The Supreme People's Procuratorate (SPP) of China has introduced a new regulation to protect lawyers' rights in criminal litigation, which is regarded by law experts as a critical move to protect the rights of the accused.
The move comes as the country's legislature is discussing a draft amendment to the Constitution that for the first time enshrines the protection of human rights.
"The accused will benefit most if lawyers can play a full role in criminal litigation. I think the regulation shows the country's growing concerns for human rights," said Professor Chen Weidong of the Renmin University Law School.
The SPP issued the regulation on February 19 and solicited opinions from attorneys and other law experts.
Lawyers' full participation in criminal litigation will help the procuratorates do their job better and contribute to justice, said Sun Qian, Deputy Procurator-General of the SPP, at a meeting held in Beijing Thursday.
Chinese lawyers have long been hindered by difficulties in meeting detained clients and obtaining documents and evidence.
"In half of the criminal cases I did, I was refused permission by the police or procuratorate to meet the client in custody," said Qian Lieyang, an attorney with the Beijing Zhongfu Law Firm.
The regulation requires procuratorates to arrange meetings between lawyers and detained clients within 48 hours after the lawyer submits an application.
Permissible topics of discussion between lawyers and their clients in such meetings are also clarified in the regulation.
"In a 15-minute meeting, I spent at least five minutes bargaining with the prosecuting attorney about what I could say to my client," said Zhang Yansheng, a lawyer from Beijing-based Dayu Law Office, recalling a meeting with a detained client in Xuzhou City, east China's Jiangsu Province.
"Now with the regulation I don't think there will be any bargaining," she said.
The new regulation allows lawyers to submit to the procuratorates or higher procuratorates allegations against prosecuting attorneys they believe have violated laws and regulations.
Prosecuting attorneys are required to consider defense lawyers' advice during their investigations and append the record of their opinion to the indictment. Before the regulation was issued, this would not be done until they started determining whether to submit the case for trial.
A number of lawyers are unwilling to represent clients on criminal charges due to the great difficulty and low pay.
Zhang handled three criminal cases last year, but says, "I have done quite a lot compared with many other lawyers."
"I hope the regulation will encourage more lawyers to take criminal cases and improve the quality of their work," said Professor Song Yinghui from the China University of Political Science and Law.
Vice Minister of Justice Duan Zhengkun also pledged Thursday to set up a cooperation mechanism with the SPP to solve problems lawyers face in criminal litigation.
However, the regulation issued by the SPP will not completely ease lawyers' concerns, since they are also at a disadvantage to the police and some administrations, Chen Weidong said.
The Law of Criminal Procedures does address the rights of lawyers, but lacks details on how to ensure these rights are respected and penalties for violations, he said. "We need to improve the Law of Criminal Procedures."
The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, has listed as one of its priorities in the next five years the amendment of the Law of Criminal Procedures.
Meanwhile, the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court has become the first local court in the capital to make the entire process of executing judgments transparent to the public. Other local courts are expected to follow suit.
Some litigants win in court only to find it difficult to get the rulings executed, especially in lawsuits involving damages. They must seek the courts' help for forced execution.
An electronic inquiry system was set up at the No. 2 court on Wednesday; and litigants can follow the latest developments through a computer system that contains data on all cases concluded from November 1, 2003.
After being put into experimental use in October last year, the system is now fully operational, said Wang Huaiqin, director of the court's judgment execution administrative office.
Litigants can now check with judges responsible for execution or track files on judgment execution.
"Making the whole procedure of judgment execution open to the public will ensure supervision of the court's work," Wang said.
Wang also believes that the new measure will put pressure on judges.
"The litigants' right to know and to participate in enforcing the judgment will be better guaranteed through the system," the judge said.
A plaintiff who won a damages case in 2002 said, "I was doubtful of the job done by the court when the judgment could not be executed for a long time, but in fact, the court finally helped me receive the compensation. So I believe the court's new measure will help make litigants feel more confident."
(Sources including China Daily and Xinhua News Agency March 12, 2004)