* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
China's legal system has been steadily and continuously improving, particularly over the last decade. Legislation has become more extensive and more effective, and the legislative technology being used is more advanced. China has also witnessed key changes in terms of the judiciary. Judicial transparency has been enhanced and the judicial processes have become more and more efficient. From the point of legal education and training, China now has nearly 500 universities with a specialized law department or law school; a large number of legal professionals have been trained and are qualifying each year. However, we also see that we still lack grassroots legal professionals, and there is a particular lack in standards in terms of legal service personnel in western parts of the country. Vulnerable groups still cannot get the legal help they need. Article VIII of the "Regulations on Legal Aid" promulgated in 2003 regulates that "the State supports and encourages social organizations, institutions and other social organizations to use their own resources to provide legal aid for the citizens with economic difficulties", which affirms the function of society organizations in the process of legal aid.
Lawyers usually participate in volunteer legal services out of a spontaneous commitment to social care and social responsibility. Volunteer lawyers mainly rely on law firms and NGO organizations to provide legal services. Law firms generally provide a fixed amount of volunteer legal services on a regular basis; NGO organizations are usually small with small offices or even no offices at all, and the number of staff is usually few. The existing legal aid system leads to the establishment of legal aid centres of which 148 have provided legal services to people in need. In addition, the China Legal Foundation has also launched volunteer activities in the western parts of the country.
Although the volunteer legal services are clearly playing a role to support access to justice domestically, there are still many problems facing us. The main challenges are:
- the shortage of funds, which is the eternal problem of volunteer legal services and the real reason why NGO organizations haven’t developed much. Financial difficulties will restrict the launching and maturing of our civil legal aid activities in the long run;
- the shortage of talent. The bottleneck in the volunteer legal services is the lack of professional lawyers who have both a social outlook and relevant professional competence. At present, there are a number of universities who have set up law schools and legal departments, however, most students still lack the necessary skills, experience and practical training, and they are unable to adapt to the requirements of the legal profession.
Perhaps the clearest solution is to try to provide broad and deep volunteer legal services. Firstly, the volunteer legal services would benefit from more subjects with difficulties; secondly, the legal services provided would be able to effectively help those in need solve legal problems and safeguard their legitimate rights and interests.
AllBright Law Firm has always attached great importance to the work of volunteer legal services. Our firm has operated a legal aid group composed of young lawyers and senior partners since its foundation in 1999, providing on-site legal advice and court assistance for Pudong New Area Civic Center. Our firm regularly provides legal aid and legal services in the community; we have opened a special hotline and legal clinic to help vulnerable groups and poor people gain access to justice, and support public welfare. In addition, many lawyers in our firm participate in the volunteer legal aid services in their communities, and provide free legal advice to community members during rest days, which have received a great deal of praise from the community.