Settle disputes in courts

by The China Watch on January 4, 2012

Tianjin Maritime Court accepted lawsuit of 29 fishermen involved in Bohai Bay oil leak. The fishermen from Hebei province claim 234.7million yuan ($37.25million) indemnity from ConocoPhillips China (COPC) to cover their loss and 7.03million yuan ($1.12million) from China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) as evaluation cost. The court has also received the other similar case filed by 107 plaintiffs and is authenticating their identities before deciding to accept the file or not.

Qingdao Maritime Court and Tianjin Maritime Court had dismissed cases filed by local fishermen respectively in November and December 2011, because of the lack of evidence. This is the first time Chinese court accepted local aquatic producers’ case in half a year since the accident was exposed.

The oil leak from the off-shore oil rigs operated by COPC has reportedly contaminated at least 840 square kilometers of seawater seriously in central Bohai Bay, an important aquatic product breeding base of China.

The environmental and ecological impacts and loss of mariculture farmers are inevitably enormous. The ocean and fishery administrations have already obtained a large quantity of monitoring data and investigation information through ecological research and evaluation of affected sea area.

The State Oceanic Administration (SOA) will file the oceanic ecological damage indemnity claim as representative of the State. The fishermen from neighbouring Hebei and Shandong provinces can only institute indemnity claim to local courts for their losses themselves. Tianjin Maritime Court’s acceptance of their claim marks a pleasant progress for the victims.

Before the progress, the doubts were prevailing that whether the courts will accept the indemnity claims of fisherfolks or how to bring COPC to trial if the lawsuits are accepted. Legal experts suppose that main difficulties for the fishermen’s charge lie in two fields.

First, the fishermen don’t have the capacity to prove the causal relationship between oil leak and their loss, even if they are the immediate victims of the seawater pollution.

Second, local governments and some related administration departments are reluctant to support the fishermen to claim for indemnity, because the authorities just want save their own “troubles”. They even set up obstacles for the courts to prevent them from registering the file. Some similar incidents happened before prove this concern is well-grounded. 

To overcome the first difficulty and relieve the fishermen’s burden of collecting evidence, the courts should apply the principle of inversion of onus probandi to this case, demanding COPC to prove if there is casual relationship between oil leak and mariculture loss.

On the other hand, the aforementioned findings of the authorities should serve as crucial evidence for the indemnity claims of not only the State’s oceanic ecological damage, but also the aquatic production industries. Tianjin Maritime Court’s acceptance of the fishermen’s lawsuit indicates judicial authorities and administration departments can make active efforts to remove the obstacles for fishermen.

More importantly, the court’s decision signifies local governments and related departments have already approved the rightfulness behind fishermen’s claim for indemnity.Objectively realizeing how serious the mariculture industry’s loss is as a result of the oil leak, the authorities start supporting the issue of indemnity claim solved legally.

Meanwhile, the court, as it is indicated by Tianjin Maritime Court, should also strive actively for local government and related administrations’ support for fishermen to solve their problems in legal manners, creating favorable conditions for the court to exercise its rights of trial openly, fairly and independently.  

The past facts prove it repeatedly that if local governments and related administrations prevent parties from lodging lawsuits, intentionally set up obstacles for judicial authorities and try to dissolve troubles in other manners, they are actually making troubles more serious.

Basically, if the courts can register the “troublesome” files according to laws, the complicated contradictions and conflicts can be clarified and solved in orderly and controllable legal manners. It is conducive to eliminating all kinds of interferences, obstacles and uncertainties to avoid the further fermentation of the cases.

Tianjin Maritime Court’s acceptance of the fishermen’s file is only the first step to solve the dispute properly and legally. And it is also an embodiment of spirit of rule by law that disputes settled legally and rights be protected by law, offering a good example to solve complicated and “troublesome” problems legally in the future.  

Author: Zhang Wangbin

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