Legislators have urged authorities to increase the salaries of legal aid lawyers to ensure that all criminal suspects can get access to a defense attorney.
The demand for legal services is steadily increasing in China, but not everyone has the resources to pay, according to Han Deyun, a Chongqing lawyer and deputy to the National People's Congress. [Special coverage]
The country has more than 300,000 lawyers, but he estimates about 75 percent are based in developed cities in eastern regions.
Courts nationwide concluded almost 20 million criminal and civil cases in 2016, according to figures from the Supreme People's Court. Yet Han said only 25 percent involved lawyers other than prosecutors.
"The unbalanced development can't ensure the quality of court hearings or satisfy people's demand for legal services," he said.
Lawyers need to earn money since they are market-oriented, not civil servants, he said, "and many who are willing to help poor clients often hesitate or give up on handling a case because of the costs".
Zhang Jun, then minister of justice, said on March 4 that the central authorities recognize the growing demand for legal services and vowed to provide timely, accurate and reasonably priced services.
He said work is underway to set up an online legal platform that will easily connect citizens with more than 1,000 legal professionals, including attorneys, judges and prosecutors. No time frame was given for its completion.
However, Han argued that even this would be insufficient. He suggested governments allocate more funds to ensure that criminal defendants have an attorney, and called for the expansion of a pilot program to improve legal aid.
In October, the Justice Ministry and the Supreme People's Court launched a program in Beijing and Shanghai, along with Zhejiang, Anhui, Henan, Guangdong, Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces, to increase the proportion of cases that involve defense lawyers, which they said is currently about 30 percent.
"The move should be pushed forward," Han said, adding that young lawyers should also be encouraged to take on criminal cases by providing them better protection in terms of income and personal rights.
Fang Yan, a lawyer from Shaanxi and an NPC deputy, agreed that attorneys should be better compensated for their time.
She said the Shaanxi government invites lawyers to provide free legal services to deputies and political advisers, helping them solve legal problems and explain laws when they conduct research for proposals or motions.
"In the long run, the government should pay these lawyers or give them subsidies," she said. "Otherwise, they will struggle to survive."