The grooming of ethnic minority lawyers and an increase in legal aid would be crucial to addressing ethnic tensions in the country's restive west, lawyers from these regions said.
'Ethnic minorities have a very low awareness of the law. When their legal rights are infringed, they often don't know what can be done or how to assert their rights. This results in them becoming susceptible to influence by the 'three hostile powers',' Xinjiang lawyer Fadima Mahemuti, who is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said in reference to separatism, extremism and terrorism.
Fadima, who is of Uzbek ethnic origin, set up the first ethnic minority law firm in the country in 1997, specialising in commercial deals and criminal defence.
The severe shortage of ethnic minority lawyers who speak ethnic minority languages has been her top concern since she became a member of the conference in 2008.
In her first year, she submitted a proposal seeking to lower the passing benchmark on law examination for ethnic minorities; this year, she asked for more legal aid for the region.
Despite the growing attention of the central government to such issues, the problems still persist, she said, adding that the pass requirements that were lowered in 2008 appeared to have been raised last year.
Under the current system, ethnic minorities can take the law examination in their own language. But because of legal text translations of varying qualities and the lack of reference materials in ethnic minority languages, minority group students are still at a disadvantage.
She stressed the importance of Xinjiang grooming a team of local lawyers. 'While it is important to set straight entry standards for the profession, we also need to take into consideration the environment in which these ethnic students grew up and how much easier it will be to resolve disputes involving ethnic minorities if there is a lawyer who speaks their language and understands their customs,' she said. 'Ethnic minorities are also particularly proud and not used to the idea of litigation, which makes the promotion of legal awareness in their own language particularly important.'
Of the 20 million residents in Xinjiang, almost half are from minority groups. According to Fadima, only 400 of the 2,000 lawyers are from ethnic minorities, and only 299 speak minority languages.
Fadima also wants more minority group members to sit the law examinations. Currently, only those who study at universities are eligible. But many minority students attended other tertiary institutions, which offered only certificates, because they did not have money or their grades were not good enough to enter universities.
The loss of talented people to richer provinces also plagued the legal profession in Xinjiang, Fadima said. In the past 10 years, her company had trained more than 15 lawyers but had retained none. 'Lawyers in their first year of training cannot attend courts, and law firms are not required to pay them,' she said. 'After one year, many opt to become judges or prosecutors, or move to eastern provinces.'
And the few minority group lawyers who stayed and decided to take up criminal defence, were paid 200 yuan (HK$227) to 500 yuan in legal aid for each case. The average funding per case in Guangdong was 5,000 to 6,000 yuan, Fadima said. 'Perhaps there can be more support for ethnic law firms, too. We have to pay tax, management fees, association fees, all sorts of fees,' she said. 'But the role we play in maintaining stability is priceless.'
Fellow CPPCC member and lawyer Ma Hucheng of Qinghai province and National People's Congress deputy and lawyer Han Deyun of Chongqing echoed the need for more funding for judges and lawyers in the west.
According to official figures, of about 166,000 lawyers nationwide, 12 per cent are in Beijing. This equals 12 lawyers per 10,000 residents in the capital, compared with 1.43 in Chongqing, one in Xinjiang, and 0.72 in Qinghai.
Seventy per cent of the lawyers in Qinghai earn about 2,000 yuan a month. Ma makes about 200,000 yuan a year, and some of his classmates in the east make millions.
Another problem in the courts is lack of funding, which makes them more prone to corruption.
A serious shortage of judges leads to the occasional failure to form a panel of three judges when a case requires it, resulting in delays and injustice, Ma said.
'It is crucial to spend more money on strengthening the basic judicial infrastructure in the west. This is crucial to properly protecting the rights of ethnic minorities and the long-term stability of the country,' said the 30-year veteran lawyer, more than half of whose clients are from minority groups.
Han said: 'The development of legal services depends on a region's economic ability, the people's consciousness of using the law to defend their rights and also the government's emphasis.' One of the direct results of the lack of legal services is more people turning to petitions. To prevent this, Han said, there must be more legal aid, as well as the provision of duty lawyers - lawyers on government salaries to defend the poor.