Legal landmark

In March 2011, China’s first public interest environmental law firm opened its doors in Beijing: the Beijing Huanzhu Law firm (Huanzhu), also known as the Beijing environmental aid law firm or BEALF. Chinadialogue contributor Zhang Jingjing is a partner.  Adam Moser, China environment fellow at Vermont Law School’s US-China Partnership for Environmental Law, talks to chinadialogue intern Abi Barnes about the project.

Abi Barnes: As China’s first public interest environmental law firm enters into its fifth month of operation, how has the firm distinguished itself from others?

Adam Moser: Huanzhu is different from most law firms in China in that it is the first licensed firm to focus on environmental legal aid, providing pollution victims free access to legal services. The firm operates as an independent law firm approved by the Beijing Judicial Bureau. That’s important because Chinese lawyers need to be associated with a law firm in order to practice law and many environmental NGOs and legal aid organisations cannot be burdened with finding both a lawyer and law firm willing to take a case.

Because Huanzhu has its own lawyers, the firm has greater autonomy in deciding which cases to accept, plus better-trained lawyers and greater access to resources, and it can pursue claims on behalf of citizens who might otherwise not have access to quality legal aid.

AB: What was your role in getting this firm started? How did you get involved? 

AM: I was lucky enough to be volunteering at the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV), a legal aid non-profit in Beijing, when lawyers with CLAPV decided this was something they wanted to pursue. I leveraged my position as an outsider to ask questions that would help define the nature of the firm and its benefits, and then drafted text for future grant applications.

A year later, while at Vermont Law School, my colleagues and I helped develop an exchange between US lawyers and Huanzhu’s founders. Despite differences between the two countries’ legal systems, many of the issues in environmental cases and law firm management are similar, and this transfer of legal experience and skills proved helpful. 

AB: What do you see as the role of the international community in China’s public interest law, now and in the future?

AM: Currently, the international community is vital for supporting public interest law in China. Although China has made rapid advances in economic and social development, China’s legal system is still relatively young and its role within Chinese society is still not completely clear. For example, in high-profile environmental accidents, the ability of lawyers to use written law and the courts to compensate victims may be superseded by extra-legal measures taken by the government to manage the situation.

Many domestic funders avoid supporting public interest law because it may touch on sensitive issues, and because it is marginalised by extra-legal measures. For example, it is much safer for China’s nascent philanthropic sector to support initiatives like child education programmes or the planting of trees.

AB: How do you expect public interest law in China to develop?

AM: Well, first of all, lawyers and judges are better trained in public interest law than they were 10 years ago. China’s environmental courts are beginning to experiment with permitting plaintiffs to make legal claims on behalf of the public interest. To date, only government agencies and affiliated entities have been able to successfully bring such claims, but there is evidence that the courts see value in promoting public interest law.

For Chinese leaders who appreciate the value of information and social stability, an effective judiciary and an engaged public interest sector is an important tool in addressing many of China’s growing pains before they get too big.

Overall, public interest law in China is still in its early stages of development, as is the legal system that it operates in. It is reasonable to expect that public interest law will be further developed as a valuable tool for environmental protection in China’s future.

Photo courtesy of zebble.

Abi Barnes is a Vermont Law School student and an intern at chinadialogue.