Local villager Wang Wenbin displays legal training materials for villagers in Fengxian county, Jiangsu Province, May 16, 2010. Photos: CFP
He works from home in what he calls a "law firm." He has taken on cases for more than 1,000 farmers in a career spanning three decades. Locals all call him a "rural lawyer." But technically, he is not a lawyer.
Wang Daoyu, 63, is well-known in the village of Baguating of Kaifeng, Henan Province. People respect him because as a "rural lawyer without a license," he has represented their legal interests for three decades. For the poorest among his clients, he only charges between 10 and 20 yuan ($1.58-3.16).
"Farmers are very honest and poor people, so when their rights are violated, many of them feel helpless and don't know how to use the law to protect themselves," Wang told the Global Times.
Defending widows and orphans
Wang is one of the "barefoot lawyers" who taught themselves enough law to file civil complaints, engage in litigation and educate others about their legal rights.
Like Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist who became known for revealing to the press alleged violent practices of local family planning officers in Shandong Province, many barefoot lawyers are known for taking on controversial cases such as illegal land grabs and corruption.
Their work exists in a legal limbo, a grey area that enables each party or legal representative to entrust a citizen to represent him in any litigation outside criminal cases. Farmers often turn to barefoot lawyers for help, as registered lawyers are too hard to find or too expensive.
Zhang Xingshui, a human rights lawyer for Beijing-based Jinding law firm, predicts there are about 100,000 barefoot lawyers across the country. Nevertheless he believes their existence is not good for legal development.
"They are like guerrillas, unprofessional and controversial. They might be able to fill a gap in the market, but reduce the overall quality of legal service," Zhang said.
Wang was born in a poor farmer's family. He dropped out of high school as his family could not pay for tuition. Since then, he has worked a number of jobs but gradually developed an interest in law.
Wang's first experience as a barefoot lawyer was in 1983 when he worked in a local post office. A woman came in to ask him to write a plea letter. She had been repeatedly beaten by her husband and was seeking a divorce. Wang still remembers the bruises over her body. The appeal was successful and when he ran into her a few months later, the woman and her two children knelt down in front of him to thank him for his help.
Since then, Wang has been writing plea letters and filing lawsuits for villagers. The case he is proudest of is when he helped 24 rural teachers, each of whom had been forced to pay a 4,000-yuan "certification fee" in 1997.
"It was a big amount of money back in 1997, but no one dared to expose the misbehavior of the village committee, so I did it for them," he said.
People like Wang are a boon to certain rural areas, where villagers would otherwise have to walk hours to the county seat to find a lawyer.
There are about 150,000 registered lawyers nationwide, but there are over 200 counties with no lawyer, according to Ministry of Justice statistics from 2008.
For Wang, fame brought its own measure of trouble. In 2002, six assailants broke into his house and took him away. They brought him into an office and questioned him for five hours.
"They asked me why I was taking so many risks and who supported me. I told them the law supported me," he recalled, believing that the men were sent by those who lost cases he was involved in winning.
Many villagers gathered outside to support him and he was eventually set free.
Wang said he has encountered similar threats over the years, and that although he was naturally scared and worried, the idea of giving up never crossed his mind.
When it comes to their own troubles, many barefoot lawyers seem vulnerable. Zhang said this was because, unlike registered lawyers, they do not have an organization or committee to protect them.
"Barefoot lawyers should be registered and regulated by the Ministry of Justice or bar associations, so that when they face injustice, someone can protect them," Zhang said.