Legal Aid and Public Interest Law in China

By Liebman, Benjamin L. | Texas International Law Journal, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Legal Aid and Public Interest Law in China

Liebman, Benjamin L., Texas International Law Journal


Reports from across China suggest that lawyers are increasingly coming to the assistance of people whom economic development has left behind. In Guangzhou, for example, legal aid lawyers convinced an appeals court to spare the life of an indigent woman convicted of being an accessory to murder.1 Similarly, in Shanghai, lawyers acting pro bono saved a ninety-two year-old woman from eviction from her apartment.2 In Wuhan, lawyers from a non-governmental legal aid center brought a successful suit on behalf of a woman illegally detained by the local public security bureau after she exposed corruption at her workplace.3

The recent emphasis on lawyers serving society is not new, but it arises against a new backdrop: an increased focus on the provision of legal services to China's poor and disadvantaged. Over the past four years, as China's legal profession has grown to become the third largest in the world,4 provincial and local justice bureaus have established a total of 180 legal aid centers or offices.5 In addition, at least three non-governmental legal aid providers are currently operating in China, local branches of the All-China Women's Federation have established legal aid clinics in at least three rural counties, and private Chinese law firms are increasingly willing to undertake pro bono or contingent-fee litigation on behalf of the disadvantaged. In many cities, legal aid programs are little more than a single official working out of the local justice bureau, but in some locales, legal aid centers employ full-time lawyers and handle thousands of inquiries and hundreds of cases annually. Legal aid programs in China also range in their focus: in Guangzhou, the government-run legal aid program focuses primarily on representing criminal defendants facing life in prison or death; in Beijing, the legal aid program at Peking University works exclusively to protect women's rights.

Legal aid has also attracted the attention of many of those outside of China who are concerned with strengthening China's legal system. United States President Bill Clinton has cited it as a potential area for Amercian cooperation with China, and both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited legal aid centers during the President's June 1998 visit to China.6 Other Western governments, non-governmental organizations, and philanthropic foundations have similarly shown a strong interest in China's legal aid programs.7

This article describes the evolution of legal aid and public interest law in China and examines its implications for the legal profession and the law in the context of four intertwined developments: first, China's efforts to establish a nationwide system of government-run legal aid centers; second, China's attempt to expand the availability and improve the quality of legal representation for indigent criminal defendants; third, China's bid to force the legal profession to serve poor clients via mandatory pro bono requirements for lawyers; fourth, the development of non-governmental legal aid centers and the expanding incentives for profit-oriented lawyers to take on pro bono cases or pursue public interest litigation. Although it is too early to declare that the evolution of legal aid will reshape the function of law or the status of individual rights in China, this article argues that the evolution illustrates the choices facing China as it continues to reform its legal system and legal profession. China's development of legal aid also demonstrates the degree to which legal development in China is progressing without any single dominant rationale or policy goal.

A number of questions permeate this analysis. What considerations have motivated China's recent commitment to legal aid, and what goals is legal aid designed to further? What is the likelihood that legal aid will actually become a significant component of the Chinese legal system, and what would be the consequences of such a development? …

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