A draft legal amendment on Tuesday proposed to further limit the scale of entities that can file class-action lawsuits in the country, a move described by experts as inconsistent with rising calls to better protect public interests.
The draft amendment to the Civil Procedure Law, went before the National People's Congress Standing Committee for a second reading, stipulates that plaintiffs of class-action lawsuits - cases in which a large group of people collectively go to court to defend public interests - should be limited to "government agencies as provided by law and social organizations".
The latest change in the clause sets a harsher restriction on plaintiffs of class-action suits, compared with the earlier version submitted to the top legislature in October, which entitled "relevant authorities and social organizations" to file such a case, especially for those involving environmental pollution or unsafe food incidents.
Li Shishi, deputy director of the NPC Law Committee, told lawmakers on Tuesday that standing laws have empowered the State Oceanic Administration to file such a claim if "severe damage" is done to the oceanic environment, and the Law Committee is also considering endowing the right of action to associations of consumer protection.
The prudent proposal, Li said, is meant to ensure a sound practice as well as avoid overuse of such claims, relatively "newborn" in China.
However, Tang Weijian, a professor of civil procedure, argued the proposed section was short on details and failed to consider academic research and legal practice in class-action suits.
Pilot projects have established 61 environment courts in China since 2008, but local initiatives have seen little improvement on the national level to promote such practice.
Luo Dongchuan, deputy director of the Supreme People's Court's research department, said not all the cases heard in an environment court can be categorized as class-action lawsuits. He said fewer than 20 suits concerning public interests have been filed and heard in the country in the past decade.
In a highlighted claim arising from the oil leaks of ConocoPhillips in North China's Bohai Bay in 2011, the energy giant has agreed to pay 1 billion yuan ($158 million) to settle compensation with fishermen.
But Zhao Jingwei, a lawyer representing 107 households of fishermen from nearby Hebei province, said although some of his clients do not agree with the compensation, the court has declined to file a case for them.
A veteran lawyer in environmental proceedings, Zhao said the phrase "administrative bodies authorized by law", as proposed in the second reading, has made the possibility of filing a public-interest case small.