Law Society helps China develop legal aid

Just as cars have permeated the dizzying pace of development happening in the land of bicycles, China is prepared to start modernizing its legal system. But, unlike the rapid pace of development that is fueling China’s transformation, reforming the legal system does not happen overnight.

For the past three years, the Law Society has journeyed to China to offer guidance and support to the Chinese Ministry of Justice through the Canada-China Legal Aid and Community Legal Services Project. The project, funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and administered by the Canadian Bar Association, seeks to strengthen China’s legal aid and community legal services system by integrating and coordinating the legal aid system, providing training and development for legal aid workers and increasing public awareness and information.

Since 2004, four model legal aid clinics set up in the four poorest provinces — Jiangxi, Guizhou, Hunan and the Guangxi Autonomous Region — have provided services for criminal and civil matters and improved access to legal information and documentation.

Alan Treleaven, the Law Society’s Director, Education and Practice, visited China in 2005 and 2006 to assist in training legal aid staff lawyers and volunteers on how to design and teach lawyer skills courses, so they in turn can teach their counterparts.

“It’s in our interest to promote stable governments that protect human rights and the legal system has to be in place for that to happen,” says Treleaven. “The project aims to assist in the modernization of the Chinese legal system and helps spread the rule of law.”

This summer, Kensi Gounden, Manager, Standards and Professional Development, visited China to review the current case management systems and determine if they could be adapted for the model legal aid clinics.

Chinese legal aid

In 1994, China’s Ministry of Justice launched an initiative to pilot legal aid programs in some large cities based on local resources from the provincial and municipal governments. The first legal aid centre was established in Guangzhou (Guangzhou Municipal Legal Aid Centre) in 1995, followed by provincial legal aid centres in the Guangdong and Sichuan provinces. Today, there are about 3,000 legal aid centres in China, made up of staff lawyers as well as private lawyers who invoice legal aid for their work on behalf of clients. In China, municipal and district governments are expected to provide some funding for their level of legal aid centres, which leads to very unequal funding across the country, and minimal funding in China’s poorest provinces.

Criminal and family law comprise the majority of cases seen by legal aid. These include youth, petty crime, capital offences and family relations. Eligibility is determined mainly on income level, and may include disability and the nature of the charge or the case.

“The model clinics have already been through the growing pains and are now at a stage where they need a functional case management system,” says Gounden. “The evolution of legal aid is really exciting and China is looking to the Canadian experience for guidance.”

The trip

Upon arrival Gounden met Meng, a local CBA/CIDA representative, LLM student, part tour guide, part interpreter and full-time liaison between the CBA and the local legal aid offices. Meng gave Gounden the lay of the land, including a brief overview of legal aid. She explained that the legal aid system in Nanjing is governed at three levels: by the central government, the provincial government and the municipal government.

The next day Gounden and Meng traveled to the Jiangsu province and Nanjing, a city that established its first presence in 472 BC. Nanjing was home to the first Ming Dynasty in 1368 and the first Capital of the Republic from 1927 to 1949. With six million people, including more than 50,000 scientists and 400 scientific research facilities, the city is small by Chinese standards. There are over 200 parks, many bridges and countless food vendors dotted through the bustling city. Nanjing has 14 municipal offices and 128 local legal aid offices.

The legal aid clinic is run by 50 staff and 2,600 volunteers who deal with up to 2,000 legal aid cases a year — mostly criminal matters, as well as family and migrant worker cases. The migrant workers, who arrive from other places in China without a relocation permit, often seek legal aid for injuries encountered on the job and lack of pay. Their eligibility level is about 400 yuan or $55 Canadian a month. The average income for a Beijing resident is 15,600 yuan or about $2,170 Canadian per year.

A police escort transported Gounden from the airport to a former military hotel, which has been converted into a convention centre, where the formalities and the work began in earnest. First there was the “meet and greet” between the Canadian and the Chinese delegations. This turned out to be an explosion of name card exchanges and introductions. Dinner came next and the inference that protocol demanded a lot of serious toasting. It turned out that Gounden had inadvertently challenged their politeness by making a toast (Gambai in Chinese), which prompted the Chinese delegation to demonstrate that they cannot be bested in any such contest.

“Tables were pushed together and everything became unbelievably jovial,” said Gounden. “Thank goodness it didn’t degenerate into karaoke.”

Case management system

At the Nanjing office Gounden discovered a case management system that was far more sophisticated than most systems here in Canada. As China attempts to join the developed countries, it is pouring significant dollars into the most highly advanced technology available and making that technology even better, Gounden notes. For example, instead of developing a land line system, China jumped right through to cellular.

The case management system uses Web 2.0 technology and has advanced it somewhat, allowing sharing and monitoring among all levels of legal aid institutions. Each staff member administers and monitors their cases, providing data analysis for human resources and standardizing business operations. The system also allows for real-time data reports and real-time file management with various levels of rights and restrictions for all 1,228 legal aid workstations.

The trip to Nanjing showed Gounden that it would make sense for China to adapt the existing case management system for use by the model legal aid clinics, and eventually throughout China. The key, he notes, will be to determine what is needed and what is not needed to implement the system elsewhere.

“Our goal is to guide China to develop the best system for the minimal amount of time and money,” says Gounden. “The best way to do that is to adopt and implement what’s already in place in the richer Nanjing area of China and bring this to the poorer provinces where the model legal aid clinics are up and running. This will be another important step in China’s journey to modernize their legal system, and bring legal aid across the country.”

The Canada-China Legal Aid and Community Legal Services Project will wrap up activities in July 2008 and officially close at the end of January 2009. Project leaders hope their work will strengthen China’s legal aid and community legal services system, enhance the capacity of the Ministry of Justice to govern in this area and enhance access to justice for China’s poor and disadvantaged people, including youth, people with disabilities, the elderly, minorities, migrant workers and women.