Move decided by recent Party plenum will bolster rule of law in governance
Expanding the scope of public interest litigation - as decided by the central leadership at a key meeting last month - will help to uphold and improve the rule of law in the country's governance, legal experts said.
The four-day Fourth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, which concluded on Oct 31, decided to take some new measures, including expanding the scope of litigation to better safeguard the public interest to continue advancing law-based governance.
"The expansion, I think, is necessary, because the aim of initiating such litigation is to help residents resolve more problems that truly affect or harm their interest," said Yang Yanjun, a prosecutor from Beijing Dongcheng district people's procuratorate.
Areas include food safety
Public interest litigation, as described in revised versions of the Administrative Procedure Law and the Civil Procedure Law in 2017, currently covers four fields: environmental protection, food and drug safety, preservation of State assets and the transfer of land rights. It was passed after a two-year pilot program that allowed prosecutors to file administrative actions or lawsuits against poorly performing government agencies or business institutions.
Prosecutors can send prelitigation suggestions to administrative departments before they initiate a lawsuit if improper behavior is discovered, according to the Administrative Procedure Law. If the agencies fail to rectify the problems, litigation will be launched, the law says.
Since the laws took effect in July 2017, Yang and his colleagues have solved more than 20 cases related to the public interest, mainly covering environmental protection and food and drug safety. All the cases were closed at the prelitigation stage, Yang said. Since 2018, prosecutors have also been allowed to initiate public interest litigation on the protection of the legitimate rights of the country's heroes and martyrs.
In October, when Zhang Jun, procurator-general of the Supreme People's Procuratorate, issued a report on public interest litigation to the National People's Congress Standing Committee, he also encouraged prosecutors nationwide to expand the scope of such litigation in areas that are of special concern to the public, including work safety, online privacy infringement, women's and children's protection, poverty relief and national defense.
In May, prosecutors in Haidian district sent prelitigation suggestions to local administrations over market regulation of tobacco. They had found juvenile offenders in many cases they handled were smokers and could buy cigarettes easily around school campuses.
Soon after the prosecutors' action, the administrations did inspections of shops and vendors around 85 kindergartens and primary and middle schools in the district, punishing nine stores without tobacco business licenses and ordering 14 with licenses to comply with regulations.
Yang applauded the response of Haidian, a capital district with many schools, adding that the expansion was based on adequate research and conducted in line with regional conditions.
Prosecutors in Dongcheng district also are finding new industries in which public interest litigation can be initiated.
"As a district filled with historical buildings, for example, we sent prelitigation suggestions to government departments after finding some local relics were improperly occupied," he said.
He welcomed the prelitigation suggestions, regarding them as a way to boost the role of prosecutors in supervising law enforcement departments.
Mo Jihong, a law professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said expanding the scope of public interest litigation will intensify oversight of government agencies that do not shoulder their responsibilities, implement their duties, abide by laws or even abuse their administrative power.
"The expansion will also help prosecutors determine whether laws are carried out effectively, advancing administrations' implementation of the country's Constitution and other laws," he said at a news briefing held by the State Council Information Office on Monday.
Prosecutors instituted 214,740 cases of public interest litigation and filed 6,353 related legal proceedings from July 2017 to September, according to the report delivered last month by Zhang, the procurator-general. The report indicates that many government agencies had rectified and efficiently resolved problems after receiving prelitigation suggestions.
Zhang also urged prosecutors nationwide to step up work on prelitigation procedures to generate the best social effects with the least judicial effort.
Socialist rule of law
Expanding the scope of public interest litigation was part of the key Party meeting's decision that placed the adherence to and improvement of the socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics in a very important position.
Serious violations of the law, particularly with malicious intent or causing severe consequences, will be subject to harsher penalties including punitive fines, according to the Party decision.
The meeting called for more public education on the law to raise legal awareness and improved legal services for the people, such as arbitration, mediation, notarization and legal assistance. Officials at all levels will be ordered to take a leading role in respecting, learning and following the law and improve their capabilities to carry out reforms and resolve conflicts with legal thinking.