By Paul Davies and Andrew Westgate

This month, China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP), the country’s most senior prosecution and investigation authority, issued a statement analysing the initial six months of its pilot programme launched in July 2015, which seeks to increase environmental accountability for industry and government authorities.

Aimed at expediting public interest claims, the two-year pilot gives increased powers to local prosecution departments. The pilot encourages resolving potential public interest claims before they reach court, with the SPP stating its priority of public lawsuits related to the environment and protection of resources.

As part of the programme, the SPP has given the local procuratorate offices in 13 provinces pre-trial powers to issue orders for companies or government authorities to stop illegal behaviour, provide restitution and pay compensation, issue public apologies and promote attendance at pre-trial mediation. The local offices also have the power to pursue claims to trial.

Piloting Progress

In January 2015, China amended its Environmental Protection Law to make it easier for a non-governmental organisation (NGO) to bring a claim following criticism of the difficulty of pursuing public interest claims in its national courts. The amendment to the legislation permitted those NGOs pre-approved by the government to bring public interest claims to court. This amendment was exercised in November when a court order was made on the first public interest case submitted by two NGOs (in this case two NGOs making a joint submission) under the amended environmental law. The NGOs had filed a claim in relation to a company illegally quarrying stone and dumping waste material between 2008 and 2011. In 2014, a court found three employees of the company guilty and sentenced them to imprisonment. The NGOs claim in 2015 requested that the offending company remove waste material and restore the area to its original state. The company was ordered to pay fines totalling 1.46 million yuan (US$230,000) and was given five months to restore the environmental integrity of the site.

Figures provided by the SPP show that between 1 July and 31 December 2015, local prosecution departments were involved in 510 pre-trial investigations, of which 313 were related to environmental issues. The announcement further detailed three environmental cases which were launched against local environmental protection bureaus following the investigations of local prosecution departments.

In the first of those three cases, prosecutors in the province of Shandong filed a claim on 21 December against a county-level environmental protection department for failing to fulfil its regulatory duties in its monitoring of a sewage firm, marking the first time prosecutors had made a claim against a government department in a public interest case.

In the other two cases highlighted in the SPP announcement, both in Jiangsu province, two businessmen were ordered to pay 3.5 million yuan (US$530,000) for remediation of pollution caused by improper storage and disposal of hazardous waste, and a paper manufacturer was found to have caused 20.7 million yuan (US$3,100,000) in environmental damage on account of releasing untreated wastewater.

The launch of the pilot programme, back in July, was greeted positively by some NGOs. It was viewed as additional local level government firepower strengthening efforts to combat industry failures to meet environmental standards. For example, the SPP announcement stated that in the two Jiangsu province cases, no NGOs could be found to meet the eligibility requirements to submit a filing, so the local prosecutors were able to take on the responsibilities and pursue a case which would have otherwise not been brought to trial.

Read more on China’s environmental policy:

What Multinationals Need to Know About China’s Amended Environmental Protection Law

This post was prepared with the assistance of Glen Jeffries in the London office of Latham & Watkins.