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Vulnerable groups to get free legal aid

Zhang Yan
Updated: Jul 3,2015 8:45 AM     China Daily

Court staff workers hear a civil case on a pasture in the Urad Middle Banner in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region in December.[Photos/Xinhua]

Scope of services expanded to ensure fairness for those who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.

China will expand the scope of legal aid in a bid to protect the rights of vulnerable groups, a senior official at the Ministry of Justice said on July 2.

A notice issued by the ministry said legal aid services will be extended to migrant workers, the elderly, women, minors and the disabled to ensure justice and social fairness.

“Apart from the vulnerable groups, free legal aid will be extended to those involved in civil disputes and criminal cases involving people’s livelihoods, such as marriage and family, food safety, education and healthcare,” Vice-Minister Zhao Dacheng said at a news briefing on July 2.

In addition, people with very low incomes will be eligible for free legal aid, he said.

According to Sun Jianying, director of the ministry’s legal aid department, China is transforming its political and economic growth model, which inevitably stirs up various kinds of social conflicts, putting the interests of vulnerable group at risk.

Ministry figures show that, since 2003, national legal aid departments concluded 7.5 million cases and offered aid to about 9 million people. Last year, legal funding reached 1.7 billion yuan ($274 million), an increase of 4.8 percent, the ministry said.

Currently, 3,700 legal aid centers have been set up across the country, with 14,000 lawyers offering free legal services such as consultation, representation in criminal cases or mediating civil disputes, it said.

More than 70 percent of disputes were civil, with most related to payment and employment, marriage, domestic affairs and traffic accidents. Others involved criminal and administrative litigation.

“Ninety percent of the defense opinions issued by the lawyers have been adopted by the judicial authorities,” Zhao said.

The expanded legal aid was approved at a key meeting hosted by President Xi Jinping as an important livelihood project.

“The purpose of improving legal aid is to expand the scope of free aid services and improve its quality so that eligible people will have equal access to justice,” a statement from the meeting said.

In China, many victims are poor and can’t afford to hire a lawyer for a lawsuit or ask for legal consulting. But if small disputes can’t be solved in a timely manner, they will probably lead to big social conflicts or mass incidents, Sun said.

Zhao said that once a criminal suspect is detained by the police, lawyers can meet with the individual immediately at the detention house to provide legal assistance.

Before, when a criminal suspect was detained, lawyers had no means to make contact within 48 hours, and the police would not tell the lawyers about the progress of the investigation, which seriously undermines a suspect’s legal rights, Zhao said.

“After suspects are captured, lawyers will provide them free legal aid services during the whole judicial procedure, including in police interrogations, prosecution and court sentencing, to protect their human rights,” he said.