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Legal Professional Ethics in China: Its Origin and Development

Sun, 09 Jan 2022
Categories: Insights


Key Takeaways:

  • In 2015, China’s State Council issued the “Opinions on Improving the National Unified Legal Professional Qualification System”, a landmark policy document indicating the days of legal professional ethics being underappreciated have gone for good.
  • Legal professional ethics has become one of the ten compulsory courses in China's law schools since 2018.

Though legal professional ethics has long been underappreciated in China, it has gradually enjoyed better status since 2015.

With the number of Chinese lawyers reaching 520,000, the need for sound and elaborate standards of conduct in the legal profession become urgent.

I. Origin of Legal Professional Ethics in China

For a long time, Legal Professional Ethics was set as an optional course in China. Many law schools even did not offer this course. At those who did, only a minimal number of students would take it.

Back then, legal professional ethics had not been highly valued by legal professionals and legal education in China, which further leads to the imperfection of the legal professional ethics rules and the study, learning and application thereof. 

Consequently, the lack of attention leads to the indifference to professional ethics by the legal professional community, especially by those freelance lawyers, making the public and the authorities dissatisfied with the professional conduct of some lawyers.

This situation has been changing since 2015.

On 30 Sept. 2015, the State Council issued the “Opinions on Improving the National Unified Legal Professional Qualification System” (hereinafter “the Opinions”, 关于完善国家统⼀法律职业资格制度的意见). Article 6 of the Opinions provides that "strengthen the assessment of the legal professional ethics and make it an important condition for the entry of legal professionals."

Based on the Opinions, China's Ministry of Education (MOE) issued the “National Standards of Teaching Quality for Law Majors”(hereinafter “the Standards”, 法学类专业教学质量国家标准) on 30 Jan. 2018. According to the Standards, legal professional ethics shall be listed in the core course system and become one of the ten compulsory courses that all law students in China are required to take.

Subsequently, the MOE published the “Implementing Opinions on the Program 2.0 of Educating and Training Outstanding Talents Engaged in the Rule of Law” (关于实施卓越法治人才教育培养计划2.0的意见) on 13 Oct. 2018, Article 1 of which requires to "strengthen the training of legal professional ethics for students, offer the compulsory course of legal professional ethics for every law student, and make legal professional ethics education run through the entire training process of talents engaged in the rule of law."

So far, legal professional ethics has gained the same status as criminal law, civil law, and litigation law in China’s legal education.

II. Study on Legal Professional Ethics in China

According to the observation of Chinese Associate Professor Liu Kunlun (刘坤轮), [1]although legal professional ethics started late in China, there still appear some representative researchers, such as:

Professor Wang Jinxi (王进喜) focuses on studying professional norms of lawyers, representing the technical study on rules of Chinese legal professional ethics.

Professor Li Bensen (李本森) unifies the norms of legal service, the legal profession, and the legal industry, and conducts a multivariate analysis from the aspects of the economy, society and value.

Professor Xu Shenjian (许身健) leads the legal professional ethics team to explore and expand the professional connotation and denotation of the discipline of legal professional ethics.

Professor Li Xueyao (李学尧) incorporates analytical tools and frameworks such as Confucianism, state and society, and party politics in his study of legal professional ethics.

Professor Liu Sida (刘思达) tries to study China's legal profession from the perspective of occupational sociology, mainly due to the training for his study of sociology at the University of Chicago.

Associate Professor Yuan Gang (袁钢) pays attention to the scientificity and application of assessing legal professional ethics in the legal professional qualification examination, and reasons the necessity and feasibility of setting up legal professional ethics as a compulsory course.

Among these scholars, Professor Wang Jinxi is my mentor, and he is one of the earliest scholars engaged in the study of China’s legal professional ethics.

As the first to systematically introduce foreign legal professional ethics rules to China, Mr. Wang has promoted the drafting of the rules for legal professionals by China's Ministry of justice, the All China Lawyers Association, and several local lawyers associations.

III. Problems faced by legal professional ethics in China

Legal professional ethics has become a compulsory course in China's law schools since 2018. However, compared with other compulsory courses such as criminal law and civil law, its study level is so backward that there are insufficient teaching materials and learning materials for law schools.

For example, compulsory courses such as criminal law and civil law have rich teaching materials with relatively unified knowledge, which means that a certain consensus has arisen on the system of these course contents.

However, there are not many legal professional ethics textbooks available in the Chinese market. The editors-in-chief of these textbooks mainly include scholars such as Wang Jinxi, Li Bensen, or Xu Shenjian.

As for the nature of legal professional ethics, some hold that it is morality. In other words, it is the concretization of social conscience in legal professionals. The others believe that legal ethics belongs to rules, which are norms formulated by the legislature, competent authorities of the government, and the bar association.

The two views both have a strong influence. However, people usually regard legal professional ethics as a kind of rule in practice, which is corroborated by the fact that the All China Lawyers Association continues to issue and revise its rules of conduct and is working to put these rules into practical application.

That being said, however, the rules remain quite simple and only a few people make interpretation and analysis of them. In addition, there are rare cases of lawyers violating professional ethics that are worthy of study.

At the same time, the number of lawyers in China has reached 520,000 and is increasing by almost 50,000 per year.

For such a large group of lawyers, sound and elaborate rules for the legal profession are necessary in any case.

We will keep observing the development of lawyers' professional ethics in China.



[1] 刘坤轮:《构建中国特色的法律职业伦理知识体系》,《法律与伦理》第7辑


Photo by YE JUNHAO on Unsplash

Contributors: Guodong Du 杜国栋

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