China’s first ever public interest administrative litigation takes place

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Half a year after the People’s Procuratorate of Qingyun county, Shandong province, decided to take legal action against the local Environmental Protection Bureau, the local court has pronounced the defendant guilty in the first instance judgment. The lawsuit has drawn much attention because it is the first ever public interest administrative litigation to take place since the start of a pilot program in which the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress empowered procuratorates to carry out such litigations.

In October 2014, a chemical company named Qingshun was reported by local residents. The procuratorate then found out that the company had illegally produced 120,000 tons of dyestuff (mainly Amino-C Acids) per year since 2008, and thus tons of waste water discharged into the local river had caused serious pollution.

Further investigation found that although the local environmental protection bureau did impose punishment on the company, the bureau itself had committed unlawful acts during its governance. Responding to these unlawful acts, the Qingyun procuratorate issued two procuratorial proposals to the local environmental protection bureau in May 2014 and January 2015, requesting it to fulfil its duties. Nevertheless, the bureau neither followed the proposals nor performed its duties.

On December 16th 2015, after having been permitted by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Qingyun procuratorate accused the Qingyun Environmental Protection Bureau of directly collecting fines from the company, authorising the chemical company’s production under the guise of “tests”, and allowing the company to prolong its production. On May 6th 2016, the Qingyun Court held a hearing on the case. On June 20th the Qingyun Environmental Protection Bureau was pronounced guilty.

In July 2015, Shandong was chosen to be one of 13 experimental provinces where the procuratorates are permitted to conduct public interest administrative litigations. Up to now, 152 litigations have been carried out under this pilot programme, of which three have been held up as exemplary.

An official serving at the People’s Procuratorate of Shandong stressed that these cases should be dealt with through civil action, administrative litigation and administrative review. The procuratorate can institute legal proceedings only when the public interest is undermined and there is no legal subject claiming their rights. He said the procuratorate’s identity as a public interest prosecutor is different from that of the plaintiff in a general civil action.

Since this is a new practice in China, there is neither much experience to learn from nor relevant laws to refer to, and thus some mishaps and difficulties are hard to avoid, another official from the People’s Procuratorate Shandong admitted, while assuring that the situation will improve in the future.