Authorities Deny Human Rights Lawyers Professional License Renewals

December 10, 2010

In 2010, Chinese authorities have continued to pressure human rights lawyers that took on sensitive cases or engaged in sensitive human rights work by denying annual professional license renewals. Chinese lawyers must have their professional licenses renewed annually by passing an assessment review overseen by Communist Party-controlled local lawyers' associations and justice bureaus. In recent years, local lawyers' associations and justice bureaus have adopted increasingly strict measures to tighten control of law firms and lawyers in the review process. The July attempts to control and intimidate human rights lawyers follow various events that highlight the ongoing hardships facing Chinese human rights lawyers.

Authorities Use Annual Inspection To Intimidate Lawyers

Authorities in China continued to pressure human rights lawyers who took on sensitive cases (such as those involving house church activists, Falun Gong practitioners, and victims of illegal property seizures) or engaged in sensitive causes by denying professional license renewals during the "annual inspection and assessment process" (niandu jiancha kaohe), which justice departments throughout the country completed in July of this year. According to a July 16 China Human Rights Lawyer Concern Group (CHRLCG) article and a July 18 Radio Free Asia (RFA) article, Chinese authorities failed to renew the professional licenses of several human rights lawyers during the process, following similar refusals to renew licenses in previous years (for more information, see the Commission's July 10, 2009, "China's Human Rights Lawyers: Current Challenges and Prospects" roundtable transcript here). This year, judicial authorities refused to renew the professional licenses of several prominent human rights lawyers―Jiang Tianyong, Wen Haibo, Zhang Lihui, Tong Chaoping, Yang Huiwen, and Li Jinsong―by the July 15, 2010, deadline (extended from an original deadline of May 2010). According to the July 18 RFA article, some human rights lawyers reportedly only passed the annual "inspection and assessment" after accepting additional terms, such as pledging that they would avoid certain sensitive cases or decline interviews.

Regulations Aimed at Tightening Control on Lawyers and Law Firms

Under the 2008 PRC Lawyer's Law, law firms must submit an annual practice report with assessments of lawyers' practices to relevant judicial administrative departments (see Arts. 23 and 24). State-controlled lawyers' associations, in coordination with local justice bureaus, decide each year which lawyers will be able to practice law based on the assessments. Lawyers who fail to pass the annual review are denied license renewals and can be barred from practicing for a period of time depending on the severity of the case. In the most severe cases, lawyers' licenses may be permanently revoked. In 2010, according to the July 16 CHRLCG article, authorities have attempted to control human rights lawyers by pressuring law firms to refrain from employing certain lawyers. Consequently, some law firms have persuaded human rights lawyers to move to other law firms. In the CECC 2009 Annual Report, the Commission noted that the government had used the annual review process to revoke the licenses of at least 21 rights lawyers. In the CECC 2010 Annual Report, the Commission noted that judicial authorities denied license renewals to at least six lawyers. As in previous years, rights organizations and lawyers have stated that this process has become a political tool to silence human rights lawyers and intimidate other attorneys from joining their ranks.

Although the PRC Lawyer's Law remains the basis for the annual review, the Ministry of Justice has passed, or amended, a series of measures tightening government and Party control over the process in recent years:

The various sets of measures institute new stipulations to supervise and control lawyers and law firms. The 2008 Measures for Managing Law Firms, for instance, permits law firms to remove lawyers who fail to pass the annual inspection and specifies circumstances under which lawyers' licenses may be revoked (see Art. 41). The 2009 Measures for the Management of the Professional Credentials of Lawyers and Law Firms contains provisions detailing procedures for carrying out annual inspections and license revocations (see Arts. 12 through 17). According to a April 9, 2010, Legal Daily article (reprinted in Xinhua), the Ministry of Justice issued the Measures on Annual Inspection and Annual Assessment of Law Firms and amended the Measures for Punishing Unlawful Acts by Lawyers and Law Firms in order to "strengthen the supervision of practicing lawyers and law firms' activities" and to "specify lawyers and law firms' penalties for work violations." The 2010 Measures on Annual Inspection and Annual Assessment of Law Firms, according to state-controlled news media, reportedly provides further clarification on annual assessment procedures, evaluation criteria, and other assessment details broadly stipulated in the PRC Lawyer's Law. Domestic Chinese lawyers, however, have criticized the measures. According to a June 22, 2010, Democracy and Rule of Law article, for instance, Beijing lawyers Mu Jiyuan and Li Jinxing sent a letter to the State Council in May 2010, proposing that the Measures on Annual Inspection and Annual Assessment of Law Firms and the amended Measures for Punishing Unlawful Acts by Lawyers and Law Firms be revoked. The lawyers reportedly pointed out that the two measures "not only violated the law, but also included excessively harsh content that would influence normal practices."

For more information on the annual inspection and assessment process and the rights of human rights lawyers, see Section III―Access to Justice in the CECC 2010 Annual Report.