The risks of practising as a lawyer in the world's most populous country have been highlighted today in a global demonstration of support for endangered lawyers. China is this year's focus of the Day of the Endangered Lawyer, a Netherlands-based initiative which each year on 24 January calls attention to the cases of lawyers under threat.
The Law Society of England and Wales is among bar associations supporting the initiative. 'Today is a chance to reflect on the importance of the rule of law and the independence of the legal profession – essential foundations for political, social and economic stability,' said Society president Robert Bourns. 'Lawyers must be allowed to carry out their professional duties without interference and should never be identified with their clients or clients’ causes.'
This year's statement on endangered lawyers notes that, in the absence of an independent judicial system, China's 300,000 lawyers are subject to close monitoring by the authorities in their work. 'Rights lawyers who insist in taking up cases with human rights implications, in procedural justice and refuse to succumb to the government’s intervention in their case-handling are prone to even greater risk of harassment and suppression.'
Recent legislation, the PRC Lawyers Act (2012) stipulates that lawyers, law firms and lawyers associations shall be under the supervision and guidance of the executive branch of the judiciary. Meanwhile, newly revised regulations issued by the Ministry of Justice require law firms to make 'supporting the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and socialist rule of law' the basic requirement for their business.
In order to stay in their practice, lawyers have to submit their lawyer’s licence to the executive branch of the judiciary, for annual inspection. 'They will be scrutinised for the cases they handled, especially the so-called “politically sensitive” ones, which are often with human rights and/or rule of law implications.'
Lawyers in China are also threatened by extra-legal interventions by the authorities. 'Situations of this kind may result in lawyers being criminally detained or subjected to violence if they insist that their procedural rights or due process be observed. Other measures against rights lawyers include forcing them and their family to constantly move home and/or forbidding them from travelling outside the country.'
The statement notes that several lawyers are serving prison sentences or are otherwise detained following the mass arrests known as the '709 Crackdown' in 2015.
China is a signatory of the Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers adopted by the 1990 UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders in Havana, Cuba.