'We have six-yuan rice bowls delivered every day for lunch, which is perfect, considering I only make about 3,000 yuan a month.' It's not the kind of power lunch or salary one would expect from a lawyer who has gained kudos from the likes of former US secretary of state Madeline Albright and former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, but this meagre meal encapsulates the humble lifestyle of Guo Jianmei, director of Peking University's Centre for Women's Law Studies and Legal Services. During a state visit in June 1998, only three years after its founding, Mrs Albright and Mrs Clinton visited the centre and took part in a symposium on the legal protection of women's rights in China. Both Americans are known for their efforts to advance the social status of women around the world, but Mrs Albright was so taken with the work of the centre that she reportedly said: 'I'm certain that when the history of legal reform in China is written, this centre and its founders will have earned a place in it and the gratitude of the millions of Chinese people whose rights you are defending.' Despite such lofty accolades, Ms Guo has remained humble and maintains her grass-roots approach in running the centre and cultivating young legal talent. But she readily admits that there was more than rice in takeaway boxes served at that particular meeting. Opened in December 1995, the centre is one of a growing number of non-governmental organisations that provide legal help and advice to the mainland's poor, challenging the constitution and the judiciary in ways that have not been seen in China since Communist rule began. The centre operates a hotline potential clients can use to seek help. Since the facility's formation, it has replied to more than 20,000 inquiries and represented more than 400 women in cases involving domestic violence, labour disputes, sexual harassment and other violations of human rights. The scope of the centre's cases stretch from campaigns for work-injury compensation to the defence of a Heibei family whose young daughter died during childbirth, having been raped by her school headmaster. Ms Guo says her centre operates under a two-fold mandate of protecting women and promoting legal reforms. 'Our goal is not only to defend women, but to choose representative cases that will test the rule of law in China,' she says. 'We want to select cases that will set a precedent for future rulings.' Wu Ge, director of Tsinghua University's Constitutional Law and Civil Rights Centre in Beijing, says the cases his centre accepts are also chosen for the precedence they will set, rather than the likelihood of a successful outcome. Established in May last year, the Tsinghua Centre is the first non-profit legal-aid institution that directly aims to protect constitutional rights. 'To date, the constitution cannot be used as a legal basis for court decisions in China, and lawsuits filed by citizens based on the alleged infringement of a constitutional right will usually not be accepted for adjudication by Chinese courts,' Mr Wu says. So the Tsinghua centre selects cases that specifically address issues of constitutional rights and those cases that might set a benchmark for similar cases in the future. 'The centre will choose 'model cases' that are very typical and can reflect judicial defects that exist in the Chinese legal system and have profound influence on the whole [of] society,' says Mr Wu. The Tsinghua Centre also runs a hotline, uses its website to integrate resources and legal-aid information, hosts an online question-and-answer service and offers a lawyer's e-mail box for legal aid. Both centres publish papers that advocate the expansion of legal-aid provisions in Chinese law so that help can be extended beyond urban areas. Since the Ministry of Justice launched an experimental mechanism on legal aid in 1993, 17 municipalities, provinces and autonomous regions have issued regulations providing for legal aid. The ministry's legal-aid centre's report says that between 1997 and 2003, government-sponsored and independently funded legal-aid institutions provided consulting services to more than 6.4 million people and offered help in 800,000 cases. There was an enormous boon to the legal-aid cause on September 1 last year, with the issuing of 'Regulations on Legal Aid', Article 3 of which stipulates that: 'Legal aid is the responsibility of the government. Governments at the county level and above shall adopt positive measures to advance legal-aid work, provide financial support for legal aid and ensure that legal-aid services are co-ordinated in tandem with social and economic development.' This is the first time in China that a document specifically designates legal aid as a formal obligation of the state. But there are two conflicting spins on this provision. One interprets the provision as a positive step in government's acceptance of its responsibility to defend its citizens' rights. However, a more cautious view regards this stipulation as a threat to the autonomy of NGO groups that take on more controversial cases - sometimes against the government - that are helping to transform the rule of law in China. State-sponsored legal-aid centres cannot challenge the government in court cases, while NGOs are still free to do so, even though their cases are frequently dismissed. According to Allison Moore, director of the American Bar Association's China programme, the new provision 'means that the government may eventually hand all cases requiring legal aid to government-appointed lawyers and not to NGO groups like the women's centre'. Lawyers operating from NGOs may still be allowed to work on a consultative basis, but many fear they will lose the authority to bring cases to court independently, forcing them to hand cases over to government-appointed lawyers. The 1996 'Lawyers Law' requires a lawyer to provide help in one to three legal-aid cases per year as appointed by government legal-aid centres. According to the Legal Aid Centre of the Ministry of Justice, there is on average an annual need for legal aid lawyers to represent clients in over 700,000 cases, but only 170,000 of these actually obtain assistance. Exacerbating the manpower problems legal aid faces in China is the lack of adequate funding for centres. Although the women's centre is operated through the government-run Peking University, most of its funding comes from the US-based Ford Foundation, which this year sponsors a fellowship for recent law graduates to work at legal-aid centres. 'This is a positive step, because the opportunity to catch lawyers and introduce them to legal aid might only come directly after graduation, when they are willing to accept a lower salary,' says Ms Moore. In December 2003, GM China donated 175,000 yuan to establish a special fund in the Student Legal Aid Centre of East China University of Politics and Law in Shanghai, marking the first that a multinational company has given funding to a non-governmental legal aid organisation in China. However, in the long run, law centres cannot continue to rely on foreign donors for survival. 'It's a question of how long our centres will last without our foreign donors,' says Ms Guo. She seems to run a one-woman show, but says she and her centre's core group of seven full-time staffers and over 30 part-time professionals are a solid team. 'Sometimes we face obstacles from the government or others ... and a lot of our full-time lawyers suffer from mental and physical exhaustion,' she says. 'To do this work you need to be strong and dedicated, otherwise you will never survive.'