In a country where the ‘rule of law’ remains an embattled concept, the role of public interest litigation 公益诉讼 is severely limited by the government. However, this might be about to change. In the past few years, legislative and policy shifts have signalled a gradually widening space for the role of public interest litigation, and in 2015, a record number of such cases was accepted for hearing 受理 by China’s courts.
The term ‘public interest litigation’ refers to lawsuits brought on behalf of the general public against government agencies, private companies, or other organisations whose actions have violated the interests of society through environmental pollution, for example. Until 2012, the courts did not accept most public interest suits filed by public interest lawyers or NGOs.
However, as pollution and consumer protection scandals increased in frequency and severity, along with public outrage, things began to change. In 2011, a Chinese court in Yunnan province accepted the first environmental public interest lawsuit in China. In 2012, the Chinese government added a provision to the Civil Procedure Law that permitted ‘lawful agencies and related organisations’ to file public interest lawsuits; the definition of lawful agencies was later expanded to include certain types of environmental and consumer protection NGOs. Yet that first public interest case filed back in 2011 remains unresolved, and continues to navigate its way through a complex legal landscape. Whether public interest litigation will prove genuinely effective or yet another social management tool co-opted by the government remains to be seen.