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Better Funding Rules Sought for Legal Aid
The Ministry of Justice has called for more effort to ensure legal aid reaches the people that need it most.

Minister of Justice Zhang Fusen said better definitions are needed to determine who is eligible for legal aid.

Developing specific criteria would help implement the Regulation on Legal Aid, Zhang said during a seminar in Beijing yesterday to mark the first anniversary of the enactment of the regulation.

Legal aid was first initiated by the ministry in 1994. It has provided counseling to more than 600,000 people and handled 810,000 cases to more than 130,000 people in a decade.

In 2003, nearly 170,000 cases received legal aid, a jump of 23 percent from 2002.

More than 190,000 people received counseling from it, an increase of 57 percent from the year before.

In the first half year of 2004, almost 74,000 cases received legal aid, a 6 per cent jump from the same period last year.

"However, the financial support for the legal aid is still inadequate, especially in western China and other less-developed areas," he said. Statistics suggest that in China, funding for legal aid is 0.06 yuan (US$0.7 cent) per capita, far less than the average of developing countries.

"It is the government's responsibility to finance legal aid," Zhang said.

"To solve the financial shortage, financial assistance from both the central and local governments is needed to guarantee the basic cost of legal aid in less-developed areas."

The lack of funding is not the only problem facing legal aid in the country.

As things stand right now, not everyone is eligible.

After a program was started to help migrant workers sue their employers for back payments, the Centre for Legal Aid in Beijing received more than 1,000 applications in the first half month, but only 3 per cent got help while most failed to meet the qualification.

"With the development of the economy and society, legal aid should be enjoyed by more people who can not afford the cost of a suit," said Zhang.

In another development, the role of lawyers offering aid is also on the spotlight.

"About 60 percent of the cases have been conducted by professional lawyers, but many of them are under financial pressure as they get small subsidies from the government," said Gao Zongze, chairman of the All-China Lawyers Association.

"This is one of biggest obstacles preventing lawyers from taking such cases," Gao said.

"Given a positive mechanism where their basic financial costs can be met, more lawyers would like to join in legal aid," said Li Dun, professor from Tsinghua University.

"So the related standards of subsidy for the lawyers must be set as soon as possible," the minister said.

Moreover, better coordination between different sections of the government, such as judicial bodies and executive sectors concerning civil affairs, trade and commerce, medication and labor security still need to further develop legal aid, he said.

"We will set an institution of co-ordination for the sectors and legal aid apartments to cut down on related costs. Thus we can really solve the economic problems that keep the impoverished away from court," Zhang said.

More than 2,800 government-funded institutions, societies in universities and non-government organizations both from home and abroad have lent a helping hand to improve legal aid in China.

(China Daily August 30, 2004)

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