Several national authorities jointly issued a rule on Sunday designed to ensure that lawyers are not impeded in their practices. It also prohibits public statements designed to manipulate public opinion or pressure law enforcement.
The rule－announced by the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of Justice－says that law enforcement authorities should fully guarantee lawyers' rights, including the right to get information, the right to petition and other professional rights.
Lawyers' requests to meet with clients should be fulfilled within 48 hours, except in cases involving State security, terrorism or major corruption; and prosecutors and police should listen to lawyers' opinions before concluding their investigations, as well as during death penalty reviews by the Supreme Court, the rule said.
The top authorities have said they want to improve mechanisms for lawyers and to establish a group of highly trained professional lawyers nationally to implement law-based governance.
The Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform, chaired by President Xi Jinping, adopted guidelines applying to the legal profession on Sept 15.
China has about 270,000 lawyers.
Zhou Qiang, China's top judge, highlighted the role of lawyers in the legal community in August, saying attorneys' rights, including reading case materials and obtaining evidence, must be protected.
"If lawyers are in danger during a trial, judges and court police should act to protect them," Zhou said.
Last week, a provincial guideline governing lawyers working on major cases aroused controversy.
The Shaanxi Lawyers Association issued a guideline to regulate lawyers' behavior on major and sensitive cases, requiring that lawyers report to the local judicial department or lawyers association within three working days of accepting major or sensitive cases, or cases involving mass incidents.
The regulation also bans lawyers from publicizing their opinions, including posting messages online or manipulating public opinion to pressure law enforcement.
That guideline raised concerns among lawyers, who saw it as a gag order.
Si Weijiang, a lawyer based in Shanghai, said the order of silence for lawyers who are not directly involved in a case violates the right of free speech.
There should be little concern, Si said, because only lawyers with expertise would be commenting; ordinary people wouldn't make professional comments.
However, an official from the Ministry of Justice who asked to remain anonymous, said the regulation had been misinterpreted.
"To a certain point, the guidelines are necessary to manage lawyers' behavior according to the law and ensure that lawyers respect professional ethics when dealing with major and sensitive cases," he said.
The professional level of lawyers across the country varies, and some poorly practiced lawyers have severely harmed clients' rights and hindered justice, the official said, adding that the guidelines help ensure that justice is served.