In 1994, the Chinese government officially proposed to explore the building of a legal aid system with Chinese characteristics; in 1996, The Criminal Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China and The Lawyer's Law of the People’s Republic of China established the legal status of legal aid in the country’s judicial system; in 2001, The Tenth Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development brought the building of a legal aid system into the targets of social development; and on September 1, 2003,The Regulations on Legal Aid took effect, which stipulates that it is the duty of the government to provide legal aid.
There are two criteria in deciding whether a citizen is eligible for legal aid: i.e. criteria in terms of financial means and legal matters.
Given that the economic development is uneven across China,The Regulations on Legal Aid authorizes the people’s governments of provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government to formulate financial standards in accordance with the economic situation and the practical needs within their administrative regions, thus there is no unified financial standard for the entire country.Generally speaking, citizens with access to social relief are all qualified for legal aid.
The legal matters could be categorized into criminal matters, and civil and administrative matters. In criminal process, financially disadvantaged suspects of criminal cases in the stage of investigation, victims of public prosecution cases and private prosecutors without agent ad litem may apply for legal aid. The people’s courts should or may designate a defender for defendants of public prosecution cases with public prosecutors present at court who cannot afford defenders due to financial difficulties or other reasons,or who are blind, deaf, mute, or minor without defenders, or who are at the risk of death penalty but do not have a defender.
In civil and administrative cases, citizens claiming for the state compensation,or social insurance or minimum subsistence allowances,or allowances for bereft families or social relief,or payment of maintainance,for a parent ,child ,spouse,or any other dependent,or payments for labor,or claims for civil rights and interests arising from courageous acts in fighting for justice,or workplace injury compensation, may apply for legal aid.The Regulations on Legal Aid authorizes the people’s governments of provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government to stipulate supplementary provisions for legal aid affairs unprovided in The Regulations on Legal Aid according to the practical economic situation and the local demand for legal aid. At present, the majority of the provinces (regions and municipalities) have included damage compensations of traffic accidents and medical accidents, domestic violence cases, compensation cases caused by land requisition or house removal, counterfeit and substandard seeds, pesticides, chemical fertilizers or environmental pollutions, cases claiming the rights of school-age children and adolescents to accept the compulsory education, and cases of the disabled, the minor, or the senior claiming for infringement damage compensations into the coverage of legal aid.
By now, there are more than 3,200 governmental legal aid institutions covering all administrative regions across the country in charge of the acceptance, investigation and approval of the applications for legal aid, the designation of lawyers for cases, the supervision of service qualities, and the payment of subsidies for legal aid cases. Besides, in order to provide legal aid access to the financially disadvantaged people, more than 50,000 community stations have been set up to accept legal aid applications.
Upon the approval of legal aid institutions, citizens may get legal advice, representation and criminal defense free of charge. The general public ineligible for legal aid may also gain access to free legal advice provided by the institutions through the hotline at 12348 to get help over the phone or door-to-door advice.
In recent years, the legal advice services provided every year exceed 4 million person-times and about 500,000 legal aid cases are handled per annum on average, benefitting more than 600,000 people, among whom 50% are farmers or migrant workers, 20% the female, 7% the disabled, 15% the minors and 10% the seniors.
Legal aid is mainly provided by lawyers and grass-roots legal workers. According to The Lawer's Law of the People’s Republic of China and The Regulations on Legal Aid of the State Council, lawyers must shoulder the obligation to provide legal aid. China adopts a mixed pattern in delivering legal aid, where 30% of the cases are handled by public-employed lawyers (about 6,000 of them) from legal aid institutions, 35% by social lawyers (about 140,000 of them), and 32% by grass-roots legal workers (about 90,000 of them).
The major source of fund for legal aid is the government’s financial appropriation, and the expense of legal aid is included in the government’s budget at all levels every year. The earmarked fund must be used exclusively for the designated purpose only, mainly to cover the cost of case-handling and the subsidies for the workers.
Social institutions are encouraged to participate in legal aid as well. China has established five legal aid foundations, including China Legal Aid Foundation and Beijing Legal Aid Foundation, to accept and manage endowments from home and abroad to support public welfare organizations to provide free legal assistance to citizens.
The Regulations on Legal Aid provides that the Ministry of Justice and the judicial administrative organs at all levels are in charge of the supervision and management of legal aid work. The Ministry of Justice has set up the Department of Legal Aid and the Legal Aid Center to guide and check the enforcement of the laws, regulations and policies on legal aid ; to map out the overall arrangement of the cause of legal aid ; to supervise and manage legal aid agencies and workers; to guide social institutions and volunteers to carry out legal aid; to wage legal aid publicity campaigns; to organize legal aid training programmes; to evaluate the quality of legal aid; to organize and carry out international exchanges and cooperation on legal aid matters; to manage the 12348 hotline of help over the phone; and to conduct relevant theoretical research.
Over the years, new progress has been made in China’s legal aid, yet there are still many difficulties and challenges. For instance, the development of urban and rural areas is unbalanced; the financial input of legal aid, and the number and the quality of legal aid workers still cannot meet the growing demand for legal aid; the legal knowledge of the public and the visibility of legal aid need to be improved;and the public legal education should be further strengthened.
(Source of the Chinese article: Legal Aid Center of MOJ)