Residents attend a pilot legal lecture at a community center in Beijing's Haidian district on April 15. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)
Li Junying arrived at her residential community center in Beijing's Haidian district early on Tuesday morning to ensure she got a front-row seat at a lecture about the law relating to the allocation of family property.
"Explaining the law to people and helping to solve their community disputes gives me great opportunities to better understand their exact legal requirements and unearth new legal problems that urgently need to be studied."
Hao Nongrong, a lawyer at the Beijing Hongjian Renhe Law Firm
The 56-year-old retired civilian worker for the military occasionally took notes during the 40-minute lecture. Afterward, she asked the keynote speaker, Ren Xuguang, an attorney with the Loyalty and Talent Law Firm in Beijing, for more advice.
"My family bought two apartments in the city, and one is registered under my name," Li told China Daily. "I went to the lecture because I need to know how the property will be allocated under Chinese law if I have a dispute with my family, and what I should know about property inheritance in the future."
She said the lecture had provided many answers and given her a better understanding of the law.
Holding such lectures and inviting lawyers to help solve disputes within communities is a major part of a project launched in May by the district's justice bureau, the Haidian Lawyers Association and several law firms. It aims to provide residents with easier access to legal services without needing to consult law firms.
About 82,000 households in the district's 57 communities, including the one in which Li lives, were the first to enjoy the project's services, while 30 attorneys were named as counsels to resolve legal problems within the communities.
The project is now also being used to implement a guideline issued by the central leadership and the State Council, China's Cabinet, last week. The document ordered government departments at all levels to improve adherence to the rule of law and to help solve disputes more effectively by accelerating the construction of platforms and systems to provide legal services.
The goal is to offer quick, convenient legal services nationwide by 2022, and also to ensure that a "community counsel" can be provided for every community or village as soon as possible.
"In addition to community counsels, we also hope every family will be covered by an attorney who will help solve their disputes," said Zheng Jinpeng, head of the office of justice in Haidian's Beixiaguan subdistrict.
Hu Guang, a judge at Haidian District People's Court, welcomed the use of more judicial resources to solve problems, especially in light of a rise in the number of domestic disputes in recent years. However, he was concerned about the selection process for community counsels and suggested the government should stringently review their performances to ensure they provide high-quality services.
Local people and lawyers discuss the allocation of family property in a community in Beijing this month. (WANG ZHUANGFEI / CHINA DAILY)
After hearing Ren's interpretation of property allocation law, Li, the Haidian resident, contacted her local community committee, which had organized the lecture, to express her willingness to learn how to combat telecom fraud and how to solve disputes arising from online shopping.
"These things relate closely to my daily life. I must prevent them and protect my interests," she said.
Zhang Xiao, a college teacher who lives in the same community as Li, said it is essential for both older people and the younger generation to better understand the law and to gain legal tips that will help them avoid unnecessary disputes.
She attended the lecture on Tuesday because some members of her mother's family, such as her aunts and uncles, face a dispute related to real estate allocation.
"I wanted to learn more about the law and then better explain it to my relatives," the 40-year-old said. "Sometimes, we think we should be given legal support, but the law does not agree with that assumption. For example, when someone thinks he or she should inherit a large portion of real estate, but in reality he or she just gets a small part in accordance with the Inheritance Law, she added.
Both Li and Zhang said the lecture and Ren, the counsel, had provided access to legal professionals who could answer their questions.
"I hadn't spoken with a lawyer, and I didn't even know if I would be eligible for legal aid," Li said. "But now, if a matter is urgent, I can contact Ren quickly via her firm's hotline or its smartphone app. If the problem isn't urgent, I can contact the community committee and leave my problems with them, and wait for Ren's answers in her next lecture."
Under the project, attorneys named as counsels by a district's justice department must visit their assigned communities to give a free lecture and answer residents' queries at least once a month.
"These legal services can resolve domestic disputes, such as marital conflict, child custody and property inheritance, at the very start," said Zou Yamei, director of Li's community committee. "The earlier we get help from legal specialists, the better for the effective resolution of disputes."
Du Ying, Zou's colleague, attended Ren's lecture along with more than 50 residents. She also made notes as the lawyer analyzed various cases and explained a number of laws.
"Working as a community official means it is important for me to learn about the law," she said. "If residents argue and ask me to intervene, that knowledge will help me to avoid poor mediation and not mislead them."
Having been a community committee official for 10 years, Du has extensive experience of handling disputes. Despite that, "new government policies and updated laws mean I never stop learning", she said.
Zheng, from the Beixiaguan subdistrict justice department, agreed with Du, saying he regards the project as an opportunity for community officials to improve their ability to govern in accordance with the law.
Ren Xuguang (center), an attorney with the Loyalty and Talent Law Firm in Beijing, explains the law to local residents. (WANG ZHUANGFEI / CHINA DAILY)
He recalled a case several years ago in which a community committee was taken to court by a family after "a lack of familiarity with the law resulted in the committee providing an inaccurate custodianship document in a real estate allocation dispute".
"Now, community officials can ask the counsel's advice if they encounter issues they're not sure about. That should be encouraged and it will contribute to regulating their behavior in terms of governance," he said.
Hao Nongrong, a lawyer with the project who works for the Beijing Hongjian Renhe Law Firm, said she has benefited from providing lectures and answering residents' questions.
"Explaining the law to people and helping to solve their community disputes gives me great opportunities to better understand their exact legal requirements and unearth new legal problems that urgently need to be studied," she said.
"The exchange of that sort of information is more important than how much money I can earn by offering legal services."
Ren said: "Some disputes in communities can appear trivial, when in reality they are complicated. My professional qualifications will be improved if I can solve those problems more effectively."
To ensure more disputes can be resolved quickly, the firm has opened a phone hotline that can handle more than 40 calls a day. It follows on from a smartphone app that began operating earlier this year, which was designed by the firm to help residents find and appoint lawyers.
"The app and hotline aim to make it more convenient for people to access our legal services, and also allow us to identify new problems in legal practice," Ren said.
Concerns and Challenges
Zheng said that although a number of lawyers have shown a willingness to become community counsels and provide free legal services, "setting up a fund to support their efforts will be crucial to making the project sustainable".
Hu, the judge from Haidian District People's Court, said more research will be required to decide which lawyers should be selected to act as counsels, and the selection procedure will need to be refined.
Seniors in a community in Beijing attend a lecture in May about the law related to making a will. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)
At present there are no clear rules about who should play a role in the selection procedure, so Zheng's department and Ren's firm jointly assess the qualifications of attorneys involved in the project.
"That may affect the quality of legal services being offered and may not be entirely effective in resolving people's disputes," Hu said.
Guo Wencheng, Hu's colleague, suggested a third party should supervise the attorneys' work.
"Appointing community counsels or family attorneys is a good move toward building the rule of law, but it will be essential to strictly evaluate them and review their work," she said.
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