A senior Supreme People's Court official's promise that mainland courts were ready to accept civil claims over the melamine milk scandal offered a ray of hope for victims' families, lawyers said yesterday.
During a live webcast on People .com.cn on Monday, deputy court president Shen Deyong said more than 95 per cent of the 300,000 families affected by the tainted formula had accepted payouts from dairy companies, but a small number of families wanted to pursue compensation claims through the courts.
'People's courts are ready in this regard and will accept the lawsuits for compensation at any time according to the law,' Mr Shen said.
It was the first time a court official had clearly stated the mainland's legal system should address the issue, and it came after some lawyers had been warned not to represent the families and their compensation applications were repeatedly rejected.
'The tainted-milk scandal was a major public incident, and the major principle in settling this is that the companies responsible realise their obligation to offer compensation ... and courts accept the lawsuits for compensation,' Mr Shen said.
Parents' spokesman Zhao Lianhai said he and other parents were 'very happy about the news', adding: 'We really welcome the change and we will continue to pursue compensation through legal procedures.'
He said that last week the Ministry of Health gave him a letter saying that if victims of tainted milk powder 'didn't accept compensation offers from the dairy firms, they could apply through the courts for compensation'. Mr Zhao said the letter was a 'joint response to petitions submitted by many families'.
'We, the families of victims, see all these changes as positive breakthroughs,' he said.
Also, Beijing legal academic Xu Zhiyong said other lawyers representing 337 victims were invited to the Shijiazhuang Intermediate People's Court today 'to discuss lawsuits and witness the Sanlu Group auction to be held in the city'.
State-owned Sanlu was one of 22 dairy firms found to have the industrial chemical melamine, usually used in plastics and glue, in their products. It is added to boost the nitrogen content of substandard food, allowing it to pass testing for protein levels. At least six children died and 300,000 were made ill.
'The Shijiazhuang court informed us that they had received our lawsuit filing and would like to double-check plaintiff information and other procedural issues,' Dr Xu said. 'But in the past, we submitted the documents twice and they always said they didn't receive our application.'
He said the shift in attitude could be seen as a way to settle the social disputes and ease anger among the public. 'If [the courts] insisted on refusing our applications, the angry victims would have nowhere to go but on to the streets. This is something the government doesn't want to see.'
But he said it was too early to tell whether courts in other provinces would agree to hear claims.