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Free legal services give residents petitioning alternative

2015-03-09 09:25 Shanghai Daily Web Editor: Qian Ruisha

Many involved in disputes don't trust the government agencies set up to handle grievances, and they cannot afford private legal advice.

Where to turn? In the Nanjing Road W. neighborhood of Shanghai's downtown Jing'an District, help is just around the corner and it doesn't cost anything.

The Fumin Legal Service Center, set up in 2013, is a nonprofit organization providing free legal and mediation services in Jing'an. No person is too lowly, no problem too trivial to warrant help.

Last year, Fumin handled 997 requests for help. Many clients are migrants, a group that lawyer and center director Jiang Tao describes as vulnerable.

They include the case of Wang Xiaomei, 20, a migrant worker in a local restaurant.

Last September, Wang lost half a finger in an appliance accident at the restaurant where she had worked for less than a month. Since she had not yet signed a labor contract, her employer dismissed her claim for compensation.

Wang sought help from a local government labor arbitration center and from the municipal legal aid service in Jing'an. Both refused to take her case, citing the absence of an employment contract. Legal aid did, however, recommend she try her luck at the Fumin center.

Initially afraid

Jiang said he agreed to help her. A lawsuit, he told her, would cost several thousand yuan — money she didn't have — so he suggested she submit the dispute to mediation.

With a bit of research, he found out that Wang's medical expenses and some compensation money would be covered under Shanghai's insurance fund for work-related injuries. The only onus for the restaurant owner was signing her employment contract and paying the required social security premiums for her.

"The boss was initially afraid he would be liable for a large sum of money," Jiang told Shanghai Daily. "I convinced him that was not the case and this was the easiest way to avoid a time-consuming lawsuit. He eventually settled."

In the end, Wang had received 50,000 yuan (US8,000) from the work injury fund and her employer agreed to pay her 20,000 yuan extra, including one month's salary.

Jiang said the difference between Fumin's service and that provided by government agencies that are supposed to help people like Wang is one of focus.

"They focus more on the feasibility of appeal, and we look for all possible ways to help both parties settle their dispute," Jiang said.

Wang's case was one of the 59 disputes successfully mediated last year by Fumin. It also assisted the neighborhood committee in resolving 696 more minor conflicts.

Fumin was founded by 16 lawyers from six law firms who became aware of gaps in the legal aid system after working as volunteers in public programs.

"There are limitations of time and caseload in the governmental legal aid programs," Jiang pointed out. "And some people doubt the impartiality of lawyers from government programs in cases involving government agencies."

Jiang began his volunteer career 15 years ago as a newly qualified 25-year-old when Shanghai introduced a pilot project inviting lawyers into communities to provide free legal services for residents. He was one of the first five lawyers engaged in the program in the Nanjing Road W. neighborhood.

"During the first few years, we handled only a few dozen cases annually, and most people sought advice on relatively minor family and neighborhood disputes," Jiang recalled.

With time, the caseload increased broadening into areas such contract disputes and labor arbitration.

The non-profit legal aid service now has two or three lawyers on duty each workday in a three-room office on Weihai Road, provided free by the neighborhood committee.

One of its cases last year involved a 24-year-old cleaner surnamed Li, who fell to his death from a ladder while cleaning a chandelier in a luxury hotel in the district.

Family members from his hometown in Shaanxi Province were distressed to find avenues of compensation blocked. The hotel said Li was the employee of a cleaning contractor and it had no liability in his death. The family couldn't talk to the head of the cleaning company because he was in police custody for giving Li a job where he had no vocational qualification.

The relatives ended up staging a street protest, blocking the road in front of the hotel to draw attention to their case. The district government asked Jiang and his team to intervene.

The lawyers pointed out to Li's relatives that the accident was not caused by the hotel but by Li, who had not locked the ladder properly before climbing up. For its part, the hotel was asked to show sympathy to a grieving family that had lost its only son.

Through mediation, both sides agreed on a settlement. The hotel paid a compensation of 830,000 yuan and said it would seek partial repayment from the cleaning contractor.

People with complaints of any sort once sought redress through the government petition office, which is supposed to channel formal grievances to the proper departments and monitor their progress, said Huang Yan, deputy director of the government's Justice Office of the Nanjing Road W. neighborhood.

But people no longer have such confidence in government agencies, she admitted.

"More and more people are turning to other channels for solving disputes instead of using the petition system," Huang said. "People believe that lawyers from the Fumin center provide neutral and fair advice. They are considered more impartial and sympathetic than government agency officials."

Jiang said the Fumin center is trying to do community education about the law and people's rights. Last year, the center sponsored 15 lectures in senior citizen community centers.

This year those lectures will be expanded to take place in schools, offices and construction sites.

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