Beijing lawyers bear brunt of state curbs
Regulation after regulation has been introduced this year targeting lawyers, especially those in the capital, whom the authorities consider the most unruly.
Beijing had 21,529 lawyers by April, according to official data - 13 per cent of the national total - and that number has been growing by 2,000 a year.
The authorities say that growth is too rapid and unequal, but perhaps more worrying for them is that Beijing lawyers are increasingly sought after by people from around the country after run-ins with local governments.
In January, the Beijing Bureau of Justice issued a lawyers' management guideline which effectively makes it nearly impossible for new graduates or transferees to become lawyers in Beijing if they do not have Beijing hukou (permanent residency).
'This news came only after we had our judicial exam. It is a very unfair decision,' said one 28-year-old student who started a campaign in May in which several hundred students wrote to Premier Wen Jiabao calling for the guideline's abolition.
The student said he was approached by his school's authorities a number of times after that. 'The legal profession is at a low point now,' he said. 'But this further makes me realise the importance of my job, which is to help improve an imperfect legal system.'
However, he said, many of his classmates decided to leave law after the guideline was introduced.
The capital's first lawyers' litigation fees guideline, introduced by the justice bureau in May, caps the amount a lawyer can charge in an average criminal case at 50,000 yuan (HK$58,600) - from investigation to the end of the trial. In contrast, a commercial lawyer is allowed to charge a percentage of the contract price in civil cases - ranging from 2 per cent to 10 per cent - and up to 30 per cent for 'no win, no fee' cases.
Also in May, the bureau said it would raise the minimum asset requirement for a new law firm in Beijing from 300,000 yuan to an unknown sum, leading to much outcry. The move has not yet been implemented.
On the national level, the Ministry of Justice issued the first-ever law firm annual assessment guidelines, which broadened existing assessment procedures, and which together with the annual assessment procedures for lawyers carried out by quasi-official Lawyers Associations, firmly place the survival of law firms and lawyers at the mercy of the authorities.
Twenty rights lawyers have seen the renewal of their licences delayed by the annual assessment in past years.