Law: Fast boat to the top of China's legal profession

Lawyers are coming from Peking to gain first hand experience in English law.
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The Independent Culture
TO ANYONE familiar with the vastly different Chinese and English legal systems, the idea of a lawyer standing up in a Chinese court and citing precedents from an English text book is remarkable.

Yet not only has this happened, but the precedents have also been accepted by provincial courts in China.

The lawyers who took this novel approach to litigation had first-hand experience in English legal practice, as participants in the Practical Training Scheme (PTS) for Chinese lawyers .

Set up by the Law Society/Bar Council's Joint China Working Party, the PTS brings 15 Chinese lawyers to England every year. The scheme, which is funded by the Government through the Department for International Development, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

The anniversary coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but from the host London lawyers' perspective, although there is a basic introduction to human rights under the scheme, the emphasis is essentially on commercial law.

Under the scheme, the Chinese lawyers attend a six-week course on English law at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, spend three months on secondment to a law firm and three months working in a set of barristers' chambers.

Although the scheme's principal focus is commercial law, it also includes European and environmental law and an introduction to the English criminal justice system. Participants have also been quite willing to discuss the issue of human rights, according to the organisers.

"Lawyers who come over on this scheme return home to participate in all aspects of Chinese life and rapidly become influential," says the barrister co-chairman of the working party, Adrian Hughes.

"They have established private partnerships, become leading lawyers in Shanghai, Peking and other cities, and helped draft legislation. One or two are heading towards senior government positions."

This is all the more significant given that the Chinese legal system is, to a large extent, still in its infancy.

In the Sixties and Seventies China had virtually no legal system or legal profession. Its subsequent transformation into an open-market economy meant it had a lot of catching up to do in a very short space of time. In the past 20 years, China has reinvented its legal system, introducing over 320 laws through the National People's Congress and its standing committees.

China's legal profession is also developing rapidly. Up to five years ago, law firms in China were nearly all state-owned. Nowadays many new firms are private partnerships, similar to those in the UK, but much smaller. The number of lawyers in China has more than doubled in the last five years, but there is still a shortage of legal expertise.

Xiao-yan Cheng, a lawyer from the Gilin province in north-east China, on secondment to the City firm Stephenson Harwood, says one major difference is that solicitors here do not need to cultivate strong personal relationships with their clients to the same degree they do in China and so can spend more time on their professional work.

So far, almost 150 Chinese lawyers have come to England through the PTS. "All of us associated with the scheme also genuinely believe that, in some small way, we are contributing to UK-Sino relations and to the development of a strong, independent legal profession in China," says the solicitor co-chairman, Colin Passmore of Simmons & Simmons.