BEIJING -- Lawmakers on Friday voted to adopt a legal aid law amid efforts to improve public legal services, better safeguard people's legitimate rights and interests, and maintain social fairness and justice.
The law was adopted after a third reading at the just-concluded session of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the national legislature. It will take effect on Jan. 1, 2022.
Observers said the legal aid system is the natural result of the development of China's legal culture, and that the legislation marks a critical step forward in advancing the rule of law in China.
As a component of the public legal system, legal aid services range from legal counseling to criminal defense.
The law authorizes legal aid institutions, established by the judicial administration departments of governments above the county level, to assign their own staff members who hold law or law-related qualifications to provide legal aid services.
Under the new legislative framework, such institutions can directly handle relevant cases, rather than the existing process of accepting and dealing with procedural items concerning legal aid.
"This is helpful for legal aid institutions to retain talent and improve their services," said Yang Hanqing, director of a Beijing-based law firm.
The law also specifies that law firms, grassroots legal services agencies, lawyers and primary-level legal service workers are all obligated to provide legal aid services in accordance with the law.
China has made notable progress in its public legal services. By the end of 2019, a total of 2,828 legal aid institutions had been established across the country. In 2020, these institutions resolved nearly 1.4 million cases and accepted more than 480,000 cases involving migrant workers.
The plan to build the rule of law in China (2020-2025), issued by the Communist Party of China Central Committee in January, set the goal that by 2022, a modern public legal services system would have largely taken shape to cover both urban and rural areas, providing convenient and efficient services to the equal and inclusive benefit of the people.
Yet problems persist in the accessibility of legal services in rural areas and the distribution of legal service resources in different regions.
The newly adopted law stipulates that a mechanism for the trans-regional flow of legal services resources will be established and improved, and lawyers and legal aid volunteers are encouraged to offer legal aid services in regions with insufficient legal resources.
It also pledges support for eligible individuals, such as those working in legal education and research as well as law students, to serve as legal aid volunteers.
Between 2016 and 2020, volunteers for an annual legal aid program consisting of lawyers, college students and primary-level legal professionals helped handle more than 28,000 legal aid cases, benefiting 7 million people in central and western China who lacked legal resources.
Legal aid calls for wide participation from social sectors. The law also lists labor unions, women's federations and disabled persons' federations as entities providing legal aid.
Observers said this is an effective step to mobilize people from all walks of life to participate in the undertaking and better meet the increasing demand for legal services.
Wang Junfeng, head of the All-China Lawyers Association, said the legal aid law will further improve the system safeguarding citizens' rights and interests, and suggested more efforts be made to standardize and regulate legal aid services in areas such as work duties and performance evaluations to promote the high-quality development of legal aid.