I was part of a delegation in Beijing that saw how legal aid is reaching clients with special needs.

I have just returned from Beijing where I visited a legal aid centre that provides face-to-face meetings, telephone advice and online services in Xicheng, a district of Beijing with a population of 1.5 million.

The centre employs its own lawyers, and can also call upon the 3,300 lawyers who work in the district, all of whom are professionally obliged to do one or two legal aid cases a year, and many of whom do much more, and are what we would recognise as specialists.

The staff were enthusiastic about what they could offer, and understandably proud of the facilities, but acknowledged that they still had a problem with raising awareness of their service.

I also went to a community centre for local people with mental and physical disabilities, which, as well as providing education, rehabilitation and social activities, has a legal aid office regularly staffed by volunteers to bring the service to people who find it difficult to travel far. At the centre I also observed a class being given by a lawyer from the ministry of justice for a group including users and staff of the centre on how to deal with everyday legal problems, such as neighbour disputes or consumer issues. It was a very impressive set up.

I made these visits with a group of foreign delegates in Beijing for a seminar, entitled ‘Ensuring access to justice for people with special needs’, by which our Chinese hosts meant women, children, older people, people with disabilities and migrant workers (most of whom are internal migrants who have come to the cities looking for work).

The British Council invited speakers from Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany and the UK to this joint event with Chinese legal aid lawyers, managers of legal aid centres and representatives of the department of legal aid, justice ministry. The seminar was part of a four-year China-EU Access to Justice programme, co-implemented by the British Council and the Legal Aid Centre of the Chinese ministry of justice.

The seminar was opened by Mr Han Xiutao, director general of the Legal Aid Centre of the ministry of justice, who set out the Ministry’s commitment to overcoming the barriers that make groups understood to have ‘special needs’ hard to reach. Speakers from China and abroad gave presentations on how they sought to overcome barriers to access.

I spoke about my experience as a mental health lawyer representing mentally disordered offenders, and of the importance of legal aid and specialist lawyers in advancing the development and enforcement of the rights of people with mental disorders and learning disabilities. This led to a fascinating exchange about the concept of mental capacity, as in China a detained patient is not thought to have capacity, so the idea of such an individual having the ability to seek to challenge their detention was a new one.

Meena Patel from Southall Black Sisters (SBS) spoke movingly about the damage done to the rights of the abused and vulnerable BAME women that SBS works with by the removal of so much family and immigration law from legal aid. I felt real shame, as a British citizen, to hear of the desperate straits these women and their children can be reduced to, as a result of not being able to assert their rights through lack of legal aid.

However, Meena ended by saying that the optimism of the Chinese speakers had provided her with new energy and determination to continue the fight for the restoration of legal aid and for her clients.

Eleanor Druker from the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) was the last UK speaker, and she valiantly defended the government’s priorities for legal aid, explained how the LAA has been trying to improve take up of the scheme for exceptional case funding, and how the telephone helpline assesses vulnerable people on eligibility and refers those that qualify to telephone advice from lawyers.

The seminar finished with a roundtable discussion of which strategies for reaching the most vulnerable or disadvantaged groups discussed during the presentations seemed to have the most potential for further development. A particular focus was on reaching those who, for a variety of reasons, were unlikely to come to legal aid centres on their own initiative.

In many ways the atmosphere at the conference was very familiar to me; articulate and passionate defence of the need for access to justice for all, including marginalised groups; enthusiasm for the value of legal aid in helping to achieve this; and honest recognition of the unmet need in our different societies.

What was unfamiliar to me, at least in recent years, was the sense of optimism shown by the Chinese speakers, including those from their MoJ. Legal aid was only introduced in China in 1996, so it is still in its fairly early stages, but the commitment has been to increase scope and eligibility year on year, and this is happening.

Also, the underlying philosophy for its availability is that it should help achieve social equity and justice and strengthen the rule of law. This was in stark contrast to the retreat of legal aid in the UK from a service that covered most areas of law to one that is restricted to limited areas and limited circumstances.

There will be work arising from the seminar, and a delegation from China will be visiting England later this year, so we will continue to have the opportunity to learn from each other.

Lucy Scott-Moncrieff is chair of the Law Society’s equality and diversity committee