Law firms in China could face punishment if their members or staff take part in activities such as writing open letters or signing petitions under new ‘administrative measures for law firms’ which came into force last month.

The new rules are an example of a continuing clamp-down on lawyers whose cases have human rights implications condemned in a hard-hitting report by the body representing European bar associations. 

Reporting on the Situation of Lawyers in China, the Comité Consultatif des Barreaux Européens (CCBE) says that under the new measures, law firms must not permit ‘the manufacture of public opinion pressure to attack or disparage judicial authorities or the judicial system’ through ‘petition signature campaigns, online gatherings, support statements, discussions around specific cases and other tactics.’ 

The new measures also make the Chinese Communist Party’s presence and participation in law firms’ decision-making mandatory. ‘The introduction of in-house party control and surveillance of law firms and lawyers will increase pressure on lawyers’ ability to work independently,’ the report says. 

According to the report, more than 300 lawyers, law firm staff and human rights defenders have been detained or had their freedoms restricted over the past year. These include Zhou Shifeng, sentenced to seven years in prison for subversion of state power after a half-day trial. Of six other lawyers currently in detention, only one of whom has access to a (government appointed) lawyer. 

CCBE president Michel Benichou told the organisation’s conference earlier this month of the difficulties in putting professional pressure on the Chinese authorities. ‘We tried to discuss the situation with bar associations but professional institutions are weak. They would much prefer to look the other way,’ he said.