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VLS Helps Start China's First Public Interest Environmental Law Firm

June 15, 2010

SOUTH ROYALTON, VT -- Aiming to use lawsuits more effectively to fight pollution and protect workers, Vermont Law School's U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law has received a $1.5 million federal grant to establish China's first public interest environmental law firm and expand a university-based legal clinic. The goal of the "green litigation" is to help ordinary citizens force polluting factories and mines and unresponsive local officials to follow the law.

China's rapid industrialization and urbanization have caused severe environmental degradation, including greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming worldwide and hundreds of thousands of deaths a year in China due to exposure to pollution. The crisis has prompted China's leaders to seek new ways to allow steady growth, while protecting the air, land, water and public health. That's where VLS's 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.

The $1.5 million grant from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) will expand the use of civil lawsuits as an enforcement method. Chinese prosecutors currently focus on criminal prosecutions in environmental cases, in part, because they lack a formal civil judicial enforcement role. The DRL 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.

"Our work over the past four years has put us in a unique position to further advance environmental governance in China," Dean Jeff Shields said. "This DRL support will enable us to build on those successes."

The number of green litigation cases is rising in China. From 1980 to 1998, an average of 100,000 public interest cases were filed annually, but the number of cases has increased significantly during the past decade, including a growing number of cases dealing with environmental issues.

The new public interest law firm, which will be the first in China devoted solely to combating pollution, will handle citizen-action lawsuits intended to enforce environmental laws and regulations. The grassroots litigation is designed give citizens more power to protect themselves, their families and their communities from the worst polluters. The firm is tentatively slated to open in December with about six attorneys in Beijing. It also will provide training for government officials, lawyers and citizens on pollution issues and legal means to address them.

Additionally, the grant will fund expansion of an environmental legal clinic at Sun Yat-sen University Law School (SYSU). The clinic thus far has focused on research and policy and regulation development, but starting this fall the clinic will collaborate with a current labor law clinic at SYSU to promote workplace safety and teach students how to practice law and bring workplace injury lawsuits involving environmental health and safety issues.

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, the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims at the China University of Political Science and Law, the Vermont-based Regulatory Assistance Project, the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and China's National Development and Reform Commission Training Center.

CONTACT: John Cramer, Associate Director of Media Relations

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