Foreign law firms were given the green light on Thursday to court clients in China on limited issues following the nation's entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
A new State Council regulation permits lawyers to offer consulting services on legislation of the country or region where the lawyers are licensed, and on international conventions and practices.
It allows them to handle the legal affairs of the countries or regions where they gained permission to become lawyers and entrust Chinese law firms to deal with Chinese legal affairs.
And foreign law firms can also enter into contract with Chinese counterparts to entrust them to deal with legal affairs and provide information on the impact of the Chinese legal environment.
But bans prohibiting the establishment of jointly funded law firms will not be lifted following China's accession to the WTO.
And representative offices of foreign law firms in China are still barred from recruiting Chinese lawyers.
"This does not mean China refuses to open up its legal service market," said He Min, head of the Administration for China Offices of Foreign Law Firms under the Ministry of Justice.
"The opening-up is a step-by-step process that must be constantly adjusted according to the development of the domestic legal service market."
The large but fledgling legal service market in China has proved attractive to foreign lawyers in recent years. So far 20 foreign law firms have submitted applications for opening second branches on the Chinese mainland.
Overseas lawyers were officially allowed to practise law on the mainland in the early 1990s. A total of 131 overseas law firms already have branches in 11 cities on the mainland, with most clustering in Shanghai and Beijing.
Currently, foreign law firms are allowed to have just one branch each in the 15 cities listed by the Ministry of Justice. Now China has committed itself to lifting the geographic and quantitative ban within one year.
As well as setting out the parameters for foreign law firms practising laws in China, the regulation also stipulates obligations and punishments for judicial administrators when they fail to correctly carry out their job.
He Min said her section will soon start the drafting of specifics with regard to the ratification and administration of the Chinese branches of foreign law firms, supplementing the State Council regulation.
The ministry's own rules will deal with details concerning the business scope of foreign law firms in China, the integrity of the market and supervision and administration over their business, He said.
Apart from the foreign law firms approved by the Ministry of Justice, there are also some consultation and investment companies in China that illegally recruit foreign lawyers to provide legal services, which He said needs more co-ordination with other departments to bring them under control.
(China Daily December 28, 2001)