The Hong Kong Court of First Instance recently in Capital Century Textile Co Ltd v Li Dianxiao  HKEC 1429 considered the question in relation to the admission of a PRC criminal judgment as evidence in Hong Kong civil proceedings. This article discusses and compares the position in Hong Kong and in the Mainland China.
It is a well-established rule of evidence in common law jurisdictions that judicial and factual findings in earlier proceedings are not admissible for use in subsequent ones. This is known as the Hollington principle, which has long been a source of controversy for its inflexibility. The principle has been modified by s62 of the Evidence Ordinance in Hong Kong to allow the admission of domestic criminal convictions as evidence in subsequent civil proceedings.
In Capital Century Textile Co Ltd v Li Dianxiao  HKEC 1429, Capital Century sought to adduce and rely on a PRC judgment in criminal proceedings against Li in the 2nd Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing, as evidence to undermine the defence of Li in the Hong Kong civil proceedings. The Hong Kong Court of First Instance was required to determine the admissibility of the PRC judgment. In this case, the judge reaffirmed that the application of the Hollington principle and its importance to ensuring the right to a fair trial.
Essentially, the right to a fair trial requires an impartial and independent judge to formulate his own opinions based on the admissible evidence and the submissions made to him. He should not be influenced by the opinion of someone else. If findings of fact and inferences made by another judge were admitted in later proceedings, there is a risk that the subsequent decision-maker would be influenced by the opinion of the earlier adjudicator. This principle is only subject to limited exceptions of opinions of scientific and expert witnesses who might be better placed to evaluate a specialist area than the judge, and where the findings are binding on other courts by reason of “estoppel per rem judiciatam” (i.e. a doctrine which bars a party from litigating a specific issue that has been decided in prior separate proceedings).
At the same time, it is also important to note that the Hollington principle does not impose a blanket ban on admitting earlier judicial findings in subsequent proceedings. The admissibility question is a fact-sensitive one and should be examined with the purpose of the principle in mind. For example, if the judgment sought to be adduced only summarizes and report factual evidence presented in that court, without any element of judicial judgment and opinion, there is no risk of influencing the subsequent adjudicator with another’s opinion. In the circumstances, in Capital Century, the court delineated different sections in the PRC judgment in its analysis. In doing so, it held admissible the section which merely summarized the factual evidence presented in the 2nd Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing, and held inadmissible the evidence which engaged the opinion of the PRC court – hence triggering the operation of the Hollington principle.
Courts in Mainland China take a similar approach to the admissibility of foreign judicial documents in the PRC court proceedings. “Foreign judicial documents” refer to judgments and arbitration awards rendered outside the territory of Mainland China. Judgments and awards rendered in Hong Kong are considered foreign judicial documents for this purpose.
There is no specific rule regarding whether Hong Kong judgments or awards can be directly admitted as evidence by the Mainland courts.
Under PRC law, a foreign judgment or foreign arbitral award could be recognised by the Mainland courts pursuant to a reciprocal judgement enforcement treaty or the New York Convention. According to the arrangement for mutual recognition and enforcement of civil and commercial judgments between Mainland China and Hong Kong, subject to certain conditions, Hong Kong judgments can be recognised in the Intermediate People’s Court at the place of domicile or ordinary residence of the party against whom the recognition application is filed, or the place where the property of that party is situated.
Alternatively, a foreign judgement could be admitted as evidence in the same way as a normal documentary evidence created outside of China, by being notarised, authenticated, or certified through procedures stipulated in the relevant treaty concluded between the PRC and that foreign country. Documentary evidence created in Hong Kong would need to be (i) attested by a China-Appointed Attesting Officer entrusted by the Mainland; and then (ii) examined and transmitted by the China Legal Service (H.K.) Ltd, with its seal with specified usage and receiving court. In 2015, the Supreme People’s Court further clarified that notarisation, authentication or certification procedures are not necessarily the prerequisite of courts’ assessment of the factual findings unless such evidence concerns the parties’ identification.
However, factual findings contained in foreign judicial documents are inadmissible in the Mainland courts. For all the evidence developed outside of Mainland China, the Mainland courts are required to form their own views on the admissibility after examining the factual evidence referred to in the factual findings of the foreign judicial documents, and taking into account the parties’ views on such factual evidence. Therefore, unless consented to by both parties, factual findings in foreign judicial documents would only be admitted after the Mainland courts conduct their independent examination and assessment of evidence.
Similarly, judicial findings, opinions and comments of foreign courts that are prepared by foreign judges based on their understanding of procedural and substantive laws of that country or region are also inadmissible in the Mainland court.
As cross-border commercial activities increase, there has been an increasing amount of disputes involving proceedings in both the Mainland and Hong Kong. The admissibility of Hong Kong judicial documents or judgments in support of Mainland proceedings (and vice versa) is clearly an important aspect in the overall strategy.