Chen Man stands with his lawyer, Wang Wanqiong, following the quashing of his conviction for murder in February last year. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
A lack of defense lawyers means many people are appearing in court without adequate legal representation.
Lawyers and legal experts are calling on the government to expand the provision of legal aid to a larger number of defendants and provide better funding to encourage more lawyers to accept criminal defense cases.
The ongoing efforts to improve the rule of law have resulted in a number of wrongful convictions being overturned, including that of Chen Man, who was sentenced to 23 years for murder. In February last year, the appeals court ruled that the evidence brought against Chen was circumstantial and that his involvement in the murder could not be proved beyond doubt.
The quashing of Chen's conviction was a boost for his lawyer, Wang Wanqiong. "My job is to play a bigger role in upholding justice," she said.
Following Chen's release, Wang's phone rang continually as people called in the hope of obtaining legal advice or persuading her to defend them in court.
"I could feel the trust the defendants and the judicial officers placed in me, which gave me a real sense of achievement," she said.
On the downside, there is still a long way to go before all defendants have adequate legal representation in China's courts: "As an index of the rule of law and a safeguard against flawed convictions, the number of cases in which defendants have access to defense lawyers hasn't risen significantly, despite people paying more attention to criminal cases," she said.
Zhang Qingsong, from the Shangquan Law Firm in Beijing, said there are no official national statistics, but some lawyers and justice bureaus estimate the number of cases in which defense lawyers are active is about 20 percent, which means a large number of people are being tried without being represented by a defense lawyer.
The problem arises from the wide disparity between the number of criminal cases and the number of lawyers, the fact that many defendants lack the financial means to hire a lawyer and that the legal aid provided to defendants is insufficient, he added.
A report published by the Supreme People's Court, the nation's top legal chamber, shows that the courts heard more than 1.10 million criminal cases in 2015. However, according to the All-China Lawyers Association, the number of lawyers available was just 297,000, and only about 10 percent of them were qualified to handle criminal cases.
Very few lawyers are willing to work in criminal defense, Zhang said.
"Sometimes, the rights of criminal lawyers cannot be protected to the same extent as those who tackle civil or commercial cases, and their safety may even be at risk," he added.
The problem has been exacerbated by the poor rates of pay offered to defense lawyers, and neither the defendants nor the government are willing to pay more for their services.
Under Chinese law, defendants who lack the means to hire an attorney can be offered the services of a designated lawyer. "However, legal aid doesn't cover all applicants," said Ji Xiangde, a researcher with the institute of law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Given the difficulty of raising the number of criminal lawyers and the quality of the services they provide, the government should move to ensure that legal aid covers a larger number of defendants and provide more subsidies for designated attorneys, he added.