VOICE AT THE COURT: A lawyer defends a client in a criminal case in a court in Shanghai (CFP)
On December 15, the Shanghai Pudong New Area People's Court tried a man surnamed Luo on charges of fraud. It's alleged Luo racked up 300,000 yuan ($45,553) worth of credit debt without the intention of paying it back.
A common scene in court was made uncommon when, for the first time, a public defender was used on Luo's behalf.
Luo was working in Shanghai and wanted to buy an apartment. He couldn't afford one in the city with the highest property prices in China, and began accumulating the debt using seven different credit cards from six different banks. He put the money into the stock market.
His investing skills left much to be desired. His 300,000 yuan soon became 20,000 yuan ($3,037) and the banks were looking for their money. Luo fled to Shenzhen in 2008 and was arrested on fraud charges in 2010.
Luo felt hopeless when he learned he faced a 10-year imprisonment. He couldn't hire a lawyer as he had no money and thought nothing could be done. Pudong People's Court, however, assigned Luo a public defender, who successfully argued the sentence down to five years.
A big progress
Last August, the Pudong New Area Bureau of Justice and Pudong People's Court reached an agreement on a pilot public defender system. On October 27, 2010, China's first public defender office was established in the court. Later on, some courts in Jiangsu and Fujian provinces also launched the system.
"It is quite new in China," said Wu Yu, a doctoral student at Shanghai's Fudan University who studies the public defender systems in Western countries. "Although it has a long history in Western countries, it is still not known in China, even to may lawyers and legal scholars."
"I didn't study the public defender system before I received the invitation letter to this forum," said Chen Guo, a professor at Hunan University's School of Law, at the Public Defender System Construction Forum held in Shanghai on December 27, 2010. "In other words, as a law professor, I know nothing of this system. It is important to spread the system, which is a new idea in China."
"The public defender system should become part of the current legal assistance system in China, as they have some features in common," said Shen Jungui, a professor at Xiangtan University's School of Law in Hunan Province.
Shen cited Article 34 of the revised Criminal Procedure Law. The article says, "If a case is to be brought in court by a public prosecutor and the defendant involved has not entrusted anyone to be his defender due to financial difficulties or other reasons, the people's court may designate a lawyer that is obligated to provide legal aid to serve as a defender. If the defendant is blind, deaf or mute, or if he is a minor, and thus has not entrusted anyone to be his defender, the people's court shall designate a lawyer that is obligated to provide legal aid to serve as a defender. If there is the possibility that the defendant may be sentenced to death and yet he has not entrusted anyone to be his defender, the people's court shall designate a lawyer that is obligated to provide legal aid to serve as a defender."