Poor areas to get free legal aid

    A volunteer group of 30 lawyers and 70 law school graduates left Beijing yesterday bound for 70 counties without lawyers in remote western areas to offer legal aid services. They will work there for one to three years.

    This is the first group of volunteers of '1+1' China Legal Aid Volunteer Action, a program started in May by China Legal Aid Foundation, aimed at helping poor counties lacking legal services. The areas served are Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Gansu and Qinghai provinces, and Inner Mongolia and Ningxia Hui autonomous regions.

    Some 210 counties in China do not have lawyers, according to China Legal Aid Foundation, the organizer and fundraiser of the program.

    "This will be a long-term program. At least for the next five years, we'll continue to recruit more lawyers and university students to go to other counties," Ma Yuzhen, coordinator of the program, told China Daily.

    Program directors were surprised to get applications from more than 500 lawyers for the 30 open spots this year, said Chen Yiwei, vice director of the foundation.

    At first, program directors were worried that only a few lawyers would apply, as the counties without lawyers mostly are located in remote western areas, Chen said.

    "We thought that lawyers would not be willing to go to such poor places where living conditions are really bad," Chen said.

    The chosen 30 lawyers mostly are partners and chief lawyers with over eight years' experience, and most of them are members of the Communist Party of China, Ma told China Daily.

    "Lawyers are a group with a strong sense of social responsibility," Ma said. "Besides, they have earned enough money, and don't have to worry about giving up one or two years' income."

    The lawyers come from more developed cities and provinces like Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shandong and Guangdong provinces. Typically, their yearly incomes range from 400,000 yuan ($58,542) to 1,000,000 yuan.

    Tao Xuming, one of the lawyer volunteers, is a partner in the Chouzhou lawyers' firm in Zhejiang province. Tao said a lot of people have asked him why he chose to be a volunteer.

    "My answer is very simple: Because they need lawyers there, I am qualified, and I'm happy to go to help," he said.

    The program requires that every volunteer lawyer undertake at least 20 cases for free each year. The volunteers also have to promote local legal aid development by teaching local people to join in legal aid.

    Yu Ning, director of the China Lawyers' Association, said that China has more than 140,000 lawyers, and half of them work in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

    Statistics from Beijing Justice Bureau show that in 2008, Beijing had 1,211 law firms with 18,635 lawyers. Only 1,800 lawyers work in Gansu province, and six counties don't have a lawyer at all, according to Gansu Justice Department.

    Ran Jinfu, a law professor from the China Academy of Social Science, explained that the prospect of a low income is the main reason few or no lawyers work in some middle and western areas.

    But these areas do need lawyers, legal experts agree. Lu Feng, director of Pingba county justice bureau in Guizhou province, said that in his county, there is only one lawyer, but the need for legal aid is growing at a pace of 30 percent each year. (by Wang Jingqiong )

(Source: China Daily 07/31/2009)

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