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Editor's Desk
Print Edition> Editor's Desk
UPDATED: April 17, 2007 NO.16 APR.19, 2007
All Equal Before the Law
Still in its infancy, China's legal aid system is poised for further development, but one of the major problems is the striking gap between the supply and the demand of legal aid services

Twelve years ago, Beijing Review wrote a story on Guo Jianmei and her legal aid center for women. At that time, the Chinese, as well as those outside China, had little idea of any legal aid initiatives taking place in the country. But it was then that China's legal aid cause began to develop. By the end of last year, institutions in this field set up by local governments across the country had reached 3,149, undertaking 31,000 lawsuits. They received financial allocations worth 370 million yuan in 2006, over 2.5 times what it was three years previously.

During this year's full session of the National People's Congress, Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated in his Report on the Work of the Government that it's important to solve all kinds of social disputes so that the people can live a happy and well-off life. For this purpose, the government has pledged to provide excellent legal aid services to help those in difficulties with their lawsuits.

In order to ensure that under-represented groups were not excluded from access to legal aid and that justice and human rights are upheld according to the constitutional principle of "everyone is equal before the law," the Chinese Government decided in 1994 to set up a legal aid system with Chinese characteristics. In 1996, the Chinese Government recognized for the first time the legal status of the legal aid system in the Criminal Procedure Law and Law on Lawyers. On September 11, 2003, the State Council's Regulations on Legal Aid came into effect, which defines relevant services as part of the government's responsibility and puts forward the basic framework and various principles in relation to the work. Thanks to the support of relevant laws and regulations, the establishment of a legal aid system has been put on the agenda of governments at various levels and corresponding concepts are becoming increasingly familiar to the Chinese public.

Looking back at the history of legal aid in China, nongovernmental legal aid institutions were established earlier than official operations in this field and they are more efficient. These civil institutions have contributed a lot to making legal aid known to the public and to promoting its development in China. After overcoming initial difficulties, a number of public interest lawyers, like Guo Jianmei, made their presence felt, setting up civil law firms like Guo's legal aid center for women. These operations have become an inseparable part and important supplement to China's overall legal aid system. The hard work of these lawyers is recognized not only by the Chinese Government but also by the world at large.

Still in its infancy, China's legal aid system is poised for further development, but one of the major problems is the striking gap between the supply and the demand of legal aid services. With the development of legal aid and the extensive publicity it has generated, there is growing demand for legal aid services. On the one hand, the number of criminal cases in which courts designate lawyers for litigants is on the rise; on the other hand, citizens turn to legal aid in increasing civil disputes. It is estimated that in China, applications for legal aid top 70,000 each year. But only a quarter of these receive the service. Another critical problem is the serious lack of funding. Currently, the Chinese Government's annual financial allocations to legal aid are less then 0.06 yuan per capita, much lower than the average level of developing countries. Obviously this shortfall of capital is badly hampering the development of legal aid.

Fortunately, China's Central Government and local governments at various levels attach great importance and are offering greater support to the establishment and implementation of the legal aid system. Thus, financial input, policy support and society's recognition of lawyers who have the public's interests at heart are becoming the solid foundation on which rapid development of China's legal aid is based.  

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