Greater public interest role proposed for prosecutors

A successful pilot program allowing prosecutors to file administrative lawsuits against poorly performing government departments-based on the public interest-is expected to be rolled out nationwide.

With a view toward incorporating that principle into law, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, is discussing a draft amendment to the Administrative Procedures Law that would give procuratorates the power to sue agencies that abuse their power or fail in their duties.

The amendment encourages procuratorates to play a stronger oversight role to ensure that local authorities do their jobs in environmental protection, food and drug safety, preservation of State assets and the transfer of land rights.

A draft amendment to another statute-the Civil Procedures Law-which is advancing on a parallel track, extends the reach of prosecutors to business enterprises that harm the public interest by polluting the environment and harming drug and food safety.

Both drafts are expected to be approved during the bimonthly session of the Standing Committee, which lasts until Tuesday.

Public interest lawsuits brought by prosecutors are good for strengthening supervision and will push government departments to fully implement the law, Cao Jianming, procurator-general of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, said in explaining the draft amendments to the committee.

A two-year program to test the system has been running in 13 provincial regions, including Beijing and Guizhou province, since July 2015.

Liu Xinyan, an experienced prosecutor with the capital’s Dongcheng district procuratorate, said it is necessary to extend the practice nationwide.

We’ve found problems on our own and also received complaints from residents. For example, we investigate if someone tips us off about a restaurant for illegally discharging polluted water, or when another division shares evidence, she said.

When we confirm that pollution is occurring or find that a government department has acted improperly, we first give the company or department some suggestions on how to solve the problem. If they fail to do so, we take them to court.

Liu’s team has handled more than 100 complaints, but most enterprises and administrations solve the pollution or food safety problem before it gets to court, she said, adding that the threat of a lawsuit has proved a good deterrent.

A statement from the SPP said the areas involved in the pilot program dealt with a combined 7,886 cases as of May. Of those, 934 resulted in a lawsuit. Courts ruled on 222 cases-all in favor of the prosecutors.

It’s hard for an individual to win a lawsuit, as it’s difficult to prove what specific damage pollution caused, but prosecutors are different, said Cheng Lei, an associate law professor at Renmin University of China. They are better at investigation, and protecting the public interest is also their duty.

If the draft amendments are passed, the qualification of plaintiffs in public interest lawsuits will be extended.