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Bar News - February 20, 2004

Equal Access to Justie is Focus of NH Attorney's China Visit


Stephanie Bray, an attorney with the Wiggin & Nourie law firm in Manchester, recently returned from a trip to China under the auspices of the ABA's Asia Law Institute and the National Legal Aid Center of China. She joined seven other attorneys, three from the United States and four from China, in the city of Xi'An, on a mission to teach Chinese lawyers about the American system of equal representation for all. The following is her account of her visit.

ACTUALLY, THIS was my second trip to China. Twenty years ago, I spent a summer teaching English in Guangdong Province. This time my trip was sponsored by the ABA's Asia Law Institute and the National Legal Aid Center of China and I traveled with a message that I am always eager to present: that the justice system we serve works only if we give access to the very poorest of those who need it.

NH Attorney Stephanie Bray in China

NH Attorney Stephanie Bray, on a recent trip to China, discussed with Chinese government officials and lawyers how legal services programs for the poor are funded in the U.S.

Why Legal Aid in China?

It may seem odd that a Communist country would be facing the issue of providing lawyers for poor people; in the early days of communism in China, the state was expected to supply all the needs of all the people. Lawyers, viewed as the profiteers of a reactionary capitalist legal system, were essentially banned from the late 1950s until the mid 1970s.

Starting in the late 1970s, China embarked on a series of economic reforms which encouraged a capitalist economy, while still maintaining Party control of government. More foreign investment in China meant more-as well as more complex-business transactions. People started needing lawyers. Ordinary people became increasingly aware of their legal rights.

In 1996, China's Ministry of Justice established the Legal Aid Center of the Ministry of Justice to promote and monitor legal aid offices nationwide. Also, in the mid 1990s, laws were enacted regarding counsel for indigent criminal defendants, and requiring private lawyers to undertake legal aid cases. I was surprised to learn that pro bono service is not only encouraged in China, it is mandatory: lawyers must demonstrate that they have taken two pro bono cases in the preceding year before they are allowed to renew their annual license to practice.

With a newly re-established legal profession and a government mandate to provide legal aid to the poor, Chinese lawyers and administrators are eager to observe how the system works in different countries.

Establishing a "pro bono ethic"

About 130 people attended the conference, including government employees, directors of legal aid offices, lawyers and law students. I talked about encouraging for-profit lawyers to take cases free of charge for indigent clients. This type of pro bono service is encouraged as part of the legal culture here in New Hampshire and across the U.S.

Lawyers who give freely and generously of their time will deliver better service than lawyers who do so simply because they're forced to. We discussed the importance of starting to encourage the pro bono ethic as early as law school, the significance of positive reinforcement from judges and leading lawyers in the community, and the use of pro bono work as a means of developing relationships with other lawyers. Thus we preserve the honor of our profession and remind ourselves that we are not (always) in it for the money.

I spoke about Legal Services Corporation, a quasi-governmental organization that directs congressional appropriations to, and monitors and evaluates, legal aid offices across the United States and touched upon the use of interest on lawyers' trust accounts (IOLTA) to fund legal aid projects.

Other presenters spoke about the public defender system, legal aid work by law school clinics, and legal efforts against domestic violence.

I was impressed by the number of sophisticated and probing questions we were asked on all of these topics. People tended to focus on the practical; several had questions about how lawyers are reimbursed for their out-of-pocket expenses in handling pro bono cases. I was told that many lawyers do not own automobiles, and therefore something as simple as getting to a client's home can be quite daunting.

What impressed me more than the perceptive and pragmatic questions, or the obstacles they had to face, was their overwhelming commitment to make life better for ordinary Chinese people.

Other Adventures

Travelers, especially travelers to China, must expect the unexpected. Fortunately, the news of one or two confirmed re-appearances of SARS in Southeastern China did not affect us at all. Unfortunately, my luggage seemed to stay one city behind me at all times. I was never quite reunited with it until back in Manchester. This misfortune did allow me, though, to pick up a couple of outfits at a street market while we were in Beijing for a few days before the start of the conference.

The conference itself was in the city of Xi'An, which is also famous for the thousands of terracotta warriors that were buried with a Chinese emperor over 2,000 years ago. Archaeologists have been excavating these statues since the late 1970s. We were able to visit the archaeological site; the sheer number of the terracotta figures is staggering-as is their incredibly lifelike detail.

After the conference concluded, one of the other presenters and I traveled to the seacoast city of Shanghai for a few days' sightseeing. An amazingly cosmopolitan city, Shanghai is a real showcase for a Chinese consumer lifestyle that is roaring back after decades of Communist anti-consumption attitudes. We saw beautiful and serene gardens, pandemonium in railway stations teeming with New Year's travelers, and street vendors who ranged from merely aggressive to absolutely in-your-face. And, this was all without the translators and handlers who had been with us through the duration of the conference. With my rusty Chinese, the willing cooperation of strangers who spoke some English, and a lot of hand gestures, we were able to get around to sight-see and to buy whatever we wanted.

A return to China after so many years was a dream come true. The opportunity to speak to generous and committed Chinese lawyers and government officials about making the justice system accessible to all was another dream come true. I have every hope of returning to China some day soon and seeing the fruits of their dedication and commitment.

Stephanie Bray last year received the Bar's L. Jonathan Ross Award for Outstanding Commitment to Legal Services for the Poor. She has been active as a volunteer and in leadership roles for New Hampshire's legal services organizations, including serving on the Bar's Delivery of Legal Services Committee since 1992, and on the boards of NH Legal Assistance and the Legal Advice & Referral Center.

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Unless otherwise indicated, opinions expressed in letters or commentaries published in Bar News are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the New Hampshire Bar Association Board of Governors, the Bar News Editorial Advisory Board or the Bar Association staff.



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