveniens and it should be contrasted with the Botanic Ltd case where even though there was severe criticism of the PRC’s discovery procedures, this was not regarded as being of critical importance in deciding if the PRC was forum non conveniens. In Shenzhen Futaihong, Au DHCJ mentioned (at [91]) that ‘each case must be looked at individually with reference to its own nature and circumstances’. It would appear that he was clearly influenced by the sheer number of advantages the plaintiff would have been deprived of if the claim had proceeded in the mainland. However, the judgment causes difficulties for legal advisors in being able to predict when the line will be crossed and determining which deficiencies of the PRC system will be so great that it is depriving the plaintiff of substantial justice. Also, in a situation where legal system A benefits the plaintiff and legal system B the defendant, and legal system A is used because of its superiority as the reason to stay proceedings, all the court is doing is favouring the
plaintiff at the expense of the defendant. It is respectfully submitted that this is not what the forum conveniens principle was intended to do because it is an objective principle designed to balance the interests of both parties.

Another question raised is: What will be the Hong Kong courts’ reaction to the argument that if the claim were to go ahead in the mainland, the plaintiff ’s claim would be statute barred due to the
much shorter limitation period operating there? The approach taken inDuan Qi Gui was to consider, on the assumption the mainland was the more appropriate forum, whether the plaintiff had, objectively, acted unreasonably in not commencing proceedings there within the PRC limitation period. On the facts, this was not the case. During the time the period was running, the plaintiff was focusing on far more pressing matters ie fighting corruption charges, which had resulted in her receiving a death sentence and having all her property confiscated.

Further, what if the defendant is prepared to give an undertaking that he/she will waive the time bar defence if proceedings take place in the PRC? In New Link Consultants, the court accepted this undertaking without discussion. However, in Duan Qi Gui such an undertaking was not regarded as relevant because there were conflicting views by the parties’ legal expert witnesses as to whether such a waiver would be accepted by mainland courts. In the absence of clear evidence, it was held that even though at the stage (i) level Shanghai or Qingdao was the more appropriate forum, the fact that the plaintiff was statute barred in the PRC at the stage (ii) level resulted in the court deciding that the mainland wasforum non conveniens.

The fact that there is a lack of finality in legal proceedings in the mainland because of its Supervision Procedure is not regarded as a significant reason for deciding the mainland is forum non conveniens. In New Link Consultants, this argument was dismissed (at [96]) on the basis that it:

“... amounts to no more than ... an invitation to find the local system is better than or, superior to, the Mainland system. This is precisely the sort of exercise which the court should not embark upon.”

In addition, the court accepted the view of the defendant’s legal expert that this power (of supervision) was seldom exercised.

Conclusion

With the exception of the New Link Consultants decision, authorities in recent years show a clear willingness on the part of Hong Kong judges to refuse to stay proceedings in favour of the mainland. This is despite the fact that:

1. a Hong Kong court will normally have jurisdiction as of right, with the presumption therefore operating that Hong Kong is the more appropriate forum;
2. there is an increasing confidence on the part of Hong Kong judges that they are competent to decide on issues involving PRC law; and
3. the forum conveniens rules give the plaintiff a ‘second bite of the cherry’ in that even if the defendant can rebut the presumption, the plaintiff then has the opportunity to argue that because of deficiencies in the mainland legal system he/she will be deprived of ‘substantial justice’ if proceedings are commenced there.

It will have to be an extreme case before a Hong Kong court concludes that the mainland is forum conveniens.

Due to this likely outcome, the only viable option available to a party who is reluctant to have the dispute heard in Hong Kong is to insert into the contract an exclusive jurisdiction clause in favour of the mainland. However, if this is commercially unacceptable, rather than resorting to litigation on the forum conveniens issue a party would, in most cases, be better advised to submit to the jurisdiction of Hong Kong courts. This is so despite the disadvantage of incurring the expense of a PRC law legal expert if issues of PRC law are germane to the dispute.

 

Alan Gibb
Professional Consultant
Faculty of Law
Chinese University of Hong Kong

 

中國內地:不便於審理的訴訟地?
Alan Gibb論述游說香港法院接納的一項主張,指:儘管存在將法律程序擱置並由內地法院審理有關爭議的重要理由,但香港是有關爭議的較合適訴訟地。

即使香港法院在技術上具司法管轄權審理某一項爭議,但往往有意見認為,另一個訴訟地較為合適—基於香港是不便於審理的訴訟地-因而應將法律程序擱置,由另一個司法管轄區來審理有關爭議;而當該爭議的其中一方涉及內地人士,情況尤見如此。香港的原告人基於便利、開支、優越的程序規則(如文件披露)等因素,而較為希望案件在香港進行審理,但最重要的理由是,他們認為,香港的法官具有較好的資格去裁定有關爭議,存在偏見的風險也會較低,特別是當內地當事人本身為一家國營企業的話。本文旨在論述近年香港案件中嘗試用作游說法院接納以下主張的有效性,指:儘管存在將法律程序擱置並由內地法院審理有關爭議的重要理由,但事實上香港是有關爭議的較合適訴訟地。

三個階段的驗證

關於有關爭議應否以中國內地為更合適訴訟地為由來決定將法律程序擱置,讓該地的法院來審理有關爭議的驗證,最早於The Adhiguna Meranti [1987] 2 HKC 126一案中被確立(上訴法庭在該案中需要決定香港還是印尼是有關爭議的較合適訴訟地)。該項驗證共分三個階段:(i)被告人必須證明內地 (而非香港)是自然和合適的訴訟地(但如果原告人並不享有司法管轄權的當然權利,所憑藉的僅為長臂司法管轄權,那舉證責任便須逆轉);(ii)如果被告人成功證明了(i),原告人便必須證明,如果有關申索在內地進行審訊,將會剝奪他/她合法地在個人或法院方面所享有的優勢;以及(iii)如果原告人可以證明(ii)的話,那麼法院便必須權衡在內地進行審訊所享有的優勢,以及此舉將會對原告人造成的不利,並決定如果有關案件交由內地法院審理會否達致「實質公正」。

證人的所在地

一般而言,所有關鍵證人皆位於內地的事實,不會被香港法院考慮作為決定內地是否為較合適的訴訟地的相關因素:參見Peng Fengsheng v Wong Tak Hung [2010] HKCU 899 at [40]一案。唯一提出不同看法的案件是New Link Consultants Ltd v Air China [2005] 2 HKC 260一案,當中共有20名證人身在內地,並只有兩名證人身在香港。Poon DJ表示(at 286):

「本席接納…[這種]看法,就是會出現整個內地證人團隊赴港的奇景 …而[它]必然產生這樣的一個問題,就是香港是否最合適的訴訟地。」

一個更為典型的回應,是由Cheng J在Yu Lap Man v Good Investment Ltd [1998] 1 HKC 726 at 734一案中提出:

「可以肯定,本案並沒有證據證明證人不能赴港。被告人的舉證責任並不是要證明案中僅存在實際上的便利,而是案中是否有一個更為明確或明顯地較原告人所選擇的更為合適的訴訟地。」

後者的裁決在Shenzhen Futaihong Precision Industry Co Ltd v BYD Co Ltd [2008] HKCU 1011一案中予以引用和認同,而當中所有潛在證人大多身在深圳,而深圳與香港相距只有45分鐘的路程,因此裁定這(at [43])並不是將案件予以擱置的好理由。

同樣,「僅僅因為關鍵文件是存放於外地這一事實,並不能作為外國法院是較合適訴訟地的支持理據」,除非當事人能夠提供證據證明,該等文件可能在本地無法取得的真正風險:同上,at [48]-[50]。

中華人民共和國法律

如果有關爭議適用於中華人民共和國(下稱「中國」)法律,那麼得出內地法官比香港法官更具資格引用中國法律,因而內地是較為合適的訴訟地的結論,是否一個令人信服的理由呢?倘若情況確是如此,而法官允許案件在香港審理,這將會帶來一場非常昂貴的訴訟,因為每一方都需要聘請一名中國法律專家,而且亦存在法院可能會就所爭議的問題得出錯誤結論的風險。

香港法院對這一問題的處理方法,由Recorder Ma SC (他當時的身份)在Ramblas Marketing Co v Chow Kam Fat David [2001] 3 HKC 250一案中作出總結。 他表示(at 266):

「鑒於香港的商業訴訟當事人所具備的國際身份和性質,香港法院…往往習慣於處理涉及外國法律的問題。因此,我們不能馬上斷定,一旦案件涉及外國法律問題,便必然會導致出現同意擱置案件的有力 (更不消說是具決定性的)因素。另一方面,案件或會出現涉及外國法律的複雜問題,以致香港法院自覺沒有足夠信心處理案件。如果我們不承認這一事實的存在,這同樣是不切實際的;因此,它完全是一個程度上的問題。」

如此,我們應該在哪裡劃下界線呢?該等案件所產生的一個趨勢,是香港的法官可以很快斷言,他們有能力就所提出的法律觀點作出決定。在Shenzhen Futaihong一案中,Au DHC表示,即使該案適用中國
法律,但他認為(at [64]),「香港法院如同深圳法院般,對處理該等案件勝任有餘」。他進一步引用(at [68])並同意上訴法庭法官張澤祐在Pei Zheng Middle School v China Pui Ching Education Foundation Ltd[2006] HKCU 292一案中所表示:「一般而言,香港法院都有足夠的能力去處理任何具內地元素的法律或事實問題」。此等在處理涉及中國法律問題方面所展現的信心,由To DHCJ在Botanic Ltd v China National United Oil Corp [2008] HKCU 1312一案中大膽呈示。他說 (at 65):

「鑒於香港與中國日益增長的商業關係,香港法院曾有無數次機會去處理涉及中國法律的問題,包括一些複雜的問題」。

他補充(還有其他觀點),現時我們可以取得更多有關中國法律的文獻,而香港亦有更多曾經學習中國法律的雙語法官。基於上述所提出的理由,該法官因此而駁回代表被告人的中國法律專家所提出的意見,認為對該案的審理,將會涉及不能在香港法院的審訊過程中洩露且屬於國家機密性質的證據;他在分析了《中華人民共和國保守國家機密法》第2條和第8(3)條後,作出結論指(at [69]):「該等專家所提出的意見甚至看來不合邏輯」。

New Link Consultants一案中,香港法院認為本身並不具備專業知識去決定涉及中國法律問題是唯
一的經彙報案例,而當中作為爭議點的分立協議,受中國法律所管轄。據Poon DJ (at 56)稱,這些都被認為是「推動政策的工具」,並導致得出如下結論:「根據國家政策解釋該等文件時,中國法官比香港法官更適合…他們較為熟悉這種操作方式,並熟悉內地法律制度的運作,在必要時,更享有最高人民法院指導的格外優勢,而這是內地法律制度的獨特之處」。這個決定是令人感到驚訝的,因為被告人並沒有試圖證明中國法律在這方面與香港的法律有何不同,又或者是涉及哪些政策。由於在這方面缺乏清晰的證據,因此個人認為法院應適用一般的法律衝突原則—即是應假設該外國法律與香港法律是相同的。

語言問題

香港法官除了對本身有能力就中國法律問題作出裁決感到越來越有信心外,他們似乎亦對內地法官的英語能力有所懷疑。在Botanic Ltd一案中,由於所有相關文件均以英語書寫,因此這是以香港作為合適
的司法管轄區的有利因素,特別是法官接納了原告人代表律師的意見,認為中國法官並沒有接受任何
有關英語水平的官方測試,因此對他們的英語能力有所懷疑。To DHCJ表示 (at [79]):

「這項觀察並沒有任何意思要貶損中國法官的英語水平,因為精通英語並非他們的專長…如果一位法官運用其未經測試的英語能力去審理該宗案件,各種問題將會浮現…」

由於本案沒有提出任何經驗性的證據去證明這種被視為不足的地方,因此以這一大膽的斷言作為一項相關因素,支持香港作為便於審理的訴訟地,似乎並非太理想的做法,而到目前為止,並沒有任何其他案例討論到這一點。

公平審訊

香港法院考慮的最具爭議問題之一是以下這一論點:一方當事人在內地不會獲得公平審訊的機會,當另一方當事人本身是一家國營企業,情況更是如此。至今沒有任何經彙報案例稱,香港法院實際上已作出結論,認為有充分證據證明在內地不會獲得公平審訊的機會。這與有效確立的法律衝突原則是一致的,即是不可依賴聲稱存在偏頗的一般主張。因此:

「如果原告人聲稱在自然訴訟地無法獲得司法公正…他必須坦率地提出其主張,並提出積極和具有說服力的證據來支持他對司法制度所提出的指控。如果不能提出此等證明,法院便會採納這樣的假設,即是在其他司法制度下的法院,將會依法力求達至司法公正,並且不受不正當的干預或制約。」~ per Master de Souza in Samuel Hutchison Canavan v Brenton George Battenfeld [2010] HKCU 1752 at [30]。

例如,在英國的案例 Pacific International Sports Club Ltd v Soccer Marketing International Ltd [2009] EWHC 1839中,案中涉及與基輔迪納摩足球會的所有權爭議,而原告人認為不應准予將訴訟擱置,並以自然訴訟地烏克蘭作為提出申索的訴訟地,理由是該案不會得到公平審訊,因為原告人與烏克蘭政府的關係惡劣,而烏克蘭的法律制度是貪腐的,且易受具影響力人士 (例如被告人) 所施加的政治壓力影響。為了支持這一論點,原告人試圖以2006 年美國國際開發署發佈的報告(題為「貪腐評估:烏克蘭」)為依據,指出「在烏克蘭的民意調查中,司法制度通常被評為是最貪腐的機構之一。」此外,美國大西洋理事會的一份2007年政策文件指出:「一般貪腐的情況蔓延至整個烏克蘭的司法制度」。此外,一份向法院提交的報告指出,在接受貪腐調查的180個國家中,烏克蘭的貪腐程度排名第134位。然而,法院拒絕接納這種說法,表示該等廣義陳述足以構成原告人在烏克蘭不會得到公平審訊的具說服力證據。

法院在Duan Qi Gui v Upper Like Investments Ltd [2008] HKCU 935一案中採納了類似的態度。案中的原告人於某一階段在內地被當局提出貪污指控,並將她判處死刑。她爭辯道,她已對內地能否秉行公
正失去信心。上訴法庭(at [34])駁回這一論點,因為這純粹出於其片面之辭 (即使她真誠地相信) ,理由
並不充分:

「我們同意,原告人希望不要將訴訟擱置,理由是他在中國內地難以得到不偏不倚的公平審訊,他必須…以正面和具說服力的證據來支持她的指稱。但本案並沒有如此證據。」

再次在New Link Consultants一案中,法院駁回了原告人的中國法律專家所提出的,內地法院對國營企業有所偏頗的指稱,並傾向支持被告人的專家所提出的意見。他說 (at 289):

「雖然地方保護主義確實在中國某些地方出現,但是我們不能一概而論地說,所有中國法院都發生同樣的問題。北京的法官受過良好的培訓,擁有優良的素質,而北京的法律『環境』亦較中國其他地區優勝,北京的法院充分意識到自身的對外形象,而北京市政府並沒有必要妨礙司法公正…且有無數的事例[存在] ,顯示中國的法院(包括北京)曾作出不利於中國一方當事人而有利於外國一方當事人的裁決。」

倘若一方只是提及諸如2009年最高人民檢察院的工作報告,這似乎不太可能讓一方當事人要求避免在內地展開法律程序。該報告揭示在司法部門中共有2620名官員貪污—而當中有百分之三十二是法官(《南華早報》,2010年1月4日)﹔又或是,深圳三名法官因受賄而被判監禁(《南華早報》,2007 年3月2日)。這提出了一個問題:如果一方要證明他/她在內地不能獲得公平審訊,那麼他/她需要怎樣做呢?根據現行的典據,說服法院的最好辦法是提出證據,以證明他/她一旦返回內地,他/她的生命將會危在旦夕。在Ho Yuen Ki Winnie v Ho Hung Sun Stanley[2008] 4 HKC 544一案中,上訴法庭裁定澳門不會是便於審理的訴訟地,這是基於針對原告人及其法律顧問的恐嚇信和襲擊,證明了原告人有充分理由擔心,倘若她及/或其法律顧問出席在澳門進行的法律程序,他們將會遭到傷害。此外,在Cherney v Deripaska [2009] EWCA Civ 849一案中 (案情與Pacific International Sports Club的非常相似),英國上訴法院同意,假如原告人在俄羅斯進行訴訟,他的生命將危在旦夕。

另外,正如在Botanic Ltd一案中,如果可以證明案中各名重要證人因害怕報復而不願在內地作供,這很可能會說服法庭接納香港是便於審理的訴訟地。在該案中,原告人與被告人(一家中國國營企業)發生爭議,內容涉及被告人與原告人之間所簽定的一份協議,促使一家委內瑞拉公司為石油供應目的而與被告人訂立合同。原告人一方的各名主要證人皆為委內瑞拉人,他們都願意在香港(而非在中國)出庭作供,原因是他們擔心在內地針對一家國營企業作出不利的證供,他們的人身安全和自由可能會受到威脅。雖然法官(at [52])認為這些指控「毫無根據」,但卻是「可以理解的」,並裁定這是認為內地並非便於審理的訴訟地的主要原因。

香港法律制度的優勢

在運用標準的法律衝突原則時,某個司法管轄區可以獲得更高的損害賠償,或是有較好的文件披露程序,或是更為充足的時效期限,這在決定其是否不便於審理的訴訟地方面,都不應當是相關考慮因素,參閱 Spiliada Maritime Corp v Cansulex Ltd [1987] AC 460 at 482B-483C per Lord Goff。例如,在PT Bali Hospitality Utama v Mathias Echene [2010] HKCU 346一案中,儘管缺乏正式的文件披露程序,以及在印度尼西亞的法律制度中,對干擾合同的侵權行為缺乏補救措施,但Carlson DHCJ裁定(at [28]):

「普通法的對抗性法律制度可能會比大陸法的訊問式法律制度具有較多優勢…但事實是,峇里島的法院能夠就一宗典型的以峇里島為基礎的爭議,為訴訟各方提供實質公正。」

然而,在涉及內地事務時,香港法官似乎較願意偏離這項一般性規則。在Shenzhen Futaihong一案中,
倘若就被告人在內地不當使用機密資料的指稱在香港提出申索,所得出的結論是,即使深圳是爭議的
自然訴訟地,但基於以下的事實:

1. 香港有較好的文件披露程序,要求被告人必須披露對其不利的文件;
2. 中國沒有質詢程序;
3. 中國沒有法律構定信託、追查和強制性禁制令等補救措施;
4. 香港的損害賠償水平大體上較高。

基於上述各項因素,在階段(iii)的層面上,法官會相信在深圳審理並不會獲得實質公正。

然而,我們應謹慎看待這一裁決,因為它違背了該等已有效確立的原則,就是另一個法律制度的優點,並非決定較差的法律制度是不便於審理的訴訟地的論據,並且應與Botanic Ltd一案區別開來,而在該案中儘管對中國的文件披露程序作出了嚴厲批評,但這並不能視為在決定中國是否不便於審理的訴訟地時是至關重要的因素。在Shenzhen Futaihong一案中,Au DHCJ提到(at [91]),我們「必須單獨審視每一宗個案,並參考其自身的性質和情況」。這樣看來,他顯然受到法律程序一旦在內地進行,原告人將會被剝奪許多優勢的看法所影響。然而,該判決會令法律顧問難以預測該界線將於何時劃定,並確定中國的制度在哪些地方存在著重大缺陷,以致原告人被剝奪了實質公正。此外,倘若存在法律制度A有利於原告人,而法律制度B有利於被告人的情況,而最後基於法律制度A的優越性而採納了它,作為將法律程序擱置的理由,則法院此舉只是作出有利於原告人的行動,而令被告人蒙受損失。筆者認為,這並非便於審理的訴訟地原則所意圖達到的目的,因為它是一項客觀的原則,其設定是旨在平衡雙方的利益。

另一個被提出的問題是:如果逕自在內地提出申索,而原告人將因著當地訴訟時效較短而引致因逾時而無法提出申索,香港法院對於這一論點的反應會是如何?Duan Qi Gui一案所考慮的是(假設內地是較合適的訴訟地),如果原告人沒有在內地的訴訟時效內展開訴訟,那麼客觀地說,原告人是否不合理地行事。根據案情,該案並非如此。在訴訟時效的有效時期,原告人正忙於處理更為迫切的事情,即是就對她的貪污指控提出抗辯,而該指控導致她被判處死刑,並被充公所有財產。

此外,如果被告人願意作出保證,即如果法律程序是在中國進行,他/她便會放棄在訴訟時效期間提出抗辯理據,這又將如何呢?在New Link Consultants一案中,法院在未經討論的情況下接納了被告人的這一保證。然而,在Duan Qi Gui一案中,這樣的保證並不視為相關,因為各當事人的法律專家證人就此等權利放棄是否會被內地法院所接納,存在不一致的觀點。在缺乏明確證據的情況下,法庭裁定即使在階段 (i) 的層次,上海或青島市是較合適的訴訟地,而原告人在階段(ii)的層次因在中國的法定時限屆滿而被禁制的事實,導致法庭裁定內地是不便於審理的訴訟地。

儘管內地因為其監督程序以致其法律程序缺乏終局性,但這不能被視為一個決定內地為不便於審理的訴訟地的重要原因。在New Link Consultants一案中,這一論點基於以下理由而被駁回(at [96]):

「…僅僅是構成…要求裁斷本地制度較內地的制度為佳或優越。這正是法院不應該做的一種作為。」

此外,法院接納了被告人的法律專家的觀點,即是這項(監督)權力很少被行使。

結論

隨了New Link Consultants一案的裁決外,近年的典據顯示,香港法官的明顯意願是拒絕將法律程序擱置,讓當事人在內地的法院提起訴訟。儘管存在以下的事實:

1. 香港法院通常享有當然的司法管轄權,因此推定香港是較合適的訴訟地;
2. 香港法官的信心增強,認為自己有能力就涉及中國法律的問題作出裁決;及
3. 便於審理的訴訟地規則給予原告人「另一次機會」,理由是即使被告人能反駁該推定,但原告人接著有機會爭辯,基於內地法律制度所存在的缺陷,如果法律程序在內地展開,他/她將會被剝奪「實質公正」。

只有是屬於極度的情況,香港法院才會確認中國內地是便於審理的訴訟地。

由於這個結果相當可能出現,倘若一方當事人不願意由香港法院聆訊其爭議,那唯一可選方案是在合同內加入一項以內地為訴訟地的專有審判權條款。但是,如果在商業上行不通,那麼與其將便於審理的訴訟地的問題訴諸訴訟,在大多數情況下,最好是建議當事人願意接受由香港法院的司法管轄權所管轄。如果中國法律問題與有關爭議有密切關係,即使會因此而招致聘用中國法律專家的費用,此舉依然是有必要採用的。

 

 

Alan Gibb
專業顧問
法律學院
香港中文大學


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