A new law to further safeguard the rights of suspects in criminal cases will see an enhanced role for defense lawyers, a senior official said.
The law, which came into force on Jan 1, aims to streamline litigation procedures and ensure the accused have greater legal representation.
Courts across the country are seeing a rising number of criminal cases, but less than half of these cases have lawyers actually representing suspects, Du Chun, director of the department in charge of lawyers under the Ministry of Justice, told China Daily.
The workload facing courts has been steadily increasing.
More than 5 million criminal cases were heard by courts from 2006 to 2011, an increase of 50 percent over the previous five years, according to the Supreme People's Court.
In 2011 alone, courts dealt with 840,000 criminal cases, excluding appeals. Figures from the Ministry of Justice show that there were about 215,000 lawyers in 2011.
Du said at least half of criminal cases do not have defense lawyers.
The ratio is worse in some provincial-level administrative regions where only about 12 percent of criminal cases had lawyers representing suspects, he said.
"The role of lawyers as an important player in criminal litigation has not been fully developed," Du said.
There were a number of factors for this, including financial, Du said.
Some law enforcement officers were prejudiced against defense lawyers, he added.
"Criminal lawyers face difficulties in meeting detained defendants, in reviewing case files and obtaining evidence," Du said, adding that some judicial authorities tend to ignore defense statements.
In developed economies, the suspect's right to a defense lawyer is guaranteed.
The new law stipulates that lawyers can meet detained clients and should not be monitored. They also have the right to consult or copy case files.
It stipulates that lawyers can apply for prosecuting departments or courts to investigate evidence collected by public security authorities. If their right to offer a defense has been violated there is a clear complaint procedure. It also requires judicial authorities to listen to opinions put forward by lawyers, Du said.
"The amended Criminal Procedure Law doesn't blindly copy any foreign system, but gradually pushes forward the criminal defense system," he said. "It balances punishing crimes and protecting human rights."
Du said to better implement the new law, the Ministry of Justice will organize training for all criminal defense lawyers.
The ministry is also working with judicial organs to issue a supplementary provision to protect lawyers' rights, and the All China Lawyers Association is revising a professional code to make sure they accurately implement the new law.
Lawyers will be able to raise difficulties they encountered under a new mechanism, Du said.
Li Guifang, deputy director of the association's criminal defense committee, said compared with civil cases, criminal cases seem more difficult and less lucrative.
He said in some extreme situations, lawyers are even suspected of forging evidence.
Li Lin, a member of the Beijing City Law Association, said the revised Criminal Procedure Law targets the main issues: meeting clients, reading case files and collecting evidence.
"But good laws need to be fully implemented," he said.