2018-01-17 11:45:38

China’s supreme court released a new interpretation of the country’s marriage law on Wednesday detailing how courts should handle debt dispute cases that usually involve divorced couples.

In the document, the Supreme People’s Court says that in cases where a loan was taken out under the name of one individual to cover costs beyond the family’s daily expenses, then courts should not hold their spouse — or former spouse — responsible for repaying the money.

“The new interpretation released today means a fresh page for all of us,” said a divorcée surnamed Chen who has become an advocate for spouses in such situations. She declined to give Sixth Tone her full name, citing privacy concerns.

In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases involving people who found themselves in similar situations. Chen claims her husband took out loans before their divorce that creditors are now suing her to repay — which she is legally obliged to do, under Article 24 of the second judicial interpretation of China’s marriage law.

Article 24 was intended to protect creditors from couples who divorce just to avoid mutual debt obligations. However, since it came into effect on April 1, 2004, at least hundreds of people have found themselves in debt for loans they say they were unaware of.

Following Wednesday’s announcement, cases invoking this much-maligned article will likely be judged differently.

Since Chen’s divorce in 2012, the 41-year-old native of Changsha, capital of central Hunan province, has been named in eight lawsuits filed by her ex-husband’s creditors, involving some 3.4 million yuan ($528,000). Chen established social media groups in May 2013 to unite people in similar situations, and together they now number around 500 members.

“The vast majority of the 500 people in our groups are divorced women who come from all walks of life,” Chen said. “They were overjoyed to hear the news this morning, because it made them see hope in their cases. Still, some remain doubtful about how it will be enforced in reality.”

The interpretation further stated that both spouses should sign loan contracts, and that creditors who want to hold spouses responsible for repayment should provide proof that both parties were aware of the loan.

Cheng Xinwen, the chief judge of a Supreme People’s Court tribunal, told The Beijing News on Wednesday that if creditors cannot prove that one spouse took out the loan to cover shared living expenses, or to finance a business run with their partner, then creditors cannot compel both spouses to pay back the debt.

“Creditors are reminded to urge both spouses to sign the paperwork before a loan is granted,” Cheng said, adding that this would help avoid disputes in the future.

The Supreme People’s Court had previously added two clauses to Article 24 in February 2017. One said that courts should not rule in favor of creditors who colluded with either spouse to purposely accrue debt; the other stipulated that creditors should not win lawsuits if the borrowed money was used for gambling, drug abuse, or other illegal activities.

Wang Liren, a judge who handles marriage and domestic affairs cases at the Yichang Intermediate People’s Court in central Hubei province, told Sixth Tone that the new interpretation has in essence repealed Article 24. “The new rules give clear directions to judges when they deal with such cases,” Wang said. “Based on my observations, most cases can now be settled in a way that spares innocent people from paying debts.”

“It’s also very important to note that in the past, a spouse was responsible for proving their innocence,” Wang said. “Now, it is the creditors who will need to provide the evidence of a spouse’s liability.” He added that more fundamental changes in the law itself won’t happen until 2020, when the country’s first civil code is expected to be enacted.

The new interpretation will come into effect on Jan. 18, a day after being announced. Though Chen welcomed the change, she said one side effect could be that more women will be cheated or forced to sign loan contracts. “While judicial progress is being made,” she said, “it’s also important that women realize that they should better protect their own legal rights.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: A man and woman leave separately after completing divorce proceedings at a civil affairs bureau in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, April 19, 2014. VCG)