Transparency of the Regulatory System
The Colombian legal and regulatory systems are generally transparent and consistent with international norms. The commercial code and other laws cover broad areas, including banking and credit, bankruptcy/reorganization, business establishment/conduct, commercial contracts, credit, corporate organization, fiduciary obligations, insurance, industrial property, and real property law. The civil code contains provisions relating to contracts, mortgages, liens, notary functions, and registries. There are no identified private-sector associations or non-governmental organizations leading informal regulatory processes. The ministries generally consult with relevant actors, both foreign and national, when drafting regulations. Proposed laws are typically published as drafts for public comment.
Enforcement mechanisms exist, but historically the judicial system has not taken an active role in adjudicating commercial cases. The Constitution establishes the principle of free competition as a national right for all citizens and provides the judiciary with administrative and financial independence from the executive branch. Colombia has transitioned to an oral accusatory system to make criminal investigations and trials more efficient. The new system separates the investigative functions assigned to the Office of the Attorney General from trial functions. Lack of coordination among government entities as well as insufficient resources complicate timely resolution of cases.
Colombia is a member of UNCTAD’s international network of transparent investment procedures (see http://www.businessfacilitation.org/ and Colombia’s website http://colombia.eregulations.org/). Foreign and national investors can find detailed information on administrative procedures applicable to investment and income generating operations including the number of steps, name, and contact details of the entities and people in charge of procedures, required documents and conditions, costs, processing time, and legal bases justifying the procedures.
International Regulatory Considerations
OECD countries agreed on May 25, 2018, to invite Colombia as the 37th member of the Organization. With Law 1950 of January 8, 2019, President Duque ratified the Colombian accession to the oOECD. Colombia’s Constitutional Court must now review and uphold the law before accession is completed. Colombia is part of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The government generally notifies all draft technical regulations to the WTO Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade. In December 2017, the legislature ratified the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA). The TFA is now also pending constitutional court review before Colombia can deposit its letter of acceptance with the WTO. Regionally, Colombia is a member of organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and the Pacific Alliance.
Legal System and Judicial Independence
Colombia has a comprehensive legal system. Colombia’s judicial system defines the legal rights of commercial entities, reviews regulatory enforcement procedures, and adjudicates contract disputes in the business community. The judicial framework includes the Council of State, the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Justice, and various departmental and district courts, which collectively are overseen administratively by the Superior Judicial Council. The 1991 constitution provided the judiciary with greater administrative and financial independence from the executive branch. Colombia has a commercial code and other laws covering broad areas, including banking and credit, bankruptcy/reorganization, business establishment/conduct, commercial contracts, credit, corporate organization, fiduciary obligations, insurance, industrial property, and real property law. Regulations and enforcement actions are appealable through the different stages of legal court processes in Colombia. The judicial system is generally regarded as competent, fair, and reliable, but it did suffer reputational damage in 2017 following the arrest of an official in the Attorney General’s office on corruption charges, which led to the uncovering of a judicial influence-peddling scandal linked to the Supreme Court.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
Colombia has a comprehensive legal framework for business and FDI that incorporates binding norms resulting from its membership in the Andean Community of Nations as well as other free trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties. Colombia’s judicial system defines the legal rights of commercial entities, reviews regulatory enforcement procedures, and adjudicates contract disputes in the business community. The judicial framework includes the Superintendence of Industry and Commerce (SIC), the Council of State, the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the various departmental and district courts, which are also overseen for administrative matters by the Superior Judicial Council. The 1991 Constitution provided the judiciary with greater administrative and financial independence from the executive branch. However, except for the SIC’s efficient exercise of judicial functions, the judicial system in general remains hampered by time-consuming bureaucratic requirements and corruption.
Competition and Anti-Trust Laws
The SIC, Colombia’s national competition authority, has been strengthened over the last five years with the addition of personnel, including economists and lawyers. The SIC issued landmark anti-competitiveness fines in 2015, including against a sugar cartel. More recently the SIC has sanctioned a rice cartel, three of the biggest telecommunication companies in the region, and truck transport operators for anticompetitive practices. The SIC has imposed sanctions of over USD 400 million on approximately 400 individuals and companies in the last four years for unfair competition practices. In 2016, the SIC sanctioned cartels operating in the diaper, paper, and notebook sectors, imposing fines of over USD 150 million. The SIC also imposed sanctions in several sectors for violations of consumer rights including for misleading advertising and noncompliance with warranty agreements. These sanctions included the telecommunications, furniture and home appliances, tourism, technology, automotive, and construction sectors. In the last five years, the SIC has imposed fines of over USD 300 million for “business cartelization.”
Expropriation and Compensation
Article 58 of the Constitution governs indemnifications and expropriations and guarantees owners’ rights for legally-acquired property. For assets taken by eminent domain, Colombian law provides a right of appeal both on the basis of the decision itself and on the level of compensation. The Constitution does not specify how to proceed in compensation cases, which remains a concern for foreign investors. The Colombian government has sought to resolve such concerns through the negotiation of bilateral investment treaties and strong investment chapters in free trade agreements, such as the CTPA.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
Colombia is a member of the New York Convention on Investment Disputes, the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency. Colombia is also party to the New York Convention of 1958 on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. In October 2012, the new National and International Arbitration Statute (Law 1563), modeled after the UNCITRAL Model Law, took effect.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
Domestic law allows contracting parties to agree to submit disputes to international arbitration, provided that: the parties are domiciled in different countries; the place of arbitration agreed to by the parties is a country other than the one in which they are domiciled; the subject matter of the arbitration involves the interests of more than one country; and the dispute has a direct impact on international trade. The law permits parties to set their own arbitration terms, including location, procedures, and the nationality of rules and arbiters. Foreign investors have found the arbitration process in Colombia complex and dilatory, especially with regard to enforcing awards. However, some progress has been made in the number of qualified professionals and arbitrators with ample experience on transnational transactions, arbitrage centers with cutting-edge infrastructure and administrative capacity (there are approximately 340 arbitration and conciliation centers in Colombia), and courts that are progressively more accepting of arbitration processes. The Chamber of Commerce of Bogota handles 75 percent of arbitration cases in Colombia. All arbitration tribunals combined handle around 600 cases a year.
There were 12 pending investment disputes in Colombia in 2019. The pending cases include but are not limited to:
- A case initiated in 1994 involving a U.S. marine salvage company that claims rights to a shipwreck. The company sued the Colombian government for not allowing it access to its property in Colombian waters, a process that resulted in a Colombian Supreme Court decision in 2007, but has not yet been resolved.
- A case involving a U.S. plane allegedly abandoned in Colombian territory in 2010. The U.S. owner has been trying to claim his property since 2012. Colombian authorities maintain that the plane is now the property of the Colombian government according to national regulations on abandoned aircraft and have requested that U.S. authorities deregister the aircraft as it had become Colombia’s property.
- A case involving an American citizen alleging lack of restitution for land seized by the government in the course of an investigation into a prior owner.
- A case involving a U.S. agro-industrial company that acquired state land in Colombia. The Colombian government asserts the land was acquired in violation of state lands law.
- A case, initiated in 2016 by a U.S. mining company, in which the company alleges the wrongful expropriation of a gold mining concession.
Separately, a Spanish energy company that is the majority owner of a Colombian utility company initiated arbitration proceedings before the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) in March 2017 after the government ordered the liquidation of the electricity supplier. The company asserted that the move constituted expropriation without compensation, though the government cited mismanagement, an inability to service its debts, and failure to provide reliable electricity to the northern coast of Colombia as justification for its actions. The Colombian government also has pending cases in the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) (https://bit.ly/2D0OtLb).
According to the Doing Business 2019 report, the time from the moment a plaintiff files a lawsuit until actual payment and enforcement of the contract averages 1288 days, the same as in the previous two years. Traditionally, most court proceedings are carried out in writing and only the evidence-gathering stage is carried out through hearings, including witness depositions, site inspections, and cross-examinations. The government has accelerated proceedings and reduced the backlog of court cases by allowing more verbal public hearings and creating alternative court mechanisms. The new Code of General Procedure that entered into force in June 2014 also establishes oral proceedings that are carried out in two hearings, and there are now penalties for failure to reach a ruling in the time limit set by the law. Enforcement of an arbitral award can take between six months and one and a half years; a regular judicial process can take up to seven years for private parties and upwards of 15 years in conflicts with the State. Thus, arbitration results are cheaper and much more efficient. According to the Doing Business report, Colombia has made enforcing contracts easier by simplifying and speeding up the proceedings for commercial disputes. In 2019, Colombia’s ranking in the enforcing contracts category of the report held at 177.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
Foreign judgments are recognized and enforced in Colombia once an application is submitted to the Civil Chamber of the Supreme Court. In 2012, Colombia approved the use of the arbitration process when new legislation based on the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Model Law was adopted. The statute stipulates that arbitral awards are governed by both domestic law as well as international conventions (New York Convention, Panama Convention, etc.). This has made the enforcement of arbitral awards easier for all parties involved. Arbitration in Colombia is completely independent from judiciary proceedings, and, once arbitration has begun, the only competent authority is the arbitration tribunal itself. The CTPA protects U.S. investments by requiring a transparent and binding international arbitration mechanism and allowing investor-state arbitration for breaches of investment agreements if certain parameters are met. The judicial system is notoriously slow, leading many foreign companies to include international arbitration clauses in their contracts.
Colombia’s 1991 Constitution grants the government the authority to intervene directly in financial or economic affairs, and this authority provides solutions similar to U.S. Chapter 11 filings for companies facing liquidation or bankruptcy. Colombia’s bankruptcy regulations have two major objectives: to regulate proceedings to ensure creditors’ protection, and to monitor the efficient recovery and preservation of still-viable companies. This was revised in 2006 to allow creditors to request judicial liquidation, which replaces the previous forced auctioning option. Now, inventories are valued, creditors’ rights are taken into account, and either a direct sale takes place within two months or all assets are assigned to creditors based on their share of the company’s liabilities. The insolvency regime for companies was further revised in 2010 to make proceedings more flexible and allow debtors to enter into a long-term payment agreement with creditors, giving the company a chance to recover and continue operating. Bankruptcy is not criminalized in Colombia. In 2013, a bankruptcy law for individuals whose debts surpass 50 percent of their assets value entered into force.
Restructuring proceedings aim to protect the debtors from bankruptcy. Once reorganization has begun, creditors cannot use collection proceedings to collect on debts owed prior to the beginning of the reorganization proceedings. All existing creditors at the moment of the reorganization are recognized during the proceedings if they present their credit. Foreign creditors, equity shareholders including foreign equity shareholders, and holders of other financial contracts, including foreign contract holders, are recognized during the proceeding. Established creditors are guaranteed a vote in the final decision. According to the Doing Business 2019 report Colombia is ranked 40th for resolving insolvency and it takes an average of 1.7 years—the same as OECD high-income countries—to resolve insolvency; the average time in Latin America is 2.9 years.