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UPDATED: October 27, 2014 NO. 44 OCTOBER 30, 2014
Whittling Down Pollution
Environmental tribunals have been set up to facilitate judgments in court
By Tang Yuankai

ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE: Lan Qunfeng, a local official in Liuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, who neglected his environment-related duty, is brought to court on July 16, 2013 (ZHOU HUA)

Positive roles

The establishment of special environmental and resource courts will facilitate the appropriate application of relevant laws, standardize judicial adjudication and protect people's environment rights, Sun said. They also help nurture respect for nature and enhance awareness of environmental protection, he said.

Since its inception in 2007, the environment tribunal on average adjudicates about 10 cases every month, Luo Guangqian, head of the Ecological Protection Tribunal of Qingzhen People's Court, told Beijing Youth Daily.

In recent years, it hears on average of approximately 110 cases every year, and so far this year, the tribunal has already heard more than 50 cases, Luo said.

He said that 30 to 40 percent of the cases they handled this year are resource-related criminal cases such as illegal tree felling, farmland occupation and mining.

In addition, they have tried civil cases including public interest cases and cases filed by individuals whose legitimate rights and interests have been infringed upon by polluting companies, he said.

They have also heard administrative cases, most of which involve administrative organizations requesting the court to enforce the punishments they have imposed on polluters, according to Luo.

"In all the public interest litigations we handled, the defendants have won," Luo said. Some of the cases were settled through trials, and some through mediation, he added.

Speaking of the Environment and Resource Tribunal of the SPC, Luo said that its main role is to conduct legal research and guide the work of lower courts, whereas specific cases should still be tried by lower courts.

Luo's points were echoed by professor Lu, who believes that the environmental tribunal of the SPC can guide grassroots environment tribunals by producing more detailed judicial interpretations and publishing typical cases. Right after it was set up, the tribunal published nine typical environmental cases.

"Because of the lack of rules to follow, lower courts are not sure what cases to hear, and worry whether they will offend local governments. Now the environmental tribunal of the SPC can make the rules," said Wang Canfa, a professor in China University of Political Science and Law and one of the proponents of environmental and resource tribunals.

Adjudication of environmental cases needs special expertise, including knowledge of very complicated nature sciences, special skills to collect evidence and infer causal relations, said Zhao Huiyu, an associate professor with Shanghai Jiaotong University.

There are few university graduates who are well versed in environmental sciences and laws to serve in environmental tribunals in cities such as Guiyang, capital of Guizhou Province, said Fang Kun, Zhao's colleague.

Wang said that delivering training on environment laws should be one of the priorities of the environmental tribunal of the SPC.

He also suggested deepening reform of the judicial system, for instance, setting up courts that have trans-regional jurisdiction because environmental problems are usually trans-regional, and carrying out reforms to make it easier to file environmental lawsuits.

Clearing obstacles

Due to difficulties for the public to file environment cases, many environmental tribunals are running under capacity.

The general public are reluctant to file environmental cases because such cases are likely to be rejected by courts, and even if they are accepted, it usually takes a long time for courts to reach their ruling, and the indemnities they can get sometimes are not enough to cover litigation costs, said Ma Jun, a well-known environmental activist and Director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

"To enhance adjudication of environmental and resource related cases, we should start from facilitating environmental public interest litigation," said Xi Xiaoming, Vice President of the SPC on May 29 at a seminar.

Previously, environmental organizations or parties not directly victimized were not eligible to fine public interest lawsuits. In recent years, laws have been amended to give them the legal standing to sue on behalf of victims.

The amended civil procedure law that went into force in early 2013 gives the green light to environmental public interest lawsuits. Article 55 grants the right to the authorities and relevant organizations prescribed by the law to bring lawsuits against acts which give rise to environmental pollution as well as acts harmful to the consumer's legitimate interests.

The amended Environment Protection Law to be implemented next year also stipulates that social organizations that meet certain conditions may file public interests litigations against acts that pollute the environment, damage ecology, and harm the public interest. These social organizations must be registered with civil affairs administrations above city level, and have engaged in environmental protection activities for five consecutive years with no law-violation records.

In this May, the Ecological Protection Tribunal of Qingzhen People's Court accepted a cross-regional public interest litigation filed by All-China Environment Federation.

Email us at: tangyuankai@bjreview.com

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