2020-10-01 03:49:46

The southern Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen is welcoming more environmental public-interest lawsuits.

According to a new regulation that comes into effect Thursday, environmental groups, public prosecutors, and government departments will be empowered to bring such cases before local courts thanks to clearly outlined investigative rights and provisions for relieving court costs.

China currently has no specific law on environmental public-interest litigation. Instead, related provisions are scattered across several laws and legal interpretations, leaving plenty of room for loopholes and disputes, experts say. Though the new regulation will only apply to cases of pollution or other environmental violations in Shenzhen, public-interest lawsuits can be brought before local courts by NGOs anywhere in China, allowing them to take advantage of the new protections.

“Environmental public-interest lawsuits go hand in hand with environmental rights. The authorities should safeguard participating nonprofit groups through legislation,” said Liao Mingzong, a lawyer specialized in environmental law at the Shenzhen office of DeHeng Law Firm. Liao told Sixth Tone that high litigation costs, a lack of incentives, and the difficulty of obtaining evidence all deter nonprofits from filing lawsuits.

“The Shenzhen regulation will hopefully serve as a pilot model and pave the way for national legislation,” he said.

The regulation — billed as the first of its kind in China — states that the scope of environmental public-interest lawsuits encompasses seven categories: air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, solid waste pollution, ocean pollution, destroying plants, and harming wildlife.

To encourage and support nonprofit groups to file such cases, the regulation says courts “may approve” social organizations’ applications for deferred payment of legal fees in the event of financial difficulty, or for reductions or exemptions of legal fees if they lose. NGOs can also apply to have their court fees covered by a special fund consisting of donations and fines from previous environmental cases.

Environmental public-interest lawsuits were added to China’s civil procedure law in 2012. When the country’s landmark environmental protection law came into force in 2015, it allowed NGOs to sue on behalf of the public interest. Since then, domestic environmentalists have filed numerous cases against dam developers threatening rainforests and green peafowl in the southwestern Yunnan province, and against chemical polluters on school land in the eastern city of Changzhou.

Though Shenzhen’s new regulation is a potential game-changer, its effectiveness will hinge upon its implementation.

“Financial cost is still a main obstacle,” Zeng Xiangbing, a Wuhan-based lawyer with 10 years’ experience in environmental law, told Sixth Tone. He added that, because of local protectionism and the challenges to securing evidence, environmental lawsuits often take longer than common cases to proceed. “It’s not uncommon for a year or two to pass before such cases are responded to,” he said.

Editors: David Paulk and Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: A man stands in polluted seawater in Xiamen, Fujian province, Oct. 1, 2016. People Visual)