Corporate criminal liability in the context of an M&A transaction in Vietnam

The Penal Code 2015 is silent as to whether corporate criminal liability incurred by one commercial legal person will be succeeded or extinguished if such legal person is liquidated, merged (sáp nhập), consolidated (hợp nhất) or split (chia) and ceases to exist. Under the Civil Code 2015, when a legal person is merged, consolidated or split, only “civil obligations” (nghĩa vụ dân sự) of such legal person are transferred to the relevant new (or succeeding) legal person. As such, criminal liability (trách nhiệm hình sự) of such legal person may not be transferred to the new (or succeeding) legal person. Similarly, under the Enterprise Law 2014, when an enterprise is merged, consolidated or split, only unpaid debts and property obligations (nghĩa vụ tài sản) are transferred to the relevant new (or succeeding) enterprises. It is not clear if criminal liability of the first enterprise could qualify as property obligations which can be transferred to or succeeded by the new (or succeeding) enterprise.

Under the Criminal Proceeding Code 2015, if a legal person, who has been convicted with a crime, undergoes a merger, de-merger, consolidation then the legal person succeeding the rights and obligations of the first mentioned legal person is responsible for performing penalties in form of monetary fine. This provision seems to suggest that not all criminal liabilities will be passed on the succeeding legal person. That said, in a recent seminar on corporate criminal liability, an official of the Ministry of Justice, being a member of the drafting team of the Penal Code 2015, has indicated that he is in favour of the requirement that in the context of the liquidation, merger, consolidation or split of a legal person, a new (or succeeding) legal person must inherit criminal liability of the disappearing entity.

CORPORATE CRIMINAL LIABILITY IN VIETNAM

The Penal Code 2015, which takes effect from 1 January 2018, for the first time introduces criminal liabilities to legal entities in Vietnam. Before the Penal Code 2015, only individuals may be subject to criminal liabilities in Vietnam. This is a major change to the criminal law system in Vietnam. The attached slides are summary of our discussion about corporate criminal liability regime in Vietnam in Volume 2 of Principles of Vietnam’s Enterprises Law.

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Provisions of the Criminal Code 2015 regarding bribery crimes in Vietnam

1.1.    Article 354 of the Criminal Code 2015 imposes criminal liability on the act of receiving bribes (tội nhận hối lộ), which is defined as an act, among others, of a person who holds an official position or “power” and directly or indirectly has received or will receive any of the following benefit for himself/herself or for other person/organisation:

1.1.1.    money, properties or other “material benefit” in any form, which has a value of VND 2,000,000 (approx. USD100) or more; and

1.1.2.    non-material benefit

with the intent of taking advantage of his/her official position or power in order to perform or refrain from performing certain acts for the benefit of, or as requested by, the person who offers the bribe. The Criminal Code 1999 considers only monies, properties or other material interest as bribes.

Corporate criminal liability in Vietnam – Entities subject to criminal liability

Under the Penal Code 2015, only “commercial legal person” (pháp nhân thương mại) could be subject to criminal liability. A commercial legal person is a legal person with the main objective of “seeking profit” which is distributed to its members. However, the concept of commercial legal person may raise several issues as follows:

  • The Criminal Proceedings Code 2015 only refers generally to “legal person”. It is not clear why the Criminal Proceedings Code 2015 does not use the term commercial legal person despite being drafted and passed at the same time as in the Penal Code 2015.
  • A commercial legal person’s main objective is “seeking profit” (tìm kiếm lợi nhuận). With the exception of “social enterprise” (doanh nghiệp xã hội), an enterprise in Vietnam is established for “the purpose of doing business” (mục đích kinh doanh). And “doing is business” has the purpose of “generating benefit” (sinh lợi). There is a slight difference between the use of words in the Enterprise Law 2014 and the Civil Code 2015. However, presumably, “generating benefit” under the Enterprise Law 2014 is intended to have the same meaning as “seeking profit” under the Civil Code 2015.
  • The Civil Code 2015 considers social enterprises to be non-commercial legal person. Under the Enterprise Law 2014, a social enterprise is set up to solve social or environment issues for public benefit. However, a social enterprise still has the objective of making profit and still distributes profit to its members as long as it retains at least 51% of its profit for its social purpose. In practice, a social enterprise can still commit the crimes which apply to other enterprises (e.g. polluting the environment or tax evasion). Therefore, in the author’s opinion, the classification of social enterprises being non-commercial legal person under the Civil Code 2015 is a mistake and social enterprises should still be subject to criminal liability under the Penal Code 2015.