On a corner of the Qianhai special economic zone in Shenzhen, a new building was recently opened. But this building is unlike any other of the gleaming high-rise office towers going up in the district. It is filled with judges, lawyers, and legal assistants from all over the world, and its mission is nothing less than to boldly push forward reform of China’s justice system – with Hong Kong as a partner.
The Qianhai Justice Center, the first permanent public building in Qianhai, is a part of a “national pilot demonstration area of law-based governance”. Begun in 2014, it was completed in August and opened for business on November 6. Its mission is to provide “one-stop legal services” to members of the public from anywhere within the Greater Bay Area: notarization, mediation, intellectual property rights registration and enforcement, accounting services, and in-house legal advisory services.
This is what being a Pioneering Zone for Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is all about.
At the heart of the building’s operations is the Qianhai Cooperation Zone People’s Court. Established by the Supreme People’s Court in December 2014, this is a court unlike any other in the Chinese mainland. It exists outside the country’s traditional law structure and its intended mission is to generate ideas and practices that can be beneficial in reforming the country’s law system.
This will involve building a legal platform for processing cases involving parties from all three jurisdictions of Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macau.
Practitioners are following in lockstep, with one particular firm at the forefront: a joint venture between Hong Kong’s P.C. Woo and Zhonglun, one of the biggest firms on the mainland.
“Such is the unique reality of China’s Greater Bay Area: it brings tremendous challenges to the practice of law,” says Lin Wei, managing director of the firm’s Qianhai office. “If the area wants to be fully integrated, it needs to address the issue of legal integration. We are looking for solutions in many scenarios.”
Qianhai is on the move. Just this year, the district published its own “Outline of National Pilot Demonstration Area of Socialist Rule of Law with Chinese Characteristics”, a guide to how the special zone will implement the city’s mission to experiment with new reforms. It has also issued its own “Greater Bay Area Development Plan – Rule of Law Construction Action Plan.” Both of these are focused on the kind of changes envisaged by the new legal center.
In the Qianhai Justice Center, including in the Qianhai Court, many facilities and legal services are designed to handle cross-border lawsuits. A special counter here is dedicated to cross-border cases that allows for court filings, document delivery, and entrusted formalities.
Key of these special institutions is the Shenzhen International Court of Arbitration, which has hired 148 Hong Kong professionals as arbitrators. Moreover, the Qianhai Court has introduced a jury system and brought in some of these mediators to help with related trials. It currently has 32 jurors and 78 meditators that have helped to solve more than 6,000 cases since its establishment, according to reports in the Legal Daily. There are some big names among these, including Hong Kong’s former Justice Secretaries, Elsie Leung and Rimsky Yuen.
However, not just anyone can be selected for jury duty. Only Hong Kong permanent residents actually living in Shenzhen are considered. Their function is also limited to attending legal proceedings involving Hong Kong companies.
Other key legal institutions to settle in Qianhai include the First Circuit Court of the Supreme People’s Court, the Belt and Road Initiative Economic Dispute Mediation Center, the Shenzhen Intellectual Property Court, and the Shenzhen Financial Court.
Establishing a corporatized legal system to handle a growing number of lawsuits in cross-border areas still has a long way to go. But the potential upside is substantial, as Zhonglun’s Lin notes. “Qianhai’s legal department has invested greatly in both time and effort to conduct studies in various legal subjects,” he says.
Shenzhen, as China’s Silicon Valley, has many emerging enterprises who want their technology and innovation to be legally protected. “As a service provider, we need to increase our efficiency and bring in more legal experts specializing in different areas,” Lin says. “We need to continue improving our team’s service standards for those enterprises that have settled in Qianhai so that they can rest assured that their intellectual properties are adequately and effectively protected.”
Established in 2016, P.C. Woo and Zhonglun W.D. was one of the first joint venture law firms approved by the Ministry of Justice. Its Qianhai branch has taken research projects assigned by the government aimed at pushing forward legal system reform in Qianhai as well as the Greater Bay Area.
Lin says the work is exciting and challenging. As the mainland continues to rapidly develop across new industries, especially those related to the Internet and financial technology, it is creating new legal frontiers. Hong Kong and Qianhai can learn greatly from each other, he believes, and work closely on finding solutions to legal issues that have no precedent elsewhere in the world.
Qianhai is expected to take even bolder strides in the future for legal reform. Lin believes that if a verdict obtained in Qianhai can be final, in other words if the first trial and the final judgement all take place in Qianhai without the need to go to a higher court for re-examination, it would bring a lot more convenience to the parties concerned.
More lawyers and law firms from Hong Kong are expected to settle here in the coming months, after Chief Executive Carrie Lam recently unveiled changes in Guangdong’s mutual recognition of lawyers and law firms. However, details on how exactly they will be allowed to practice law within Guangdong remain to be clarified.
A number of legal service providers such as P.C. Woo & Zhonglun W.D. have already set up a branch in Qianhai to provide one-stop services for cross-border business as previously, a client was often handled by multiple parties, resulting in high costs and poor control of service quality.
“To attract more enterprises to Qianhai, the local government has offered many incentives. The area is new and it will take some time to develop until it reaches a snowballing effect,” Lin said. “I’m confident more and more companies will come. Qianhai is very close to Hong Kong and this geographical advantage means it can greatly facilitate the exchange of talents.”