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Draft legislation looks to bolster legal aid system

Not all lawyers would be able to defend people who could face the death penalty under a draft law reviewed last week that would establish a "threshold" for defense attorneys in order to better protect defendants' legitimate rights and improve the quality of legal aid.

Courts, procuratorates and public security departments would be required to tell legal aid agencies that they should designate lawyers with more than three years' relevant practice experience to help represent defendants who could be sentenced to death or life imprisonment and who do not seek attorneys.

As the toughest punishment, the death penalty is irreversible, so it must be carried out prudently, and the quality of defense also needs to be highly guaranteed … It's not appropriate to name a fledgling lawyer to defend someone who may face death, in the same way that it's not proper to ask an intern doctor to operate on a cancer patient.

Xu Hao, criminal lawyer at Beijing Jingsh Law Firm

The draft law on legal aid was submitted for a second review to last week's session of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, which concluded on Thursday.

Legal aid, including counseling and criminal defense, is a service rendered free of charge by the country to people in financial difficulty or some other situations that meet the statutory requirements. The purpose is to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of litigants, promote the accuracy of the application of the law and uphold justice.

According to the Criminal Procedure Law, if defendants who could face a death or life sentence do not find attorneys, then courts, procuratorates and public security departments have to ask legal aid agencies to designate lawyers.

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"But who could be designated as a lawyer for such a group of defendants, or whether there should be a threshold or standard for such lawyers had not been clarified until the draft was released," said Xu Hao, a criminal lawyer at Beijing Jingsh Law Firm.

Xu said he was glad to see that the draft clarifies the threshold for the first time, adding that this is significant and will contribute to improving the quality of legal aid.

In his view, the three-year experience rule is essential, "because not every lawyer has the ability to defend people who may be given capital punishment".

"As the toughest punishment, the death penalty is irreversible, so it must be carried out prudently, and the quality of defense also needs to be highly guaranteed," he said.

"It's not appropriate to name a fledgling lawyer to defend someone who may face death, in the same way that it's not proper to ask an intern doctor to operate on a cancer patient."

Similar thresholds have been introduced in some other countries. In the United States, for example, lawyers must have years of experience and also meet a caseload requirement if they want to defend those who could face the death sentence, he said.

In addition, the draft requires judicial administrations to establish systems to receive public complaints, with strengthened supervision and management of legal aid and services.

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It also demands that judicial administrations formulate aid and service quality standards as well as ask third-party institutions to evaluate them.