Wielding a Green Gavel: Chinese Judges Receive New Training to Crack Down on Polluters
November 3, 2011
SOUTH ROYALTON, VT -- China's green regulations, green lawsuits and green activism are making some progress in reducing pollution from the nation's economic boon, but a lesser known environmental initiative also is underway - delivering green justice from the bench.
Under a pilot program, Vermont Law School's U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and two Chinese organizations are overhauling the way Chinese judges are educated and trained in environmental rule of law.
The goals are:
• To empower judges, so they're better prepared to resolve significant environmental disputes and apply pollution laws that are widely ignored by companies that foul the country's air, land and water.
• To help the National Judges College of Supreme People's Court to create its first environmental law curriculum. The college is the China's training institution for the courts.
"Many of China's environmental regulations are ambiguous, making it difficult for courts to interpret and enforce the law consistently, and China's judges often lack the training, knowledge, skills and confidence in environmental law to adjudicate these complex cases," said Assistant Professor Siu Tip Lam, program director of VLS's U.S.-China Partnership.
U.S. and Chinese judges, scholars, lawyers and government officials - including Wang Canfa, the head of the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV) in Beijing and one of China's most celebrated environmental advocates -- started discussions in September 2010 on how to improve environmental governance training for judges. Those discussions led to a June 2011 meeting of the taskforce to create the curriculum. About 30 judges will attend the first pilot training workshop Nov. 8-10 in Yunnan Province.
The training will include the legal and practical issues that environmental court judges struggle with in public interest cases brought by environmental advocacy groups and public authorities - rather than pollution victims -- who seek injunctive relief, remediation and punitive damages that have been rarely, if ever, been issued by Chinese courts in the past.
The project is based on a training program that the EPA has successfully delivered to judges in many countries. It includes training key National Judges College (NJC) instructors and judges to develop an environmental law curriculum to be included in the regular training program for all judges at the NJC. The curriculum will provide judges with knowledge of environmental laws, a better understanding of the environmental protection principles behind the laws, and the tools to apply those principles in deciding environmental cases and enforcing compliance orders.
China's environmental courts, which started in 2007, are experimenting with rules that allow the procuratorates, environmental protection bureaus and related agencies, and environmental nongovernmental organizations to bring civil cases on behalf of the public interest. Last year, VLS's U.S.-China Partnership helped its partners to open China's first public interest environmental law firm and a new university legal advocacy center for environmental health and safety issues.
As part of the environmental adjudication training project, the U.S.-China Partnership next year will bring two NJC judges to study at Vermont Law School and the EPA, and will host a study tour for judges from China's Supreme People's Court and environmental courts.
The project is directed by the U.S.-China Partnership in cooperation with CLAPV at the China University of Political Science and Law, China's Southwest Forest University, and the EPA. The project, which is to be completed by December 2012, is funded by grants from the U.S.-China Legal Cooperation Fund and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
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