China Justice News Update

Making the Case for Legal Representation in China

No. 54 - March, 2011:  Many lawyers and legal scholars in China today are trying out new ways to measure the value of legal representation. Recent revisions to the laws regulating the conduct of defense lawyers, new rules about the exclusion of illegally obtained evidence, fresh instructions about how to sentence convicted defendants, and a spate of well-publicized wrongful convictions for unrepresented defendants have made the public and government especially attentive to new ideas about the value and costs of legal representation. The possibility that additional changes to the Criminal Procedure Law will be adopted in the fall has intensified the discussion of the role of defense counsel in the press.

Chinese legal scholars and researchers face special obstacles in studying legal representation. In addition to challenges that would be recognized anywhere in the world – how to observe lawyers in action, how to gauge the satisfaction of clients and their families, how to discern their impact on the administration of justice and outcomes of trials – the delicate environment in which defense attorneys practice law impedes conventional measurement of their work and impact on justice. Since the adoption of revisions to the Law on Lawyers in 2008, dozens of lawyers have been charged with suborning perjury after their clients retracted confessions at trial or contradicted statements given during interrogations and preliminary investigations. The practice of law in these conditions requires courage. Assessments of its value involve ingenuity.

But lawyers and scholars in China are not just developing new methods of solving an old problem. They are raising fresh questions about the purposes of legal representation. Is the family as well as the defendant the “client” in criminal prosecutions? Is it ethical for attorneys to focus on mitigation of sentence when defendants improbably insist on vindication? If legal representation is a public good, should fees for privately retained attorneys be regulated, too? These and other controversial questions lurk behind often anodyne accounts in the media of the changing “rate” of legal representation in criminal proceedings, the proliferation of “difficulties” in defense work, and government regulation of legal practice. They also figure prominently in the unusually candid account of debates about the affordability of legal representation in China today, and the optimal design of a public defender scheme piloted in Shanghai, all highlighted in this issue of the China Justice News Update.

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China Justice News Update

As part of our work on criminal justice policy, the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ) produces an update on news and developments in Chinese justice.

The China Justice News Update covers Chinese language press reports on justice institutions such as the police, prosecution, courts, and prisons, important social issues such as juvenile offending and migration, and controversial legal topics such as plea bargaining and the death penalty. Each update focuses in depth on at least one issue and provides synopses of major articles on other topics.

Read the current issue:  March 2011