China Opens First Public Interest Environmental Law Firm With Help from Vermont Law School
March 25, 2011
SOUTH ROYALTON, VT—China's first public interest environmental law firm was officially launched today with assistance from Vermont Law School's U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law, which also has helped to create a new university legal advocacy center devoted to environmental health and safety issues.
The public interest law firm, which is the first in China devoted to combating pollution, received a license from the Beijing Judicial Bureau in December and held a formal launch event today. The Huanzhu (translated as Environmental Aid) Law Firm's mission is to provide legal services to pollution victims and handle citizen-action lawsuits intended to enforce environmental laws and regulations. The firm does not charge fees for public interest cases, but may charge fees for other types of cases to serve as an example to the private bar that environmental law is a sustainable practice. The firm does not represent polluters who have violated or been accused of violating the law. VLS's partner in the program is the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV).
In January, Sun Yat-sen University Law School (SYSU) launched its Environmental and Worker Health and Safety Advocacy Center in Guangzhou. The center handles pollution and workplace injury cases involving environmental health and safety issues. The center combines the expertise and resources of SYSU's existing environmental law and labor law clinics and provides experiential training to students to help them advocate for pollution victims and workers and educate them about their rights.
The new law firm and legal clinic are funded by a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. State Department to VLS's U.S.-China Partnership. The grant will help to expand the use of civil lawsuits, or "green litigation," to more effectively enforce environmental laws, fight pollution and protect workers in China. Chinese prosecutors currently focus on criminal prosecutions in environmental cases, in part, because they lack a formal civil judicial enforcement role. The State Department grant is the latest in a series of federal grants that have made Vermont Law School the leading U.S. law school working on environmental law, policy and energy issues in China. The new grant includes $500,000 annually over three years.
"This is a groundbreaking environmental advocacy initiative in China," said Assistant Professor Siu Tip Lam, director of the U.S.-China Partnership.
China's rapid industrialization has caused severe environmental degradation, prompting the nation's leaders to seek new ways to allow steady growth, while protecting the air, land, water and public health. That's where the U.S.-China Partnership comes in, providing training in environmental governance to lawyers, judges and others to help China enforce environmental laws and regulations that have been widely ignored.
Since 2006, the U.S.-China Partnership has trained more than 1,000 Chinese lawyers, judges, government officials, faculty, students, business owners and others, conducted numerous workshops and undertaken other initiatives. Much of the work has been done through grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development. VLS's partners include SYSU, CLAPV at the China University of Political Science and Law, the Vermont-based Regulatory Assistance Project, and the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
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