Green groups eligible for class-action lawsuits

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 January, 2015, 5:13am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 January, 2015, 5:13am

About 700 domestic environmental groups are now eligible to sue polluters through class-action lawsuits, after the Supreme People's Court issued a new judicial interpretation on dealing with such cases yesterday - less than a week after the country's revised environmental law took effect.

The interpretation, effective from today, is aimed at clearing legal obstacles - such as high litigation costs and difficulties in producing evidence - for green groups to take on polluters, as well as overcoming local protectionism that has provided shelter for polluting factories, legal experts said.

Zheng Xuelin, head of the environmental tribunal under the supreme court, told a press conference in Beijing yesterday that he expected the number of environmental class-action lawsuits to increase, following years of struggle by mainland environmental activists trying to sue polluters.

The interpretation says such class-action lawsuits will be dealt with by intermediate people's courts, rather than local courts, as these courts may not have the capacity to handle such cases and may have a tendency to protect local enterprises, said the Supreme People's Court spokesman Sun Jungong.

Plaintiffs are now allowed to apply for a delay or exemption of litigation payment to courts, while defendants will cover other litigation costs and other expenses such as fees for lawyers and testing of evidence.

Experts say the interpretation will help to involve more legal professionals in the fight against pollution.

The judicial interpretation also shifts the "burden of proof" in environmental class-action lawsuits to the defendants, who will now have to prove they did not cause environmental damage or health hazards, Zheng said.

The interpretation also includes a provision that allows courts to order defendants to stop polluting, a concept new to the mainland legal system, noted Wang Canfa, an environmental law professor at China University of Political Science and Law. "This is similar to issuing an injunction in Western countries, which is new to China," said Wang.

Previously, local governments could issue administrative orders asking factories to stop polluting, but these did not have the same legal force, he explained.

Organisations dedicated to environmental protection that have been registered with city-level governments and have been in operation for at least five years without any record of law-breaking are eligible to sue.

They are also allowed to sue polluters outside their registered city, according to the judicial interpretation.