Draft law to widen lawsuits scope

Updated: 2014-04-22 03:26

By Wu Wencong (China Daily)

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More organizations would be eligible to take legal action against polluters

More social organizations would be entitled to file lawsuits against accused polluters if the latest draft amendment to the Environmental Protection Law is adopted by the top legislature this week.

The fourth draft amendment to the law was submitted to the National People's Congress Standing Committee for review on Monday.

In the previous draft, only social organizations that have registered with the central government could file public interest lawsuits for possible environmental violations. The latest draft, however, will allow organizations that meet three specific requirements: they must have been registered with prefecture-level governments over the past five years, they must prove they have worked to protect the environment for more than five years and they must have good reputations.

Experts said it means the number of organizations eligible to file such lawsuits would increase from a few dozen to more than 300. The draft is expected to be put forward for voting on Thursday when the bimonthly legislative session ends.

The current Environmental Protection Law was enacted in 1989. The revision of that law, which began in August 2012, has taken almost two years.

Zhai Yong, head of the law chamber of the Environmental Protection and Resources Conservation Committee of the NPC, said legislators have been debating over which organizations should be eligible to file public interest lawsuits against polluters.

The number of environmental pollution cases in China has grown by more than 20 percent annually since 1996, said Sun Youhai, head of the China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence of the Supreme People's Court, at a forum on environmental law in Guiyang, capital of Guizhou province, in July.

He said more than 300,000 letters of accusations related to environmental pollution were filed from 2006 to 2010, but less than 1 percent ended up becoming court cases, mostly because of vague descriptions in the law that defines who is eligible to file public interest lawsuits against polluters.

Five residents in Lanzhou, Gansu province, tried to sue Veolia Water Corp, the main water supplier in the city, for failing to guarantee its water quality and providing unsafe water to more than 2.4 million city residents after excessive levels of benzene, a toxic chemical, were detected in the tap water on April 11.

A local court refused to accept the case on the grounds that as individuals, the five residents did not have the right to file the lawsuit.

Experts said the change is progressive but that difficulties remain.

"The requirement that qualified environmental organizations be registered with civil affairs departments for more than five years may be very hard to reach for many organizations because the registration procedure has been open to most organizations nationwide for less than two years," said Yang Sujuan, deputy head of Environmental and Natural Resources Law Research Institute at the China University of Political Science and Law.

"To get involved with such lawsuits, the organization needs to have a professional team, including not only legal experts but also chemists. They may also need to be prepared to spend three to five years on one case," said Ma Yong, director at the environmental legal service center of the All-China Environmental Federation, one of the most active organizations in the field of environmental public interest lawsuits.

He expected the number of environmental public interest lawsuits across the country to increase if the draft is passed, but added that the total would not soar dramatically because "not many would be willing to spend a respectable amount of money and time to do something as painstaking as this".

An Baijie contributed to this story.