Legal experts yesterday lauded a newly enacted regulation on legal aid, the first national legislation of its kind, as a major step towards building the country under the rule of law.
"The regulation is expected to greatly promote the development of the country's fledging legal aid programme," said Xiao Xianfu, director of the Legal Consultation and Legal Aid Research Center under the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Legal aid provides the assistance of lawyers and solicitors to people who could not otherwise afford legal services.
The regulation aims to help the impoverished seek necessary legal services, and will also promote and steer the legal aid programme onto the right track, according to sources with the Legislative Affairs Office under the State Council.
The regulation does not have a fixed definition for the national criteria for "impoverished," given the economic disparities among different areas of the country.
Premier Wen Jiabao signed a decree issuing the Regulation on Legal Aid, which will take effect on September 1.
It says that those who cannot afford the services of lawyers are eligible to apply for legal aid when they are seeking:
<li>social insurance or minimum standard of living payments
<li>pensions for the disabled or for the family of the deceased, or welfare payments
<li>payments for support of parents and grandparents, alimony, or expenses associated with raising children
<li>payments for labor.
Besides civil redress cases, impoverished criminal suspects and accusers can also apply for legal aid in criminal cases.
Under the regulation, the courts should appoint a defence attorney for these accused who are unable to hire the service due to being blind, deaf, incapable of speech, under the age of majority, or who might be sentenced to death.
Under these circumstances, legal aid institutions should offer the services without evaluating the finances of the accused.
The establishment of a legal aid service is an important component of social security and human rights protection, and has offered a basic guarantee for the realization of legal equality for every citizen, according to Xiong Qiuhong, associate researcher of the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The enactment of this regulation is expected to further promote the development of the legal aid programme.
A center for the protection of disadvantaged people, such as elderly, handicapped and poor citizens, was established in Wuhan University in Central China's Hubei Province in 1992 as a rudimentary first step towards a nationwide legal aid programme.
China's first legal aid center was launched in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province, in the autumn of 1995.
Since then, China has established 2,642 governmental legal aid organizations across the country with over 8,800 professionals offering legal assistance expertise, according to the Legal Aid Center under the Ministry of Justice, the national authority behind the legal aid programme.
By the end of June, some 970,000 people in the country had received legal aid in some capacity in nearly 810,000 cases on various matters.
However, Xiao said the legal aid programme is plagued by shortages of both funding and competent personnel.
A Beijing lawyer who chose to remain anonymous said "Many of my colleagues feel reluctant to offer legal aid services which take much time and bring less income than other cases."
So far, all provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, and over 85 per cent of the prefectures have established legal aid institutions.
The regulation will expand services to people at the grass- roots level as it makes governments above the county level responsible to financially support the legal aid programme.
(China Daily August 1, 2003)