Justice at a special rate

By Duan Wuning Source:Global Times Published: 2013-4-11 17:53:01


Shanghai Legal Aid Center staff can provide a home consultation service for some clients. Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Legal Aid Center
Shanghai Legal Aid Center staff can provide a home consultation service for some clients. Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Legal Aid Center


Qian Changjie is a lawyer in Shanghai and a busy lawyer at that. Many of his clients pay nothing or very little for his skills. The 45-year-old can be found behind a desk in a quiet office near Zhongshan Hospital in Xuhui district every third Monday. He sits there handling a steady line of visitors wanting advice and information, just as he has done for 16 years.

Qian is a lawyer with the Shanghai Legal Aid Center. When he began working as a legal aid lawyer in 1997, there were no government subsidies for legal aid cases. Now he is on duty at the center every three weeks offering general advice and he handles up to three cases a month himself.

The year 1997 saw the establishment of the municipal Shanghai Legal Aid Center. But Shanghai's legal aid services actually started in 1995, when the Pudong New Area started to pilot legal aid, alongside Guangzhou in Guangdong Province. Local authorities in those days had no guidelines or established procedures for legal aid. The country had no specific provisions in law - prosecutors and lawyers could only refer to amendments in the Criminal Procedure Law, which stated that residents did have the right to legal aid.

Official provisions

It was not until 2003 that the country had official provisions for legal aid, which specified procedures and authorized local governments to decide who could be regarded as "financially challenged," along with the fee levels for the lawyers and the range of cases that the service could cover.

District legal aid services were gradually established from 1997 to 2000, but not all had adequate office space, funding or staff, said Zhang Ming, the deputy director of the Shanghai Legal Aid Center.

Zhang joined the service in 1998, as a law school graduate. Legal aid was not her primary career choice because she had no idea how it would develop. But she has found the work rewarding - even if some complex cases go on for several exhausting years. When she gets a settlement for a deserving client, she is happy.

In 2001 the municipal government included the establishment of legal aid centers in its annual agenda. After that 20 legal aid offices in the city began operating from established offices and with proper staffing and funding. Most offices had between five and eight staff and had an annual budget of between 200,000 yuan ($32,289) and 500,000 yuan.

Shanghai is home to 1,158 law firms and 14,593 licensed lawyers, according to the Shanghai Bar Association (incidentally New York City has more than 91,000 lawyers). In 2012 there were 18,257 legal aid matters handled in the city - 5,694 criminal and 12,563 civil cases. That's not an insignificant number compared with the non-legal aid court matters - 134,000 cases.

In recent years, legal aid cases have been increasing annually in double digits and this will continue for the foreseeable future. Most of the civil cases are related to labor disputes usually evolving from illegal dismissals, nonpayment of wages or compensation.

There was an amendment to the criminal law introduced early this year which means that now a suspect's next of kin can apply on his or her behalf for legal aid. In the past, suspects had to apply for themselves, even if they were in detention. Another change sees police, prosecutors, and courts now being able to liaise with legal aid centers to provide suspects with lawyers - previously suspects did not have lawyers while their cases were being investigated.

More cases

These changes mean that there will be inevitably more cases for legal aid to handle but that lawyers can now be involved in their clients' cases earlier than before and be better informed and prepared.

Lin Dongpin is the director of the criminal law study committee for the Shanghai Bar Association, and a criminal defense lawyer at the Shanghai Bohe Law Firm. He has handled several criminal legal aid cases and said, "The increasing number of cases has shown that the demand for legal aid is on the rise, but it's a challenge for the current resources."

According to Lin, local legal aid centers are understaffed, and they will be increasingly stretched with last year's amendment to the Criminal Procedure Law, which broadened the range of people who can apply for criminal defense lawyers through legal aid.

"Our staffing levels are low, but the local government has been very supportive already - other government agencies are streamlining and cutting budgets while we are being allowed more," Zhang said.

But the funding for legal aid is still less than adequate. Currently, the fees available for an average case ranges from 1,500 yuan to 2,250 yuan, while rates for major cases (where a death sentence or life imprisonment is involved) attract a maximum of 4,000 yuan. A big district, like Pudong, can spend over 5 million yuan a year in its legal aid budget.

But the rates are low compared to non-legal aid work. A 2009 government price guide for lawyers suggested that lawyers could charge between 3,000 and 30,000 yuan for a criminal case.

"The government tries to ensure the funding will meet all our needs and sometimes at the end of the year it provides us with extra funding depending on the volume of cases we have handled," Zhang said.

Extra support from other government departments is also needed. "Sometimes it's very hard for us to do financial checks because the records have not been filed and we have to rely on information from community offices to see if a client qualifies for legal aid."

To qualify for legal aid in Shanghai, a person has to have no more than the minimum monthly disposable income as set by the city's statistics bureau - last year this was 1,435 yuan.

A stable force

At present, the city has a relatively stable force of lawyers who will provide services for legal aid - in 2008 there were more than 1,400 available. Lawyers can apply to join the program, and the legal aid offices select those with experience and related expertise after consulting with their firms, and the bar association.

The offices also check feedback from courts and clients to ensure that standards are maintained. Already, legal aid attracts the fewest complaints of any judicial service, Zhang said.

But not enough people are aware of legal aid or understand how it works. "Often people come in and talk about problems that have nothing to do with the law, and we can do nothing about that," said Qian Changjie, who specializes in medical disputes.

The municipal legal aid center is aware of this and has been working to promote the service through a 24-hour hotline (12348) which is manned by lawyers. In 2012 the hotline fielded 200,886 calls - about 550 calls per day.

"But too often when clients come to us they have already signed papers or agreements and we can do little to help. People need to change their habits. They should talk to lawyers before anything bad or unjust occurs. This is a way of protecting themselves," Qian said.

The center also uses a popular radio program to promote the hotline and legal aid services. At street levels, training sessions are organized for liaison officers, who have more dealings at a grassroots level and can refer people who need legal aid.

"The challenge also lies in that with the constantly changing socioeconomic situation. Government legislation on legal aid needs to be adjusted accordingly, but legislation takes time, so it always lags behind a little," Zhang said.

"More needs to be done with the process of lawyer selection - it will be necessary to establish a talent pool of specialist lawyers with more professional experience," Lin Dongpin said. "Lawyers experienced in particular areas can provide better services."

Pro bono cases

As well as the government-backed legal aid, some lawyers are also ready to help people in need in their own. Every Saturday morning Zhang Xuhui sits at a table in the Dapuqiao community cultural center in Huangpu district, ready to help anyone with a legal problem or concern. Sometimes there's a queue, but he will still often be there well after his allotted two-hour session is over.

Zhang is a lawyer with the Win Zone Law Firm. He and his colleagues have spent every Saturday morning there for seven years, handling about 1,000 cases for free. Altogether 10 lawyers have participated in the pro bono project during this period but Zhang is one of the few who persisted. "It's very hard sometimes but I would lose credibility if I stopped," he said.

He often feels helpless listening to other people's problems. "I can only try to help them." Most of the cases involve real estate deals, family disputes, and private loans.

Zhang's colleague Ding Hui felt that this pro bono work was about their own self-respect and not about profit or reputation. When 58-year-old Lu Jiansheng consulted Zhang and Ding in their office in Yangpu district one Monday afternoon in April, he talked for half an hour explaining his problem. Lu was upset by the way the apartment he had shared with his two brothers was to be divided. They listened patiently but as Lu had already signed the agreement, there was nothing they could do legally.

But the mere listening gave Lu some peace of mind. "I've been to a lot of places and no one wanted to listen to me. I was glad that at last I could tell my story."

"Pro bono work should be encouraged as long as it is done for the right reasons. Legal aid has its limits," Zhang Ming with the Shanghai Legal Aid Center said.

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

blog comments powered by Disqus