BEIJING – (AP) — Chinese authorities have apologized after lawyers were told not to help victims of a deadly train crash file lawsuits without permission, state media said.
The notice and subsequent apology suggests the country’s communist authorities are concerned about the case becoming a high-profile legal matter, even though China’s courts are generally not independent.
Law firms in the eastern city of Wenzhou, near where the train crash happened July 23, received an “urgent statement” in the names of the city’s Judicial Bureau and the Lawyers’ Association three days after the accident, Xinhua News Agency reported Saturday.
Lawyers should not handle cases without authorization, because “the accident is a major sensitive issue concerning social stability,” Xinhua said.
The statement said that as soon as injured passengers and families of those killed seek legal help, lawyers should report to the judicial bureau and lawyers association, Xinhua said Saturday. The judicial bureau is a local government department, and the lawyers association represents lawyers and law firms and is under the direct leadership of the judicial bureau.
The city judicial bureau, which supervises law firms, denies it issued the notice after an outcry on the Internet. It says the lawyers’ association put out the notice in its name.
A legal expert said Chinese authorities often act to stop cases surrounding major accidents coming to court to avoid the public focusing on them and to maintain social stability.
At least 40 people died and 190 were injured after one bullet train rammed into another that had stalled after being hit by lightning, and six cars derailed. A railway official said Thursday that design flaws in signal equipment and human error caused the crash.
No lawsuits are believed to have been filed.
The accident has caused much public anger and come to be seen as emblematic of the problems with China’s breakneck development over the past three decades, sometimes achieved at the expense of public safety.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said at a rare news conference Thursday that the crash was being investigated and those found responsible would be punished.
Often when major accidents happen, relatives of victims want to take the case to court “to raise attention,” said Liu Xiao Yuan, a Beijing lawyer.
“But the authorities usually want to settle such kind of cases outside of court, because going through the legal procedures raises the media’s attention and the public will focus on such cases and sometimes these legal procedures will take quite a long time,” Liu said Sunday. “The main purpose is to safeguard social stability.”
Xinhua said the government-run judicial bureau apologized to the public for its “lax supervision” over the lawyers association after netizens rounded on the statement to law firms. The bureau said the association had unilaterally issued the statement without its authorization, Xinhua said.
It quoted the director of the judicial bureau, Liu Xianping, as saying that the two bodies often issue joint statements, but this time the association had taken it for granted it could use the bureau’s name.
Xinhua said an unnamed spokesman at the Wenzhou Lawyers Association confirmed that was what had happened and said they issued the order because they feared “conflicts would be generated if legal services are not well-provided.”
A total of 15 families of the crash victims have agreed to accept government compensation as of late Saturday, Xinhua also reported, citing authorities.
The payment of 915,000 yuan ($143,000) was almost doubled from the original offer. Family members and media commentators had complained that 500,000 yuan was too low, particularly given the money the powerful Railway Ministry collects from insurance premiums built into ticket prices.