New rules introduced by China’s legal authority will give lawyers more secure access to convicts — though experts say it marks only a small step toward protecting prisoners’ rights.
On Monday, the Ministry of Justice published a notice on lawyers’ meetings with prisoners. The provision, in effect since late November, requires prisons to ensure that lawyers can have convenient, timely, and private meetings with convicts who are being investigated or tried for new crimes, without police presence or monitoring.
Jeremy Daum, the founder of China Law Translate and a senior research fellow at Yale University’s Paul Tsai China Center in Beijing, told Sixth Tone that the new document is less about granting new rights than about insisting that rights granted in the past are fully guaranteed.
“Meaningful access to competent attorneys is always critical for exercising legal rights, and that access needs to be ensured, even where clients are imprisoned,” Daum said. “Any attempt to remove barriers to effective representation is a welcome reform.” However, he noted some shortcomings in the new provision — for example, that the guarantee of privacy in meetings will not cover lawyers working on criminal appeals.
Shi Jie, a lawyer from Sichuan Dingli Law Firm in southwestern China, applauded the provision as a deeply significant move for protecting prisoners’ rights.
Troubled by the laborious process involved in setting up meetings with prisoners and the frequent interruptions from police officers present during such meetings when they did happen, Shi had proposed improving regulations on meetings between lawyers and convicts during this year’s “Two Sessions” — the annual meeting of the nation’s top legislative and advisory bodies held in Beijing in March.
With greater access to prisoners, Shi told Sixth Tone, “the lawyer will have more thorough knowledge of a case … which will help correct wrongful convictions.”
In 2016, Nie Shubin, a man from northern China’s Hebei province, was exonerated 21 years after his execution on rape and murder convictions. In more than two decades of appeals, Nie’s attorneys had reported encountering many obstacles: The local legal authority declined their requests to meet with another prisoner, who turned out to have committed the murder for which Nie was sentenced to death. The latest provision ensures lawyers’ rights to meet with other prisoners to collect evidence.
The new provision is one of many recent reforms aimed at ensuring access to attorneys, particularly in the criminal system. In October, China announced a pilot project to make defense lawyers mandatory in all criminal cases.
The Ministry of Justice affirmed in a press release on Monday that the new provision for meetings comes in the wake of revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law and the Law on Lawyers.
Beijing-based lawyer Wang Fu told Sixth Tone that although the Criminal Procedure Law protected convicts’ rights to meet with defense lawyers, there were still problems in practice. For example, the law made exceptions — for cases involving national security, terrorist activities, or serious bribery — that Wang says were frequently abused.
Wang himself says he has had prison authorities decline his meeting requests with vague excuses, such as: “The convict is a key convict.”
Editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: A lawyer visits his client at a detention center in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Dec. 3, 2009. Huo Jianbin/VCG)