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Public interest lawsuits to grow over pollution, food and drugs

By ZHANG YAN | China Daily | Updated: 2017-03-14 04:34

A pilot program that allows prosecutors to file public interest lawsuits has been a great help in protecting the public's rights in environmental and food and drug safety issues, and the top procuratorate is moving to make the practice into law, the country's procurator-general said.

Between July 2015 and the end of February, prosecutors handled 5,109 such cases and filed 547 public interest lawsuits. That helped restore 128,000 hectares of polluted farmland, forests and grassland, and forced 443 companies operating illegally to pay compensation of about 200 million yuan ($28.9 million), according to the Supreme People's Procuratorate.

"Such a pilot program has effectively prevented State and social public interests from being harmed," Cao Jianming, procurator-general of the SPP, told China Daily in an exclusive interview.

"Prosecuting departments will further streamline the process, clarify standards and mull legislative proposals to give legal backing to the practice."

Public interest litigation is fairly new and rare in China. For years, plaintiffs had been strictly confined to citizens, corporations and organizations whose interests were directly related to the lawsuit.

An amendment to the Civil Procedure Law in 2012 first allowed agencies or organizations to bring litigation against those who undermine public welfare by polluting or infringing on consumers' interests. That was considered a major step forward in creating a public interest litigation system in China.

Amid increasing pollution and food safety offenses, the National People's Congress Standing Committee, the top legislature, authorized the two-year pilot program in 13 provincial regions in July 2015. It allows prosecutors to institute public interest lawsuits in civil and administrative cases. Before that, prosecutors mainly handled criminal cases.

Under the program, prosecutors can file a civil suit based on any act that compromises public rights and interests through pollution or undermining food and drug safety. They may also sue government agencies over abuse of administrative power or failure to perform their duties in cases related to environmental protection, State assets and State land use.

Cao said engaging prosecutors in such lawsuits is an effective way to supervise administrative power, ensure law enforcement and safeguard social justice.

However, the system is designed for a public interest lawsuit filed by prosecutors to be the last resort, according to the SPP. Before that, prosecutors should urge governmental and nongovernment organizations to file such cases and assist them in doing so. Also, they should push governments to stop their wrongdoing and correct their actions before taking them to court.

Cao said that under the program, prosecutors had put forward 4,562 suggestions to government departments or social organization as of the end of February. Government agencies had made corrections in 3,206 of the cases, and social organizations had filed 28 public interest lawsuits.

"Prosecutors instituted 547 public interest lawsuits against those who refused to perform their duties or if the harm continued," he said.

In July 2015, for example, prosecutors in Qingliu county of Fujian province found the local environmental protection bureau had failed to ensure electronic waste was safely disposed of and urged the bureau to correct the situation. The bureau replied that it had disposed of the waste properly, but actually it hadn't.

Prosecutors then filed a public interest lawsuit against the bureau that December, and the bureau finally performed its duty under the pressure, according to the SPP.

But Cao acknowledged that prosecuting departments face challenges, too. "Faced with the needs of reform, the conflict between limited human resources and mounting cases has become more prominent," he said.

"In addition, some prosecutors need to accumulate more experience and improve their capabilities in evidence discovery, case investigation and trying such civil and administrative lawsuits."

Cao said prosecutors will beef up information sharing, transferring cases and other types of cooperation with other authorities, including the public security and environmental protection departments. He also called for more thorough legal research.

Liu Hongyu, a national political adviser and a partner in the Beijing-based Jincheng Tongda & Neal law firm, suggested amending the Civil Procedure Law and Administrative Procedure Law to give legal backing for such litigation.

"A separate law on the mechanism and procedures of public interest lawsuits should be drafted, too," she said.

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