Legal Faith, Legal Reality

China's highest court, the Supreme People's Court

It’s anecdotal, but in the stream of stories about regular people defending themselves that are a growing feature of the internet these days lawyers are increasingly part of the equation. In some ways it’s a sign that the law is becoming a more valid way of mediating disputes—an acknowledged tool in bringing wrongdoers to account. In other’s it shows just how much further the rule of law has to go.

In the ‘My father is Li Gang’ episode last year where the son of a high ranking official killed a girl with his car, the family of the girl hired a lawyer. More recently, in a case of a village trying to resist a big government land deal (details), the village leader initially hired a lawyer to help investigate the case and ensure their rights.

That a lawyer was even called to begin with is a sign of growing legal consciousness. The belief that there should be a consistent, impartial rule of law and that hiring a lawyer to do something about it is a reasonable course of action is noteworthy. The right to defend oneself, and that a lawyer can actually help is relatively new.

That said, looking at the role of the lawyers in these two cases is less encouraging. In the Li Gang episode, the family’s lawyer was explicitly circumvented. The family of the dead girl went missing for several days, when they reappeared they said they had reached a settlement. They would accept some money and put an end to it. Perhaps it’s good that the lawyer was significantly intimidating to warrant exclusion and maybe a quicker settlement, but it’s telling that the lawyer was not present for the negotiations.

In the land deal case, it’s the lawyer himself that comes off looking bad. Back in 2008 the village head went to Beijing to protest government land requisition in his area. Part of his plan was to hire a lawyer, who he paid a handsome fee. The village head was unhappy with the lawyer, saying he simply did nothing on the case, and asked for most of the money back. The lawyer gave some of the money back reluctantly, partly at the urging of internet voices calling him a swindler.

In both cases faith in the law, and lawyers for that matter, proved misplaced. Still maybe it’s a positive sign that the reaction of those under the boot of the powerful was, initially at least, not to roll over but to seek justice through law.

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