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Legal aid ensured for defendants

Guidance stipulates free representation in all cases to safeguard human rights

By CAO YIN | China Daily | Updated: 2024-01-09 10:21
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China has reiterated the significance of free legal aid, with clearer requirements for each department, so that the country can strongly protect human rights and better uphold justice.

The requirements have been recently written into work guidance by the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Justice that was made public on Monday.

Under the 30-article guidance, public security organs and prosecutors must inform suspects of their right to apply for legal aid at the beginning of their first interrogation, while courts need to ensure litigants are able to receive timely and effective legal aid during trials, regardless of their income or social status.

Police, prosecutors and judges are also required to offer duty lawyer legal services for suspects or defendants who do not have attorneys, as well as make it convenient for the service providers to meet litigants and read case-related materials, according to the guidance.

It clarifies that courts, procuratorates and public security organs should promptly inform legal aid agencies or providers of important information, such as changes to the date of case hearings or the location of detention centers.

Before the guidance was unveiled, Chinese judicial authorities had stepped up efforts in promoting legal aid, a system that provides free legal advice, representation and criminal defense services to economically disadvantaged litigants and other eligible parties.

Zhao Li, a lawyer who has provided legal aid for a number of suspects and defendants, including those accused of intentional homicide and drug trafficking, stressed the importance of legal aid, especially criminal defense services, noting "it's a manifestation of respect for human rights, as well as the need to safeguard justice".

"Justice is not just for the rich. It's for everyone. Without legal aid, some people in difficulty may face even greater difficulties, causing unfairness and injustice," he said.

He added that as the guidance streamlines the workflow for judicial authorities, it also better implements the Law on Legal Aid, which took effect on Jan 1, 2022, as well as supplements the Procedures for Handling Legal Aid Cases, revised by the Ministry of Justice last year.

Under the revised procedures, a criminal defense service is to be provided in all criminal cases, and for individuals who may be given life imprisonment, the death penalty or in death penalty review cases, legal aid agencies should assign lawyers with more than three years of criminal defense experience to act as counsel.

Zhao was once designated by the Supreme People's Court to provide legal aid to a defendant convicted in an intentional killing case from Hainan province. "The top court appointed me to defend him because he didn't seek a lawyer at the death penalty review stage," he explained.

"I went to the top court to read the case-related materials and met the defendant during the period," he recalled. "I also visited people close to him and exchanged my defense ideas with judges."

Xu Hao, another lawyer from the firm, said, "Legal aid can make these litigants stand in front of the law equally and enjoy equal legal protection."

Both the lawyers welcomed the guidance, but called for more experienced lawyers to offer duty lawyer services and suggested the country provide more funding for legal aid.

Official data released on Monday showed that workstations for providing duty lawyer services have been established in more than 2,300 detention centers nationwide, and over 90 percent of governments at county or above level have taken actions to ensure legal defense services are provided in all criminal cases.

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