Courts improve handling of international maritime disputes

(China Daily)     Updated : 2024-03-28

China is making every effort to be one of the world's preferred venues for resolving international maritime disputes, with greater strength to enhance its judicial credibility around the world and promote high-level opening-up, judges said.

As the number of maritime disputes, especially those involving foreign parties, has been rapidly growing in recent years, improving the quality of case handling and innovating legal services has become more important for courts nationwide, said Du Qian, president of the Ningbo Maritime Court in Zhejiang province.

The annual work report of the Supreme People's Court (SPC) said that courts at all levels concluded 16,000 maritime lawsuits last year, up 5.3 percent year-on-year.

It also mentioned a ship collision case that was solved by Du's court.

In July 2021, when a Chinese-owned vessel was anchored at Cigeding, a port in Indonesia, it collided with a Panamanian ship called Navios Felicity l, resulting in damage.

The Chinese vessel belonged to a company in Zhoushan, Zhejiang, and the foreign one was leased by a firm registered in the Marshall Islands.

After temporary repairs in Cigeding, the Chinese vessel returned to China and unloaded at Zhoushan port in Zhejiang before going to Shandong province for further maintenance.

According to international conventions and provisions in Chinese procedural laws, courts in Indonesia, Singapore and maritime courts at the ports of discharge or ship repair in China all had jurisdiction.

The owners of the two vessels eventually turned to the Ningbo Maritime Court and agreed to apply Chinese laws to solve their dispute.

Considering the cost of repairs and compensation, the Chinese company asked for more than $1 million, but the foreign firm said the Chinese vessel had also made mistakes while anchoring.

The court went through nearly 500 pages of materials in both Chinese and English, and provided sufficient time and opportunities for both litigants to express their opinions on the allocation of responsibility for anchorage, the determination of ship repair costs and calculation of voyage delays.

Following the efforts, the foreign company agreed to compensate the Chinese firm, and the dispute ended with mediation.

Du said the case had shown the court's determination and endeavor in efficiently dealing with international maritime disputes, with equal protection offered to litigants, regardless of their origin.

"We've also established teams led by senior judges to improve the professionalism of foreign-related maritime case handling," she said.

With the longest coastline and most islands in China, Zhejiang is home to the world's top port in terms of throughput — Ningbo-Zhoushan Port — which has held that position for 15 consecutive years.

The Ningbo Maritime Court, as a specialized court for hearing first-instance maritime and admiralty disputes in Zhejiang, has handled an average of around 4,000 cases a year over the past few years, ranking among the top in China's 11 maritime courts.

Last year, the number of maritime disputes involving litigants from foreign countries, the Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions and Taiwan handled by the court increased 36 percent year-on-year, Du said.

"Facing the increasing number of cases, we've striven to cope with them efficiently, aiming to enhance judicial credibility and make our court become a preferred destination for resolving international maritime disputes around the world," she said.

The court has also improved the quality of its legal services to litigants, trying to offer more convenience for both domestic and foreign litigants.

In July last year, the court set up a maritime dispute resolution center in Ningbo, inviting 92 experts from the fields of port logistics, finance and insurance to serve as mediators. At the center, the method of resolution — whether through mediation, arbitration or litigation — depends on the litigants, Du said.

She said more than 180 cases have been filed with the center, involving over 670 million yuan ($93 million), and 107 of them — covering litigants from 23 countries and regions — have been resolved through mediation.

Due to the convenience and efficiency, more foreign litigants are choosing to resolve their disputes in Zhejiang, Du added.

In an article published by People's Court Daily in December, Hua Yujun, president of the Nanjing Maritime Court in Jiangsu province, wrote that high-quality adjudication was a crucial criterion for assessing the handling of maritime cases.

On the way to becoming a strong maritime power, it is essential for China to participate more in the formulation of international rules in that regard, he said, adding that high-quality and efficient case handling will help the country meet the goal.

Hua said cases heard by maritime courts were not only closely related to the development of the shipping economy, opening-up policies and the protection of the maritime environment, but also involved participation in global ocean governance. That called for such disputes to be resolved through the use of more professional teams, and he welcomed the establishment of courts to specialize in the handling of such cases.

China has 11 specialized maritime courts, in locations including Ningbo, Nanjing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. From 2018 to 2021, courts participating in maritime adjudication, including the specialized courts and high courts in the same places, accepted more than 132,000 maritime disputes, most of which were heard in the specialized courts, according to a report issued by the SPC in 2022.