Chongqing has begun allowing lawyers to represent people facing detention in re-education-through-labour camps - an unprecedented move to shed light on the system's notoriously secret procedures. The Chongqing Justice Administration announced the step on its website and said it had taken effect this month. The regulation had been finalised with the municipal Public Security Bureau, it said. The administration said the rules meant lawyers could meet suspects, get details of cases from the authorities and offer legal opinions on the procedures, whether a defendant had broken the law and suspected human rights violations. The rule would 'be conducive to openness in decisions and having lawyers take an active role in these cases', the statement said. Re-education through labour has been used throughout the mainland since 1957 to punish minor offenders such as petty thieves, hooligans and Falun Gong followers who are not subject to criminal prosecution. A panel of police officers or government officials determines whether the accused should be detained at a labour camp. The workings of the system are opaque because there is no legislation covering its administration. Detainees can serve up to three years in a camp, in contrast to convicted criminals - who have the opportunity for probation and may avoid serving time in jail altogether. The Chongqing Justice Administration said it had approval for the initiative from the ministries of justice and public security. Wang Gongyi, deputy director of a research centre under the Ministry of Justice, said the Chongqing regulation represented promising progress but he added that legislation and more fundamental changes were needed to remedy the system. '[The new regulation] allows people to defend themselves, a right enshrined in the constitution. It also works as a good example for national legislation,' Mr Wang said. In October, national legislators will discuss the proposed Correction of Illegal Acts law, which will form the basis for a new correctional system for minor offenders to replace the camps system. The new approach will establish clear judicial procedures for limiting liberty. Chongqing lawyer Han Deyun said the involvement of lawyers meant the camps process was becoming more open, but more reforms should be introduced. 'Within the current system, the participation of lawyers is a good sign and will lead to some transparency in the system,' Mr Han said. 'But the structure remains the same. The decision-makers are still the police, there is no supervision from outsiders, and judicial procedures are not applied.' There are no official statistics on how many people have been put into the camps, but some estimates suggest there are more than 300,000 nationwide.