Professional Responsibility for Chinese Criminal Defense Lawyers – A Potential Source of Protected Space

On May 22, 2014, New York University embarked on a one-year project to exchange information with Chinese scholars and legal professionals on the question of the professional ethics obligations of lawyers, especially criminal defense lawyers.  The goals of this project are 1) to increase understanding and acceptance of the role of defense lawyers in increasing accuracy and fairness in criminal trials; 2) to promote professional responsibility standards for Chinese defense lawyers that allow them to defend their clients and, at the same time, be free from fear of retaliation; and 3) to increase awareness of and thereby reduce instances of lawyer harassment and intimidation.


Currently, only about 30% of all criminal defendants are represented by lawyers in China.  Moreover, as China is transitioning from an inquisitorial criminal justice system into a more adversarial one, some Chinese law enforcement authorities have had difficulty accepting lawyers’ new role, which may include challenging the factual assertions and legal arguments made by law enforcement authorities. There have been reported cases of retaliation against Chinese criminal defense lawyers including: arrests, physical beatings, detention and prosecution.  To prevent such incidents from happening in the future, this project aims to educate, publicize and promote rules of professional responsibility for Chinese criminal defense lawyers to create “safe harbors” for the zealous representation of their clients within legal boundaries.

Expected Results and Impact

While the causes of lawyer intimidation are multi-faceted, one weakness we have identified in China’s legal system is the virtual lack of education and emphasis on rules of professional responsibility for lawyers.  Thus, law students, many of whom will go on to become judges, police, and prosecutors, as well as lawyers, may do so without any clear  understanding of the proper role of a lawyer in an adversarial system.  Our approach will be to work with legal educators in China to raise the profile of legal ethics education, to emphasize the affirmative obligations of defense lawyers to represent the lawful rights and interests of their clients, and to promote the notion that lawyers must be given protection and space to fulfill their obligations under the law.