Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Despite Legal Reform, SPC Still Blocks Lawyer-Client Access

Defense lawyer Zhang Kai holds a sign outside Zhejiang's Pingyang County Detention Center requesting that he be able to meet with his client in October 2014. Image credit: Weibo

Improving criminal defense lawyers’ access to clients was hailed as one of the highlights of the revised Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) that came into force in 2013. Incorporating provisions of the 2007 Lawyers Law that had yet to be universally respected, the new CPL requires detention centers to arrange for access within 48 hours of request by a lawyer upon presentation of his or her license to practice, the certificate of his or her law firm, and power-of-attorney documentation. The only exceptions are cases involving state security, terrorism, or “particularly serious” bribery, for which police investigators can require that a lawyer seek their approval before a meeting can be arranged.

Although these new provisions have not been implemented perfectly, defense lawyers generally acknowledge that access to suspects has improved in most routine criminal cases. But what recourse is there when these provisions are not strictly enforced?


On July 15, 2014, long-time petitioners Zhang Xiaoyu and husband Xu Youchen were formally “reprimanded” (xunjie) by Beijing police for disturbing public order. Two days later, officials from their hometown of Jiaozuo, Henan, accompanied them back home. Upon arrival, Zhang and Xu reportedly resisted attempts to hand them over to local police officers. Xu allegedly attacked a police officer with a small knife, causing a fatal wound. Xu and Zhang were then placed under criminal detention on suspicion of intentional homicide.

Lawyers for the couple attempted over a period of several days to meet with the detainees, but their multiple requests were refused by the Jiaozuo Detention Center. Finally, on July 25, lawyers got their first opportunity to meet with Zhang and Xu, who each spoke of being beaten by police. The lawyers took photographs of the couple’s bruised and swollen faces and uploaded these to the Internet.

The next day, detention center officials refused to provide the lawyers with any additional access to Xu and Zhang, saying that the lawyers had violated the rules by releasing photos of the detainees. The officials informed the lawyers that a complaint had been filed with judicial administration authorities in Shandong and that the detention center would not agree to any more visits, pending a decision on sanctions.

Over subsequent weeks, lawyers for the couple complained repeatedly to local and provincial authorities and attempted to get the official lawyers’ association to intervene on their behalf. When none of these efforts were successful, two of the lawyers—Liu Jinbin and Liu Shuqing—decided to sue the detention center in court.

Administrative Action or Judicial Process

Citizens or other parties who wish to challenge the legality of official government actions can do so under the Administrative Litigation Law (ALL). The challenge must involve a concrete administrative action directed against specific individuals or entities, rather than decisions with general applicability. The ALL also explicitly excludes certain areas from challenge, including national defense and foreign affairs, administrative rules and regulations, administrative decisions of an internal nature, and administrative acts that are deemed by the law to be within a particular state organ’s final authority.

Under the law, administrative actions are generally distinguished from actions related to judicial process. In theory, disputes that private parties may have with public authorities in the course of the judicial process should be dealt with as part of the judicial process itself. For example, unlawful coercion of confessions by investigators can be addressed through a request to have a court rule on exclusion of that confession from evidence. In China, however, many aspects of judicial authority are invested in the procuratorate, rather than the court. For example, procuratorates make decisions about whether suspects may be held under formal arrest pending trial and are generally responsible for ensuring that various parts of the criminal process are lawful.

China’s public security organs carry out a variety of functions, some of which fall under the category of administrative acts and some of which can be classified as being part of the judicial process. Punishments for public order offenses (such as short-term jailings, property confiscation, or fines) are unquestionably administrative actions and are, therefore, subject to challenge under the ALL. On the other hand, imposition of coercive measures and actions related to criminal investigation are considered to be actions related to the judicial process that are excluded from the purview of the ALL.

Legal Argument

In the nearly identical lawsuits that plaintiffs Liu Jinbin and Liu Shuqing brought before the Shanyang District People’s Court in November 2014, the main issue of dispute was whether arrangement of meetings between lawyer and detainee by a detention center should be considered an administrative action or part of the judicial process. The opportunity to argue this point at trial was itself a rarity, as courts throughout the country had basically refused to hear such cases for almost 15 years.

That hadn’t always been the case. In 1999, a Hunan lawyer named Liao Jianhua successfully sued the Loudi Public Security Bureau for refusing to allow him to meet with a detained suspect. According to Professor Chen Ruihua, there were a few other cases around that time where courts similarly granted relief to lawyers. But that effectively ended in March 2000, when the Supreme People’s Court issued an interpretation of the ALL that explicitly excluded from the purview of administrative litigation all “actions that the Criminal Procedure Law specifically empowers (shouquan) public security, state security [and other] organs to carry out.” With this provision, the SPC eliminated the courts as an avenue for lawyers to challenge decisions over access to detainees, which helped contribute to making the securing of such access one of the “three difficulties” often complained about by Chinese lawyers.

The lawyers argued that the Criminal Procedure Law only empowers the police to detain people and carry out investigations. Although the Detention Center Regulations issued by the State Council in 1990 gave responsibility over management of detention centers to public security organs and stated their purpose as “guarantee[ing] the smooth progress of the criminal process,” that role as custodian over detainees was merely a managerial function indirectly part of the criminal process. Under the law, the process of arranging meetings between lawyers and detainees was, at least in the case at hand, supposed to be a relatively simple matter of ensuring that the lawyer’s paperwork was in order and did not leave any room for discretion. Despite being set out in the CPL, this amounted to a routine approval process indistinguishable in form from other administrative actions and should, therefore, be subject to challenge under the ALL.

The court of first instance rejected this argument, finding that decisions over lawyers’ access were acts “empowered” by the CPL and, therefore, outside the purview of the ALL. In an appeal to the Jiaozuo Intermediate People’s Court in February 2015, Liu Jinbin argued that the district court’s conclusion was based on a flawed understanding of the word “empowered” (shouquan). He argued that arranging lawyers’ access to detainees was a responsibility, rather than a right, and could not therefore be the object of the word “empower.” Public security organs were only empowered by the CPL to detain and investigate suspects; if anything, it was lawyers who were empowered by the law with the right to access detainees.

The Jiaozuo Intermediate People’s Court essentially ignored this argument by noting that laws endow state organs with both powers and responsibilities. Arranging access between lawyers and detainees was a “clearly stipulated responsibility” under the CPL, it found, and if a lawyer believed that the exercise of his or her rights in this regard were being “hindered” (zu’ai), then the proper channel for seeking remedy was through complaint to the procuratorate. Since the matter was outside the scope of the ALL, the matter was dismissed.

SPC Interpretation Remains Supreme

Given that guaranteeing suspects’ access to legal assistance from the point of initial detention is an essential part of safeguarding their human rights and preventing torture and other miscarriages of justice, any violations of lawyers’ rights in the criminal process ought to be met with swift and strong consequences in order to ensure compliance. In the current legal environment, however, a lawyer’s only option is to seek intervention by the procuratorate. Notwithstanding that the Supreme People’s Procuratorate recently issued a set of regulations aimed at protecting the rights of lawyers, what happens if the procuratorate refuses or is slow to intervene? Or what if a procuratorate order goes unheeded?

These scenarios suggest that some form of judicial remedy could be helpful in vindicating lawyers’ rights to meet with detainees. There are, however, few signs that the door to administrative litigation will open anytime soon. A revised version of the ALL took effect on May 1, and even though legislators still have not explicitly excluded acts connected to the criminal process from the scope of administrative litigation, officials at the SPC have made clear that the relevant provision of its previous interpretation remains binding.

One possible solution would be pending legislation regarding detention center management. Were management of detention centers to be shifted toward the judicial administration authorities that also manage China’s prisons, it would potentially result in a much clearer separation between the administrative management of detainees and the investigative powers associated with the criminal justice process itself. However, even though there has been a great deal of support among legal experts for making such institutional reform part of a proposed Detention Center Law, current indications are that public security authorities will retain power over detention facilities for the time being. This means that, barring change to the SPC interpretation, the boundaries between criminal investigation and detainee management will remain blurred.