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China urged to overturn restrictions on lawyers

[JURIST] Human Rights Watch [advocacy website] urged China Monday to "repeal restrictions on lawyers handling collective disputes and representing protesters." In a new report [text; press release], HRW slammed rules adopted by the government-controlled All China Lawyers Association [group website, in Chinese; English backgrounder] in March, which place restrictions on lawyers representing plaintiffs in cases brought by 10 or more people. The Guiding Opinions on Lawyers Handling Mass Cases [text] require lawyers to "accept guidance" from the government. HRW said: "The new restrictions signal an end to a potentially promising era of legal reform and may even exacerbate widespread social unrest as citizens are denied meaningful legal avenues to solve disputes often caused by local officials’ abuses of power."

According to the report's summary [text]:

An independent legal profession is critical to the ability of ordinary people to exercise their fundamental rights—such as freedom of expression, association, assembly, and petition—under Chinese law, the Chinese constitution, and international law. Constraining the ability of lawyers to litigate on their behalf is tantamount to constraining those rights. Even though many of the provisions of the Guiding Opinions are aimed at the "rights protection lawyers," in reality they fundamentally harm the entire profession by limiting its independence and legitimizing the interference of local governments in professional processes. Even less politically sensitive initiatives that have been endorsed by the government, such as public interest litigation in consumer rights and environmental protection areas, could find themselves in jeopardy under the new Guiding Opinions.

Along with recent attacks on and the detention or arrest of prominent lawyers, and in a context where the government views the activism of lawyers as glimmerings of a legal opposition, the promulgation of the Guiding Opinions may presage even more restrictions on the activities of lawyers. The Chinese government should be aware that restricting access to legal avenues for solving disputes may deepen the sense of futility of the public in the legal system. Perversely, these restrictions may actually lead to more protests, further fuelling unrest across the country. Putting a lid on the activities of lawyers may remove a vital pressure release valve for the one-party system.

Human Rights Watch urges the ACLA and the Chinese government to repeal the Guiding Opinions and its local variants. It is not the role of lawyers to protect social and political stability. Their duty is to represent their clients in an ethical and professional manner. Instead of enacting regressive regulations, the government should enact statutes that guarantee full independence of the Chinese Bar as a preliminary step to providing effective protection to lawyers discharging their duty as required by international standards on lawyers and the judiciary.
AP has more.

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