Sanlu court action put on hold
Judge refuses to accept lawsuit until guidelines are issued from top
A court in Lanzhou , Gansu province , has said it cannot accept a lawsuit over the Sanlu infant formula scandal until it knows whether authorities have issued guidelines on how to deal with the sensitive topic.
The issue has prompted concern about judicial independence.
Shanghai-based lawyer Dong Junming filed a 1 million yuan (HK$1.13 million) lawsuit in Lanzhou Intermediate Court on Monday on behalf of the parents of six-month-old Yi Kaixuan , who died of kidney failure on May 1. His parents blame his death on the Sanlu milk powder he consumed.
At least four infants have died and tens of thousands have fallen ill after drinking milk formula tainted by melamine, an industrial chemical that artificially raises protein levels.
Mr Dong was told by the court yesterday that it was a 'normal personal injury compensation case' but that further consultations with higher courts had to be conducted before a decision could be made whether to accept the case.
He said the chief judge of the court, a Mr Wang, said the case was being held up because it had wide ramifications.
'It doesn't mean they are not accepting the case. They still have a few more days under the law to give us a reply,' Mr Dong said. 'This is a big case and it's natural that they would want to adopt a more secure and careful approach.'
But the boy's father, Yi Yongsheng , was less optimistic. He had heard that none of the other Sanlu lawsuits around the country had yet been accepted and he was worried his case would go the same way.
Many lawyers have confirmed that they have been warned by law associations and judicial officials not to represent Sanlu victims. There are also indications that the courts are giving a cold reception to Sanlu cases.
'We are not sure whether there are top-down instructions for the courts not to accept Sanlu cases,' said a founding member of a Sanlu lawyer's group, Li Fangping . '[But not giving a reply beyond the seven-day limit] is against the law.'
Under the civil procedure law, a court must say whether or not it will accept a case within seven days of a lawsuit being submitted. The first Sanlu lawsuit was filed on September 22 in Zhenping county court in Henan , but Beijing-based lawyer Ji Cheng said yesterday that he had still not received a response.
According to reports, another lawsuit filed in Guangzhou on October 8 was rejected because the 900,000 yuan in compensation sought fell short of the 50 million yuan minimum litigation threshold for the Guangzhou Intermediate People's Court.
Zhou Linbin , a professor of consumer law at Sun Yat-sen University, said the claims against Sanlu were legitimate and therefore should be accepted by the courts.
'The right attitude is to accept the cases first. Then the courts can co-ordinate on standardised treatment of the cases, such as the compensation amount or which level of court will hear the cases,' he said.
'Not accepting the cases seems to suggest political concerns rather than respect for the law. This will further undermine the authority and independence of the judiciary, and is also contrary to the trend of legal reform and the government's principle of speedily handling serious social matters.'
Wang Hai , a consumer lawyer, said such court delays in accepting cases were not uncommon in cases involving large numbers of victims, such as in land-loss litigation.
'The main problem is that there is no way to seek redress under the current system on the court's inaction or rejection of a case, apart from petitioning. This is the reality in China.'