China’s legal aid system has been getting a bit of help from Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) and its community legal clinics. Through a special project funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), LAO and clinic staff have been working to help develop and improve legal aid for ethnic minorities, migrant workers, women and disabled people in rural China.
LAO was approached by the Canadian Bar Association to lend its experience and knowledge to the two-year project aimed at helping the world’s most populous country meet international standards on human rights and rule of law. The project, called “The Rule of Law: Legal Aid for Marginalized Groups in China”, started in 2011 and has brought Ontario legal aid representatives to China, and Chinese delegates to Ontario.
China’s legal aid system: A brief overview
China has a national legal aid system that was first developed on the mid-1990’s after a series of turbulent historical events. During the decade-long Cultural Revolution, all legal institutions were effectively closed and it was not until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 that the country’s legal system could start to rebuild.
The country established a central National Legal Aid Centre in Beijing, which governs Provincial Legal Aid Centres (PLACs) stationed in each province in China. Provincial Legal Aid Centres oversee Municipal Legal Aid Centres (MLACs) dispersed throughout the provinces. In total, there are currently over 3000 legal aid centres in China.
Legal aid services currently available to clients across the provinces can vary dramatically. There are no national standards for legal aid in China, and because legal aid services are influenced by local tax revenue, services in prosperous urban areas are often significantly more fulsome than services available in rural and remote areas.
Rural legal aid centres in China often face serious challenges with scarce resources, poorly trained staff, minimal technology infrastructure (no internet), and poor public transportation making it difficult for lawyers to see their clients. In rural parts of China there can be challenges in reaching women clients, due to a strong stigma around women taking part in public life or accessing public institutions. In China there are 200 million migrant workers and 100 million ethnic minorities, many of whom face violations of their legal rights and interests in the workplace as well as cultural and linguistic barriers in understanding and using formal legal systems to defend their rights.
Why is LAO helping China?
China is interested in learning selectively from the experiences and legal systems of other countries as part of a broader trend toward promoting rule of law. The nation has sought assistance from CIDA to address important issues relating to human rights, rule of law, working conditions, and environmental protection.
LAO has served as a model for other jurisdictions around the world and has worked previously on legal aid development projects in China, Bangladesh and Vietnam.
LAO was approached by the Canadian Bar Association, who is the partner agency, to participate in the 2-year project. The goal of the project, which started in 2011 and will last through 2013, is to empower local representatives and give them the tools and knowledge to develop and sustain and effective legal aid system in provinces across the country.
How does the program work?
All costs relating to the project are covered by CIDA, including travel and salary compensation. Designated LAO and clinic staff have met with Chinese representatives on several occasions to exchange knowledge, provide guidance and develop a strategic plan that Chinese legal aid representatives can carry forward after the project is complete.
In October 2011 and March 2013, LAO vice president, David McKillop, Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO) executive director, Julie Matthews and Grey-Bruce Community Legal Clinic executive director, David Balderson, traveled to China to meet Chinese legal aid representatives and visit the rural provinces participating in the pilot — Yunnan, Jilin and Liaoning — as well as China’s National Legal Aid Centre in Beijing
In June 2012 and April 2013, Chinese legal aid delegates traveled to Ontario to visit LAO’s provincial office, community legal clinics, duty counsel offices and northern communities to gain an understanding of how LAO operates across the province. During their April 2013 visit, they also visited British Columbia, in order to gain a broader understanding of legal aid service options in Canada.
The Rule of Law project is scheduled to run through December 2013, after which Chinese legal aid representatives can carry forward and disseminate the knowledge and training gained through the project. One area of focus for the remainder of the project is assessing how to make better use of technology to serve more clients.
More information on CIDA’s development work in China is available on the CIDA website.