May 01, 2013

Criminal Defenders Focus on Serving Migrant Populations

May 2013

In December 2012, the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) and the Beijing Zhicheng Migrant Workers’ Legal Aid and Research Center convened a training for about 50 lawyers on representing migrant workers in criminal cases. Held in Beijing, the training also discussed related ethical issues.

While China’s 250 million migrant workers are a driving force behind the country’s prospering economy, they are susceptible to crime due to harsh living conditions, limited infrastructure and poor protections. In some locales, more than half of all crimes are committed by or against migrant workers. In addition, the high cost of legal services and the low status of migrant workers in Chinese society make the vast majority of migrant-worker criminal defendants especially vulnerable. The training helps to mitigate this problem by promoting legal aid and by fostering communities of criminal defenders devoted to helping migrant populations. Expert-led sessions allowed participants to hone their criminal defense skills and to learn about the experiences of full-time criminal defense lawyers.

A professor from South Central Minority University Law School, who is a criminal law expert and director of a nonprofit online platform for lawyers, facilitated a discussion on defense strategies and the newly amended Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), which took effect in January. He noted that the new law allows criminal suspects to consult a lawyer during the interrogation phase instead of waiting until after the case is filed. He said that, under this law, defense attorneys face new opportunities and challenges as they are now able to participate more actively at every stage of criminal proceedings—from the start of a criminal investigation through sentencing.

A former district court judge who is both a practicing defense lawyer and the director of a Beijing law firm also presented at the training, focusing on investigations and fact finding. She emphasized the need to understand the legal basis underlying a case and to clarify the facts. She also shared her methodology of making fact charts, checking the evidence catalogue and the name list of witnesses, and conducting an investigative reenactment.

Assessing the state of the criminal legal aid system in China, a professor from the Chinese University of Political Science and Law and an expert on defense lawyers’ rights, said that while further improvements are necessary, the recent amendments to the CPL will have a significant positive impact. To capitalize on the improvements, he suggested that the majority of legal aid financial appropriation be allocated to specific cases instead of to administrative expenditures and that pro bono lawyers receive more training. He also said that it was worth exploring a feasible incentive system to encourage more attorneys to engage in legal aid.

Training participants said that the event helped them acquire skills that they can employ to serve clients better. A lawyer from Shangdong, who over the past three years has seen an increasing number of indigent clients apply for criminal legal aid, said that he was unable to advocate effectively for his clients as he mostly relied on asking the court for leniency, with little success in persuading judges. He said that the skills and strategy he has learned from the training would come in handy in his future practice. Another participant from Jiangxi said that the event allowed her to connect with public interest lawyers from other regions, which will help her refer defendants from outside of Jiangxi to someone who can help.

To learn more about our work in China, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at