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New regulations open legal doors for environmental NGOs

Zheng Jinran
Updated: Jan 8,2015 11:09 AM     China Daily

Environmental NGOs will get stronger legal support and greater power to sue companies and individuals who violate the revised Environmental Protection Law, as part of a national campaign to curb air pollution, said the country’s top court.

A judicial interpretation on the handling of civil environmental cases involving public-interest litigation, released by The Supreme People’s Court, took effect on Jan 7.

“Under the previous regulations, many environmental cases were rejected by the courts because of stringent requirements on NGOS to prove they were legally recognized, so the new rules are expected to solve this problem,” Sun Jungong, the court’s top spokesman, said on Jan 6.

Under the judicial interpretation, social associations, groups, and foundations that have had no administrative or criminal punishments in the past five years will be allowed to lodge public-interest lawsuits relating to the environment.

“The social organizations can now prove their lack of a criminal record with their official seals, making it easier for them to apply to the authorities for proof of that fact, which will greatly facilitate the participation of NGOs in lawsuits,” Wang Canfa, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, said.

Criminal records should be related to the NGO’s main sphere of activity, so irrelevant crimes such as traffic offenses will not be included, Wang explained.

In addition, environmental organizations that successfully bring cases against polluters will be able to force the defendants to pay all the legal fees, “which will ease their financial burden”, Wang said.

The judicial interpretation lowers identity thresholds for NGOs in the field of environmental protection, allowing a greater number of them to file lawsuits. The NGOS will also be allowed to sue companies or individuals across China, irrespective of where they are registered.

Many environmental NGOs have voiced their support, and they expect the new judicial interpretation and the Environmental Protection Law to play a larger role in curbing air pollution.

On Jan 1, the day the new law came into effect, the Nanping Intermediate People’s Court in Fujian province accepted a public-interest case against individuals accused of damaging the city’s environment. It will be the first case of its kind to be heard under the revised Environmental Protection Law, which took effect on Jan 8.

Between 2008 and 2010, unauthorized quarrying took place on a mountain in Nanping. Waste soil and stones were illegally dumped, severely damaging the local environment.

Two NGOs filed a lawsuit to force those responsible to clean up area around the quarry and help restore damaged vegetation.

“Cases involving damage to the environment were hard to bring before the new law came into effect, because the previous regulation only focused on issues of environmental pollution,” said Liu Xiang, a lawyer representing the NGO Friends of Nature, which is based in Beijing and is one of the two organizations in the Fujian case.

With the detailed interpretation from the top court and stronger legal support, Liu was confident of a smooth investigation and hearing, and said the case would be heard within six months.

China has witnessed rapid economic growth in the past decade, but that has caused severe environmental pollution, especially clouds of polluted air that frequently shroud cities.

A number of supplementary regulations and policies will also be enacted soon to curb pollution, Zhai Qing, deputy minister of environmental protection, said on Dec 30.

The ministry has formulated 54 policies to support implementation of the new law. Five regulations covering the release of information and daily fines for pollution were released in 2014.