Government departments should send representatives to attend case hearings when the authorities are taken to court, according to a judicial interpretation released on Wednesday by China's top court.
The interpretation clarifies government department representatives as heads, deputy heads and those responsible for the authority's management, stating these people should attend trials if their workplace is subject to a lawsuit.
If these representatives cannot take part in a case hearing, they must submit an explanation to court and should ask other officials to attend, it said, adding that only entrusting a lawyer to face a lawsuit is not allowed.
There could be consequences if a representative is absent without explanation, it added.
"The interpretation's clearer and higher requirements aim to urge government departments to handle administrative affairs in line with laws and prevent their administrative power from being abused," said Jiang Bixin, vice-president of the Supreme People's Court.
"For years, people rarely saw government department representatives in court, let alone debated with them during a trial, which was a big complaint among litigants," he said.
"The absence was sometimes attributed to officials having little legal awareness or being busy, while sometimes because they thought involvement in a lawsuit was shameful," he explained.
But since the Administrative Procedure Law was revised three years ago, a series of problems has been alleviated, he said.
For example, in administrative cases heard by courts in Shandong province in 2015, the number attended by government department representatives reached 1,637, four times more than in 2014, said the top court.
Shanghai courts handled 1,097 administrative cases in which the involved government departments dispatched representatives to attend the trials, up 44.5 percent year-on-year, according to chinapeace.gov.cn, an official Party website.
"The attendance also contributes to the legal building of the country, as well as to urging government departments to serve the people and provide services by rule of law from a long-term perspective," said Zou Rong, an associate law professor at East China University of Political Science and Law.
The nation has also seen a significant rise in the number of residents filing－and winning－lawsuits against government departments after the shake-up of the law.
In 2016, courts nationwide resolved 225,020 such lawsuits, an annual increase of 13.2 percent, of which more than half were related to the plaintiff's livelihood, including disputes over demolitions.