Citizen lawyer

The city's masses in eastern China turn to an unusual legal advocate to settle their cases.

Last updated: 09 Jul 2014 10:01
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The number of lawyers in China has risen from a few thousand to 230,000 in the past 30 years.

However, in many places, licensed lawyers remain scarce. As a result, unofficial "citizen representatives", with little or no legal training, often fill the gap.

One of these is Bian Guanghua. In the city of Zibo, in the eastern province of Shandong, Bian takes cases that many official lawyers won’t or can’t take.

His unorthodox tactics don’t always please his clients, but Bian feels his "special skills" are often required to settle intractable legal disputes.

"I believe I have the ideas and techniques to 'move a thousand pounds with four onces'", Guanghua says of his life-long work.

"By using a very small force to move something very big, you can help someone seek justice".

Filmmaker's view

By Steve Nettleton

China’s legal system is a poorly understood, unexplored wilderness to outside media. Court proceedings are usually closed to the public -- sometimes also closed to the defendants and his/her attorneys. Courtroom dramas, which proliferate many western countries’ television signals, have no Chinese iterations. With the exception of the recent sensational trials of former Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai, few legal cases capture national media attention.

People in China traditionally settled civil disputes through mediation, either by village leaders or clan elders. Even as China has steadily strengthened its formal legal framework over the past few decades, this informal system has remained in place.

The numbers of licensed lawyers have soared in the last 30 years, but so have the ranks of a new class of legal advocates; the "citizen representative." Under Chinese law, people may appoint ordinary citizens with little or no legal training to represent them in civil cases. Officially, these so-called citizen representatives may not charge a fee. But in practice, many seek compensation either through cash or alternative forms of payment.

News coverage of these representatives has typically focused on so-called "barefoot lawyers," such as Chen Guangcheng. Chen, a self-taught legal activist, worked to expose abuses by local officials in his native eastern Shandong province, including land seizures and harsh enforcement of family-planning policies. He and his family were held for years under house arrest after he filed a class-action suit accusing officials of ordering forced abortions and sterilisations in the name of the One Child Policy. He escaped his captivity in 2012, and made his way to the United States.

Bian Guanghua, a fellow citizen representative from Shandong, focuses less on sensitive cases and more on the seemingly mundane; property disputes, injury claims and traffic altercations. Yet he’s convinced he is doing his community a better service than "barefoot lawyers" like Chen, who are sooner or later sidelined by authorities. Bian puts into motion unorthodox and sometimes morally questionable methods to win his clients a settlement. As a result, he’s earned a reputation as a go-to lawyer in his hometown of Zibo.

Many of Bian’s cases are bewildering: A man who claimed he was kidnapped by his wife’s family and forced to sign a confession of adultery so the wife’s family could seize his house; a wrongful death suit against a school after a student died immediately after being tickled by other students; a man seeking damages against his daughter-in-law’s family after an argument came to blows.

Seen together, these cases build a mosaic of Chinese society as a whole, a society under enormous stress as China rapidly transforms itself from an agrarian nation into a major power.

Bian was not an easy character to film. He’s often headstrong, combative and extremely sensitive to the nuances of how he’s portrayed. His demeanor varied from warm and open to overtly hostile. I found my personal view of him sliding from admiration to contempt and back again. It is his complexity that makes Bian such an engaging character and perhaps a perfect representative of China’s "laobaixing" -  the masses in countless cities across the provinces relying on a web of intricate personal relationships and finding creative solutions to overcome the challenges of daily life.

Witness  can be seen at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2000; Thursday: 1200; Friday: 0100; Saturday: 0600.

Click here  for more  Witness  films.


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