Environmental lawyer Liu Jinmei is devoted to standing up to powerful polluters on behalf of poor, lowly educated and vulnerable villagers
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 March, 2015, 6:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 March, 2015, 6:32am
Liu Jinmei constantly reminds her clients not to lose faith in the law.
Liu Jinmei wanted to become a criminal lawyer from the time she entered Beijing's China University of Political Science and Law. The 28-year-old learnt about the mainland's rampant environmental problems during an internship under the China Law Society's clinical education programme, offering help to pollution victims. Today, she is one of China's youngest environmental lawyers - an area of the profession still in its infancy on the mainland - taking on firms and local governments as one of a team of experts at the university's Centre for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims.
Which case are you the most proud of?
I helped nearly 400 villagers from Minhou county in Fujian province win compensation totalling 6 million yuan (HK$7.6 million) after an incineration company illegally discharged waste gases containing carcinogenic dioxins. It took five years to win the case. Many villagers suffered ill health because of the air pollution. Solid waste that was illegally dumped also damaged local farmland. Environmental litigation is quite complicated, especially trying to collect evidence to prove the causal relationship between pollution and damage. It always takes much longer than other types of litigation before a court finally gives its ruling. Cases typically last about two to three years.
Does this long fight for justice ever become stressful or create tension between you and your clients?
Yes. Most pollution victims are lowly educated villagers. It means I need to stay in touch with them constantly, often teaching them what to do. Sometimes tensions arise and there are quarrels between our clients and us after local governments try to persuade them to drop the lawsuits. We need to spend a lot of time reassuring them and calming their fears so that they will continue. Pollution victims are among the most vulnerable people in our society. They have suffered so much - losing their property, livelihood, and often even their physical and mental health. So when outsiders like us try to help them, they will cling to us and constantly demand our attention. I cannot spend all my time with them, so I have to tell them what to do, step by step, over the phone. I may need to remind them about how to collect samples of polluted soil, or apply for official local government documents, such as an environmental review report on polluting factories. I also need to constantly remind them not to lose faith in the law - to believe in China's legal process.
Do your clients grow sceptical or lose faith?
Yes. They easily believe what they are told by the local government or local courts. In some cases, governmental departments, even courts, try to interfere in lawsuits and fool them by giving false and inaccurate information. For example, a local government might claim that the necessary environmental review report cannot be obtained, or a court might simply refuse to hear the case even though such a decision breaks the law. So my clients grow doubtful about proceeding with their lawsuits. I have to keep telling them not to be put off, so that they will go back and ask for those documents again.
Facing such interference from local governments and courts, do you still believe the law is a useful weapon against polluters?
Such meddling is unavoidable under the current circumstances. Sometimes a court refuses to hear a lawsuit because a polluting company is also big taxpayer. But in most cases I have been involved in, such interference has been really limited. There have been only a few instances of local courts refusing to accept cases simply out of protectionism, or interference leading to a ruling against pollution victims, or the level of compensation being very low. One thing I've learned over the years is not to think too much about a problem you cannot control. If a case can be pursued - when the facts are clear, the evidence is solid and the victims' rights have clearly been violated - then we will simply proceed as best we can. Our lawsuits do have a positive effect, though: they force local governments and local courts to learn. Despite the environmental law existing to protect victims of pollution, many local-level courts have never handled such cases before, so judges don't know how to deal with them. Our lawsuits help the defendants, too - the polluting companies or local governments - to grow more aware of China's environmental laws. China is just such a big country that it really takes time for decisions by the top leadership to filter down to officials at the local level.
Do you think the newly revised environmental protection law will be a more powerful in deterring polluters?
Yes. The newly revised law makes it clear that environmental organisations (NGOs) can sue on behalf of public interests. Previously, the courts could refuse to hear such public-interest litigation. Sometimes a court won't consider a case because of interference. But if a court hears a case, it means polluters won't be protected by local governments, and the meddling will be limited since the case will attract media attention. The revisions to the law, as well as the judicial explanation over the past few months, suggest a series of green tribunals will handle environmental cases in future. It's a positive development that offers real hope to environmental lawyers and our clients. Change is coming: our top leaders are now attaching greater importance to both legal reform and environmental protection than just a few years ago. There are examples of a court initially refusing to hear a case, but then deciding to hear it after one or two years. That's because of a general trend focusing on the need for environmental protection, and also authorities cracking down on corruption, and less court interference. More local environmental organisations are already using the law to push for greater government transparency of information about pollution. Many victims are now looking to sue polluters, and those government agencies sued in the past are growing more aware of what to do in providing information to the public. So I'm quite optimistic about the future.