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Legal Aid System Helps the Disadvantaged

Since its inception a decade ago, China's legal aid system has helped more than 1.3 million impoverished people who otherwise could afford litigation, and also provided free legal counseling for 6 million people nationwide.

"The past decade witnessed great progress in legal aid, which now constitutes a crucial part of China's legal system," said Minister of Justice Zhang Fusen on Sunday.

China began to establish its legal aid system in 1994 to give those in need equal status in court by offering them free assistance.

The number of people with less than 637 yuan (US$80) of annual net income in China rose by 800,000 in 2003. Approximately 29 million people, or 3 percent of the population, were inadequately fed and clothed.

"It is virtually impossible for a person to pay for litigation when his annual income is less than 600 yuan," said Professor Li Dun, of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

"Failure to provide citizens with an equal opportunity in court is a greater threat to human rights protection than being enabling to offer them access to education or job opportunities," said Xia Yong, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

By the end of June, China had set up 2,892 legal aid offices, 85 percent of which are located in towns and villages, where most of the country's needy people live.

The number of legal aid personnel working in these offices is approximately 10,000, with half of them holding lawyer's certificates. Another 120,000 lawyers and many more volunteers from law schools and nongovernmental organizations have also lent a helping hand.

In September 2003, the government issued a regulation that for the first time indicated that providing legal assistance was one of its official obligations. The move alleviated the financial burdens on lawyers who volunteered to help but had to pay litigation fees out of their own pockets.

The government allocated 152 million yuan (US$18.3 million) to legal aid in 2003, double the amount of the previous year. About 170,000 legal aid cases were handled in 2003, an increase of 23.0 percent from a year earlier; and the number of the people receiving free counseling jumped 57.3 percent.

Nevertheless, the program is still facing severe challenges. Government funds allocated in 2003 only amounted to one-fifth of what was needed, and half a million people who desired legal assistance were unable to get it.

"The money we provide is far from adequate, especially in western China," said Minister of Justice Zhang Fusen.

"The fund shortage is a bottleneck in the development of China's legal aid system," acknowledged Professor Chen Guangzhong, of the China Political Science and Law University.

Many people still do not understand why the government pays lawyers to defend people in criminal courts, according to Chen. He said that criminal cases are another major obstacle in the legal aid program.

(Xinhua News Agency August 30, 2004)

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