An increasing number of foreigners are receiving legal aid, mostly for criminal cases, a senior official said.
There has been a 15 percent annual increase, since 2008, of foreigners availing of free legal aid, Sun Jianying, director of the legal aid department under the Ministry of Justice told China Daily in an exclusive interview.
Most of the cases involved violent crime, such as drug smuggling, rape and robbery, as well as financial crimes, like fraud, she said.
Recipients were mostly from African, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries, Sun said.
The exact number of foreigners who received free legal aid last year was not disclosed. However, taking Guangdong province, a key region in China's opening up, as an example, authorities there handled 808 legal aid cases involving foreigners since 2008. This represented an annual 21 percent increase, according to figures from the Guangdong justice department.
"With more foreigners staying in China, as well as closer relations between China and the world, the number of foreigners who receive free legal help will increase," Sun said.
More than 54 million foreigners arrived and departed from China in 2011, a figure that doubled over the decade.
The number of foreigners staying in China for more than six months hit 600,000 last year, up from about 20,000 in 1980. A foreign defendant in a criminal case, according to the law, can have a lawyer appointed by the court if they are unable to hire one.
Foreigners involved in civil cases can also receive legal aid if they are short of funds and their country has a judicial agreement with China.
The majority of legal aid services are offered to foreign defendants in criminal cases, Sun said.
One particular case serves as an example of how effective an appointed lawyer can be, even if the accused is found guilty.
A Nigerian male was arrested in Guangzhou in 2009 on suspicion of illegally possessing drugs. He was unable to hire a lawyer so the city's legal aid department appointed a lawyer to represent him.
When the case came to trial, in the city’s intermediate court, he initially received a 14-year sentence. However, his lawyer immediately lodged an appeal and the sentence was reduced to three years.
Li Xuelian, another official with the legal aid department at the Ministry of Justice, said that they have set up a database of 200,000 qualified volunteer lawyers who can offer free legal help. About a third of these lawyers can communicate in English, Li said.
For non-English speakers, legal aid authorities in a number of cities, such as Guangzhou and Nanjing, have agreements with translation companies, Li said. The costs are borne by the government, he said.
"This eliminates language barriers and foreigners can be informed of their legitimate rights and interests," she said.
Sun, from the ministry, acknowledged that there are many practical challenges to provide legal assistance to foreigners.
"Most of the foreign suspects don’t trust Chinese lawyers and won’t communicate with lawyers at the beginning," she said.
Moreover, legal aid authorities have difficulties in employing lawyers to defend suspects who don’t speak English.
The ministry plans to establish a talent pool of lawyers, and divide them into categories based on the languages they speak, Sun said.