More groups can litigate in public interest

Updated: 2012-09-01 03:22

By ZHAO YINAN (China Daily)

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China's top legislature expanded on Friday the number and type of entities permitted to file class-action lawsuits, ending a heated debate on who has the right to defend the public interest by bringing a litigation to court.

Government agencies and related organizations are allowed to file class-action lawsuits, in which a group of people collectively bring a litigation concerning environmental pollution and unsafe food incidents to court to defend the public interest, the Amendment to the Civil Procedure Law states.

The amendment marks a step forward from the draft proposed to lawmakers on Monday, which empowered only social groups and government agencies to file class actions.

"Related organizations," as detailed in Friday’s version of the law, covers a larger range of societies than the so-called social groups, said Wang Shengming, a lawmaker from the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.

In China, a "social group" refers to a particular type of organization that has completely different registration and management procedures than other kinds of social organizations, such as private non-enterprise entities and NGOs, according to the country’s Regulation on the Registration and Management of Social Groups.

A social group, the regulation said, should be registered at the Ministry of Civil Affairs and be affiliated to an administrative organ, in most cases, a government agency.

Wang said statistics showed that among the total 460,000 social organizations registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs by 2011, about 250,000 of them are social groups, while the rest are private non-enterprises and foundations.

Wang said unlike the previous proposal, the amendment does not exclude private non-enterprises from the list of legitimate entities able to file a litigation.

Although he said various government agencies may later publish more specific regulations to help guide the organizations in their related fields.

The Supreme People’s Court said in a previous interview that most of the plaintiffs in public interest suits are government administrations and prosecutors. Individuals and non-governmental organizations have rarely been able to file litigation aimed at protecting the public’s interest, despite their many attempts.

The only accuser that was not completely official was the semi-official All-China Environment Federation, an organization affiliated with the Ministry of Environmental Protection, said Luo Dongchuan, former deputy director of the top court’s research office.

Friends of Nature, China’s oldest social organization, might be one of those who can benefit from the amendment. A private non-enterprise, it used to be among those excluded from bringing public interest litigations to court.

Chang Cheng, a program officer from the organization, said his organization could not file a class-action lawsuit on its own in the past, but he sees more opportunities in the revised law.

In a case that he is currently working on, Friends of Nature has teamed up with local environmental authorities to appeal for compensation and environmental rights for residents in Qujing, Yunnan province, where contaminating chromium was dumped, polluting water resources.

Yunnan is one of the several pilot provinces where about 60 environmental tribunals have been set up since 2008, a move expected to be rolled out nationwide if successful.

Chang said although the group had tried to register as a social group, it has to go through a set of strict procedures, making it almost impossible to succeed. He said the group has to register as a private non-enterprise since it failed to find an administrative organ to attach to.