How does one Wrap up a 370 Million Yuan Environmental Public Interest Lawsuit?

公益时报

中文 English

Editor’s Note:

this is an abridged translation of an article that originally appeared in the Charity Times (公益时报). 

 

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On the eve of the year of the rooster, two Chinese environmental NGOs ran into trouble after initiating an environmental public interest lawsuit.

On January 25th, the Jiangsu Intermediate People’s Court in Changzhou City announced its decision on the first instance on an environmental public interest case, referred to by the media as the “Changzhou poisonous land case”. The case had been initiated by two NGOs, the Friends of Nature Environmental Institute from Chaoyang District, Beijing (known as “Friends of Nature”) and the China Biodiversity Protection and Green Development Foundation (known as the “Green Development Foundation”). It ruled that the plaintiffs, the two NGOs, lost the case and have to bear legal expenses of 1.89 million Yuan.

Where will this ruling, with this “sky-high” price tag, lead environmental public interest litigation?

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Sky-high” litigation expenses to deter excessive suits?

After the new “Environmental Protection Law” was implemented on January 1st 2015, environmental public interest cases started to appear in courts all over China. Allowing qualified NGOs to initiate public interest litigation became one of the bright spots of the new law. At the time, experts estimated that there were more than 700 NGOs across China that met the requirements for initiating environmental public interest lawsuits. Therefore, whether or not the large number of qualified NGOs would lead to a surge in such cases became an issue of great public concern.

After the two NGOs were ordered to pay “sky-high” legal expenses amounting to 1.89 million Yuan some believed this would set a precedent preventing a future surge in environmental public interest litigations, and that NGOs who initiate lawsuits need to have a sound reason and enough evidence to do so.

In response Xiao Jianguo, a professor at the Renmin University Institute of Legal Studies, stated that there is no basis for using high legal expenses to prevent a surge in litigations. He believes that the current barriers to environmental interest litigation are anything but low.

“When talking about lawsuits with a malicious intent, raising barriers is a suitable way to prevent the spread of such cases. However, environmental public interest litigation is not the same as private interest litigation. Barriers to private interest litigation are relatively low compared to public interest litigation and regulations on the requirements for public interest lawsuits are much stricter than for private interest litigations. There is a need to produce evidence that the public interest has already been harmed or that there is great risk of the public interest being harmed. This requirement to produce evidence already keeps a relatively large portion of inappropriate public interest lawsuits out of the courts,” says Xiao Jianguo.

“There is no need to use high legal expenses to control potential public interest litigants, since there are already relatively high barriers which filter out some of the cases. Currently, the costs of environmental public interest litigation, such as fees to have a case heard and legal expenses, follow the principle of protecting the rights of the plaintiff. To the greatest extent possible, this encourages plaintiffs to initiate public interest litigations and help build a beautiful China. The ruling on high legal expenses is anything but appropriate,” adds the professor.

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Quoting an obsolete “Legal Document”

Experts have expressed their doubts regarding the regulations cited by the Jiangsu Intermediate Court as the basis for the penalty issued in the first instance ruling.

According to the text of the ruling, the eighth clause of the “Opinions of the Ministry of Environmental Protection on Strengthening Work to Prevent Soil Pollution” (Ministry of Environmental Protection Document No. 48, 2008) stipulates that “the relevant people’s government will be legally responsible for restoring and managing the soil and ground water of polluted land if the polluting unit no longer exists or if, for historical or other reasons, the polluting unit or individual cannot be determined; if the unit has legally given up usage rights to the land then the person who has obtained the usage rights to the land will be responsible for restoration and management. If the parties involved have a separate agreement, that agreement will be followed; however, the parties involved cannot be absolved of their responsibility to prevent pollution.”

The environmental emergency response and restoration measures taken by the Changzhou municipal government meet the requirements of the regulation described above, as well as the regulations in the State Council “Action Plan on Preventing Soil Pollution”. While the Changzhou Municipal government is implementing measures on environmental restoration, the three defendants have no way of replacing the government in carrying out environmental restoration activities.

In response, the relevant experts stated that the “Ministry of Environmental Protection Document No. 48, 2008” is a normative document which has long been annulled on the orders of the Ministry of Environmental Protection. It is inappropriate to still use it as a basis for the sentence in this case.

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The plea’s “public interest” character is recognized

According to the Jiangsu Provincial Intermediate People’s Court’s first instance verdict, the first focus of the controversy between plaintiff and defendant was whether the litigation subject matter constituted public interest.

The Court believes that it does.

The “Chang Long (Huada, Chang Yu) Company Original Site Survey and Technical Report” and the “Chang Long (Huada, Chang Yu) Company Original Site Health Risk Assessment”, filed by the Changzhou City Environmental Protection Research Institute and commissioned by the Changzhou New North District Government, showed that the piece of land in question faced serious soil and groundwater pollution and unacceptable environmental risks, and remediation measures had to be put in place. The evidence was sufficient to prove that long-term chemical production and operation had caused soil and groundwater pollution to the piece of land. Because there is a high degree of correlation between soil and groundwater, and there also exists a certain degree of fluidity with groundwater, the chemical production of pollutants on the land not only harmed the interests of land use rights, but also carried the risk of harming public interest, hence the prosecution of the two plaintiffs constituted public welfare.

The first instance court ruling that the litigation constituted public interest was met with approval by legal experts. Director Wang Canfa of the China University of Political Science and Law Center for Victims of Pollution claims that the case supports the public interest status of the suit and confirms that the plaintiff sued in the public interest, something worthy of approval.

“The court has affirmed the facts with regards to pollution, that the place is indeed polluted and there is a further risk of pollution, which provides a good premise for the establishment of a public interest litigation”, says Wang Canfa.

However, some experts have differing points of view. Shanghai Jiaotong University School of Law Professor Wang Xi says that there will be substantial negative implications due to the failure of the lawsuit. After the local government has taken on the ‘poisoned land’ according to the law, it appears inappropriate for social organizations to treat enterprises that have operated on the ‘poisoned land’ in the past as defendants.

Wang Xi believes that an administrative public interest litigation (initiated by the government) is a better course of action that would allow environmental social organizations to play their role, with smaller risks involved.

“The intention of the case is to eliminate pollution on the ‘poisoned land’. When the local government has ownership of the ‘poisoned land’, what the plaintiff should do is monitor the local government’s pollution control work to ensure its adequacy. Furthermore, logically speaking, the local government has the right to require all enterprises who have previously operated on the land to bear the responsibility of the pollution control work, and in a case where the polluter cannot be found, or the pollution is serious and causes an emergency, the local government can step in to directly manage. At the same time, however, the local government reserves the right of recourse to all original polluters for treatment costs and other related responsibilities.” Wang Xi says “this case shows that social organizations should pay greater attention to promoting the establishment of a system for environmental administrative public interest litigations.

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The high cost of public interest litigations

According to a reporter from the “Public Welfare Times”, the financial cost of an environmental public interest litigation is much higher than an ordinary litigation, and the ‘case acceptance fee’ is only part of this cost.

The costs comprise litigation costs and attorneys’ fees. The former include, besides the ‘case acceptance fee’, the application fee and the transportation costs, accommodation, living expenses, work-related subsidies and other costs incurred by the witness, the appraiser, the translator and the operator to appear at court on the date specified by the people’s court.

However, in an environmental public interest litigation, the greatest court dispute between the two parties often concerns the appraisal of the pollution, which could cost as little as several hundred thousand dollars and as much as millions or even tens of millions of dollars. In the Yunnan chromium slag pollution incident of 2011, the 7 million yuan ecological environmental damage assessment fees charged by the appraisal agency forced “Friends of Nature” to stop the litigation.

The cost of the attorneys’ fees for environmental public interest litigations is also much higher than for traditional litigations. Although the attorneys’ fees are negotiated by the client and the solicitor on the basis of voluntary compensation, the final amount depends on the time spent on representation, the complexity of the legal issues themselves, and other costs associated with the handling of the case.

When it comes to the amount of time spent by law firms, environmental public interest litigation consumes far more time than traditional litigations, as a result of the complexity and professional nature of the litigations.

With regards to the costs of environmental public interest litigation cases, the Supreme People’s Court issued an opinion in the “View on the Comprehensive Strengthening of Environmental Resources Trial Work to Provide Strong Judicial Guarantees for the Construction of an Ecological Civilization” as early as the 23rd of June 2014.

The document is clear in its goal of legally determining the environmental civil public interest litigations and the compensation range, and in exploring the relationship between the compensation range for environmental public interest litigations and for private interest litigations. Plaintiffs in environmental public interest litigation cases requesting the defendant to compensate for costs incurred in damage prevention or in the restoration of the environment, losses resulting from the destruction of natural resources and ecological environments as well as reasonable attorneys’ fees, investigation fees, appraisal fees and other litigation expenses can be supported according to trial details. At the same time, the document also aims to explore the establishment of a dedicated fund for environmental public interest litigation, and earmark environmental compensation funds for environmental restoration, ecological repair work, and the defence of environmental public interest.

农历鸡年前夕,中国两家环保类的社会组织在环境公益诉讼案件上遭遇窘境。

由北京市朝阳区自然之友环境研究所(简称“自然之友”)、中国生物多样性保护与绿色发展基金会(简称“绿发会”)两家社会组织提起,被媒体称为常州“毒地”案的环境公益诉讼案件一审于1月25日在江苏省常州市中级人民法院公开宣判。判决原告两家社会组织败诉,并承担189.18万元诉讼费用。

截止《公益时报》记者2月10日发稿时,自然之友方面已于2月7日向江苏省常州市中级人民法院当面递交了常州“毒地”案的上诉材料;中国绿发会方面也将在规定15天上诉期内递交上诉材料。

上诉期内“天价”诉讼费用,搅动着各方神经,在新《环保法》早已实施的今天,环境公益诉讼已变的不再是遥不可及,无论从提起环境公益诉讼的社会组织数量还是案件质量方面均得到提升。

时下,一纸“天价”诉讼费判决会将环境公益诉讼引向何方?

 

3.7亿元标的细节

189.18万元诉讼费用一时激起千层浪。

根据2007年4月1日,国务院发布的《诉讼费用交纳办法》第三章第十三条显示,财产案件根据诉讼请求的金额或者价额,按照比例分段累计交纳。根据判决书得出本案诉讼费用为189.18万元,《公益时报》记者按照《诉讼费用交纳办法》中标的物的分段交纳比例进行推算,该案件标的价值为3亿元以上,事后原告证实为3.7亿元。

对于3.7亿元标的物价值来历,一审原告代理律师安徽豪华律师事务所全国律协环资能委委员赵光显得有些无奈。2越21日庭审当天,赵光以原告代理人身份出席全部庭审。

赵光表示,一审中,原告总共提出三点请求。

一、判令三被告消除其污染物对原厂址及周边区域土壤、地下水等生态环境的影响,并承担相关生态环境修复费用(具体数额以损害鉴定评估或生态环境修复方案确定的金额为准)。生态环境损害无法修复的,判令三被告实施货币赔偿,用于替代修复。

二、请求判令三被告对其造成的土壤、地下水污染等生态环境损害行为,在国家级、江苏省级和常州市级媒体上向公众赔礼道歉。

三、请求判令三被告承担原告因本诉讼支出的生态环境损害调查费用、污染检测检验费、损害鉴定评估费用、生态环境修复方案编制费用、律师费、差旅费、调查取证费、专家咨询费、案件受理费等。

请求“一”中,对于相关生态环境修复费用并未明示,主张具体数额以损害鉴定评估或生态环境修复方案确定的金额为准。

赵光对《公益时报》记者回忆到庭审中一些细节,原告方在诉状中并未主张常州“毒地”的修复费用为多少,此时被告代理律师提出了一个称经过计算后的评估修复费用,数额为3.7亿。主审法官就该数字询问我们是否同意按照被告提出的该标准作为“毒地”的修复费用,我们当时并未提出提议,但事后法官判我们败诉,就将3.7亿元这一数额作为本案的诉讼标的,按照2007年4月1日,国务院发布的《诉讼费用交纳办法》第三章第十三条规定,计算出了案件诉讼费用,这令我们有些始料未及。”

赵光的这种说法,在2月7日《法制日报》刊发报道《常州法院回应“天价诉讼费”》一文中得到证实。该报道称,“记者从常州法院了解到,自然之友以及绿发会在案件起诉时并未明确诉讼标的,直至2016年12月21日案件开庭审理时,两原告才明确提出,要求江苏常隆化工有限公司、常州市常宇化工有限公司、江苏华达化工集团有限公司三被告承担环境修复费用为3.7亿元。”

 

“天价”来遏制泛诉?

2015年1月1日,新《环保法》实施后,环境公益诉讼案件在全国各地法院逐步出现,赋予有资质的社会组织提起环境公益诉讼成为新《环保法》中的亮点。有专家做过估算,当时在全国约有700余家社会组织负责提起环境公益诉讼的条件。

如此,大规模的社会组织具备资质,会不会导致泛诉事件发生,成为当时社会热议焦点。

此次,两家社会组织被判赔共同承担的189.91万元“天价”诉讼费用后,有些观点指出,这对防止今后环境公益诉讼出泛诉打下了先例,社会组织提起环境公益诉讼必须做到有理有据。

对此,中国人民大学法学院教授肖建国表示,用高额诉讼费用的判决来防止泛诉的发生,实在是没有依据。他认为,环境公益诉讼本身门槛就并不低。

“防止泛诉,提起恶意诉讼,适当提高一点门槛。但环境公益诉讼跟所以诉讼并不是一回事,私益诉讼的门槛相对公益诉讼较低,而公益诉讼中关于诉讼条件的规定要比私益诉讼高很多。需要提供证据证明公共利益已经受到损害或者已经受到损害的风险重大。这部分举证条件要求就已经把相当一部分可能要泛诉的公益诉讼案件挡在了法院大门外。”肖建国说。

“对于公益诉讼已经有相当高的门槛来梳理过滤一部分案件,没有必要通过高诉讼费用来遏制潜在的公益诉讼者。目前,环境公益诉讼成本,案件受理费或者诉讼费采用一个有利于保护原告主权这样一个原则,尽量鼓励原告提起公益诉讼建立美丽中国,判决高额诉讼费用并不妥当。”肖建国补充道。

 

引用废除“文件”

对于江苏省中级人民法院在一审判决中引用有关条例作为判罚依据,专家提出相应质疑。

一审判决书认为,《环境保护部关于加强土壤污染防治工作的意见》(环发<2008>48号)第(八)项规定“造成污染的单位已经终止,或者由于历史等原因确实不能确定造成污染的单位或者个人的,被污染土地的土壤或者地下水,由有关人民政府依法负责修复和治理;该单位享有的土地使用权依法转让的,由土地使用权受让人负责修复和治理。有关的当事人另有约定的,从其约定;但是不得免除当事人的污染防治责任”。

常州市政府实施的环境应急处置与修复行为符合上述规定的要求,也符合国务院《土壤污染防治行动计划》的规定。在常州市政府正在实施环境修复的过程中,三被告无可能取代政府实施环境修复行为。

对此,有关专家表示(环发<2008>48号)为规范性文件,且早已被环保部门明令废止,本案中仍用作判罚依据,实有不妥。

《公益时报》记者查询后发现,2016年7月13日,环保部发布《关于废止部分环保部门规章和规范性文件的决定》(简称“废除决定”),在该《废除决定》的第二部分决定予以废止的规范性文件中,第36条明确对《环境保护部关于加强土壤污染防治工作的意见》(环发<2008>48号)规范性文件予以废除。

 

诉状“公益性”被肯定

根据江苏省中级人民法院一审判决书显示,原、被告争议焦点一,本案诉讼标的是否具有公益性?

江苏省中级人民法院认为,本案诉讼标的具有公益性。

原江苏省常州市环境保护研究所受常州市新北区政府委托于2011年所作的《常隆(华达、常宇)公司原厂址地块场地环境调查技术报告》和《常隆(华达、常宇)公司原厂址地块场地健康风险评估报告》显示,案涉地块土壤和地下水污染严重,环境风险不可接受,必须对污染场地实施修复。上述证据足以证明,长期化工生产经营对案涉地块的土壤、地下水造成了污染。由于土壤与地下水之间存在高度关联性,而地下水亦存在一定的流动性,因此,案涉地块化工生产排放的污染物并非仅仅损害了土地使用权人利益,而同时具有损害社会公共利益的风险,两原告的起诉具有公益性。

对于一审法院判决本案诉讼具有公益性,这得到了法学专家肯定。

中国政法大学污染受害者法律帮助中心主任王灿发表示,该案对于原告起诉的公益性做了支持,确认了原告起诉为公益诉讼,这值得肯定。

“对于污染事实的认定,认为这个地方确实受到了污染,并且有进一步的污染危险,对这个事实的认定,法院做了肯定,这为公益诉讼确立提供了好的前提。”王灿发说。

而也有一些专家观点相左。

上海交通大学法学院教授王羲就表示,这场官司输的代价有些大。地方政府在合法接受了“毒地”之后,社会组织将以前在“毒地”上经营过的企业作为被告,貌似有些不妥。

王羲认为,环境行政公益诉讼才是环保社会组织更能够发挥作用,而且代价更小的途径。

“该案的诉讼目的是为了消除‘毒地’污染。当地方政府拥有‘毒地’所有权并已经开始治理污染的时候,原告应该做的是监督地方政府的污染治理工作是否到位。另外,从道理上看,地方政府有权要求所有在该土地上经营过的企业承担治理责任,如果找不到污染者或污染情况严重而紧急时,地方政府可以亲自进行治理。但与此同时,地方政府保留向所有原污染者追索治理费用和其他相关责任的权利。社会组织应当关注地方政府在履行职责方面的情况。”王羲说,“本案表明,社会组织应当对如何推动环境行政公益诉讼制度的建立给予更大的关注,环境行政公益诉讼才是环保社会组织更能够发挥作用,而且代价更小的途径。”

 

公益诉讼负担成本高企

据《公益时报》记者了解,一起环境公益诉讼的经济成本要远高于一起普通诉讼,而“案件受理费”还仅仅是这成本中的一部分。

环境公益诉讼的经济成本由诉讼费用和律师费用两大部分构成,前者除包括“案件受理费”外,还有申请费以及证人、鉴定人、翻译人员、理算人员在人民法院指定日期出庭发生的交通费、住宿费、生活费和误工补贴等部分构成。

但在环境公益诉讼中,往往庭辩双方争执的最多的就是鉴定问题,其鉴定费用少则几十万元,动辄几百万甚至上千万元。2011年,在云南铬渣污染事件中,鉴定机构开出700万元的生态环境损害鉴定费用的报价,就曾让“自然之友”被迫停滞诉讼。

而环境公益诉讼中的律师费用也远高于传统诉讼。尽管律师费由委托人与律师在遵循自愿有偿的原则下协商确定,但其最终数额取决于代理该法律事务所耗费的时间、法律事务本身的难易程度以及办案所需的其他成本支出。

从法律事务所耗费的时间来看,环境公益诉讼所消耗的时间远远超出传统诉讼所耗费的时间,这是由环境公益诉讼的复杂性和专业性特点决定的。2010年底,贵州省贵阳市清镇市人民法院判决了一起环境公益诉讼案,为这起环境公益官司“埋单”的是贵阳市“两湖一库”环境保护基金会。贵阳市环保法庭庭长蔡明在结案后感慨道:“有些环保大案件,诉讼费、律师费、鉴定费、为诉讼耗费的其他费用等,加起来动辄数十万元、上百万元,这是因为环保案件专业性强,取证、鉴定等过程耗时、耗力、耗材。”

对于环境公益诉讼案件的成本,早在2014年6月23日,最高人民法院就发布了《关于全面加强环境资源审判工作为推进生态文明建设提供有力司法保障的意见》。

意见明确,要依法确定环境民事公益诉讼的责任方式和赔偿范围。探索研究环境公益诉讼的赔偿范围及其与私益诉讼赔偿范围的关系。环境公益诉讼的原告请求被告赔偿预防损害发生或恢复环境费用、破坏自然资源等生态环境造成的损失以及合理的律师费、调查取证费、鉴定评估费等诉讼支出的,可以根据案件审理情况予以支持。

同时,要探索设立环境公益诉讼专项基金,将环境赔偿金专款用于恢复环境、修复生态、维护环境公共利益。

Translated by Gregor Grossman, Ming Lee and Vanessa Zhang

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