Provinces and cities empowered to sue polluters
Governments at provincial and city levels and their subordinate departments have been given the authority to sue polluters for damaging the environment.
The new measure was outlined in a judicial interpretation of 23 articles issued by China's top court on Wednesday. It will strengthen the fight against pollution and help in the restoration of damaged environments, the Supreme People's Court said in a statement.
"Government departments, compared with individuals and organizations, know more about law enforcement of environmental protection and are more powerful in evidence collection, so as plaintiffs they will better solve pollution cases," said Jiang Bixin, the court's vice-president.
"It's a kind of litigation between governments and polluters, and the polluters can be an individual, an enterprise or an organization," he said.
Jiang added it was a "new crucial measure" to protect ecology and environment through the rule of law.
In December 2015, the central leadership issued a reform plan requesting judicial and government officials come up with ways for polluters to pay damages for the restoration of damaged environments.
Since then, the courts have attempted to find solutions to effectively help restore the polluted ecological regions and penalize polluters.
At the same time, more individuals and environmental NGOs realized they had more power to take action against polluters under the Environmental Protection Law, enacted in 2015, which increased fines imposed on violators.
Since July 2017, prosecutors have also been allowed to institute public interest cases in relation to pollution and food safety, to further strengthen environmental protection.
"The series of moves shows our determination against pollution is getting stronger and punishments for violations becoming stricter," Jiang said.
Beijing No 4 Intermediate People's Court, for example, said on Wednesday that it has heard 17 civil public interest litigations since 2015, covering pollution issues relating to air, water and soil.
"But the greatest difficulty in handling such environmental cases is how to effectively recover the polluted environment and threaten the polluters," said Ma Jun, a judge from the Beijing court.
The latest judicial interpretation is trying to alleviate this problem, Wei Wenchao, deputy chief judge of the top court's environment and ecology division, told China Daily.
"Polluters should cover all fees for the restoration of the polluted ecological area and also pay for other parts, such as those used for temporary measures in environmental and ecology recovery," he explained.
Jiang said individuals and enterprises should strictly abide by laws and rules relating to pollution "or else the money they will pay may be a huge amount".
Fang Yan, a lawyer from Shaanxi province, welcomed the judicial interpretation. Fang said a more powerful plaintiff and heavier payouts for damages will pose a bigger threat to potential polluters and help contribute to regional environmental protection.