Ding Jiaqiang, a villager in Guizhou province, never expected the provincial Deputy Governor Chen Mingming to appear in court to directly answer an administrative dispute case against the local government.
The milestone event was the first in which a ministerial-level official in China appeared in court to respond to a resident's administrative case.
Previously, it was rare to see even junior officials appear at such hearings, which were usually handled by lawyers.
But since May last year, when a revised administrative procedure law took effect, the situation has changed.
Thanks to the revised law, which states that officials should appear in court for cases that involve them, an increasing number of officials have gone to court for such cases, said He Xiaorong, chief judge of the Supreme People's Court's administrative tribunal.
By facing disputes directly, the officials helped to solve them, He said. The requirement to attend court is a highlight of the new law, and is aimed at enhancing officials' legal awareness and ensuring they answer for mistakes, He added.
On April 11, Ding and his family, from Zunyi, Guizhou, experienced the change at Guiyang Intermediate People's Court.
Chen Mingming, deputy governor of Guizhou
Ding claimed his land was occupied and expropriated when the city government built a highway, but said the local authorities did not reach an agreement with him beforehand.
He applied to the provincial government, asking it to review the case and rule on whether the city government acted improperly, but failed. He then appealed to the courts, asking judges to decide whether the two levels of government had erred.
Ding's nephew, Liu Guohua, said, "We didn't expect provincial and city officials to pay close attention to our family's case. ... We're confident the dispute will be solved now that Chen Mingming, the deputy governor, has come to court."
The court has not announced a verdict in the case, but Chen's appearance was also welcomed by the top court.
"Officials can prevent and reduce administrative flaws at the roots after taking part in a case," He said.
Chen said his court appearance reflects the importance of the rule of law.
Since the revised law took effect, the number of government officials appearing in court for administrative disputes has surged.
For example, among the administrative cases heard by courts in Shanghai last year, 759 featured officials responding in person to lawsuits from the public, a year-on-year rise of 67.2 percent.
But He said governments are still responding through attorneys to residents' legal disputes in some regions and that some officials do not speak at case hearings even though they attend them.
He said he believes the situation will improve as more officials become aware of what is expected.
Making government officials appear in court to answer residents' administrative disputes, a new requirement under a revised law, will help ensure governments function legally, said the ministerial-level official who took part in a groundbreaking case last month.
Chen Mingming, the deputy governor of Gui-zhou province, stood in court on April 11 to help solve a dispute between the provincial government and a villager.
"It was the first time I had appeared at a trial and received such supervision from the public," he said.
"Previously, it was not expected when someone sued a government in court, but now it is happening, and I think it is right for us to be defendants and participate.
"Making a court appearance under the revised law is now a duty for officials. It is an opportunity to find out the cause of conflicts and solve them legally."
He said responding positively to administrative disputes and personally participating in the legal process will help ensure governments operate within the law.
"I did some preparation before the trial, such as clarifying the focus of the dispute, with my colleagues in charge of legal affairs, and I studied the related administrative rules," he said.
After the trial, he said his participation offered "a good chance to popularize administrative regulations among residents, and make sure they know how to effectively solve their disputes in future".