Grant to support study of Chinese criminal courts

Northeastern University has been awarded a $230,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to support a collaborative project with Xiamen University on the extent of legal assistance in lower court criminal cases in China. The two-year international effort will be conducted jointly with Northeastern criminal justice researchers Phil He, Ph.D., and Associate Dean Jack McDevitt, Ph.D., with Professor Lanying Li at the Law School of Xiamen University, under the auspices of the newly formed Joint Center for Criminal Law and Justice.

During the two-year pilot study, the international team will gather empirical data to benchmark the current status of legal representation in district courts in China’s Fujian Province with the goal of presenting the findings and initiating positive changes in the Chinese criminal justice system.

“Northeastern’s criminal justice faculty and students are leaders in producing social science research to benefit global communities,” said Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University. “This grant further demonstrates the leadership of our criminal justice program, which is a vibrant part of our academic offerings. The partnership with Xiamen University will foster a global exchange of ideas about China’s criminal court system, which could have an even greater impact on the world stage.”

Existing research indicates that considerable variation exists in the availability and quality of counsel across China. While there is one lawyer available for every 281 citizens in the United States, in China, that number is one lawyer per 8,867 citizens, leaving many citizens, particularly those in remote areas, without the ability to obtain legal representation.

In addition, China’s public defense system is not yet well established. Court-appointed lawyers are utilized only for capital offenses, leaving many criminal defendants in first level courts without any legal representation.

“The protection of human rights is part of the Chinese Constitution, yet there is very little empirical knowledge on how such rights are exercised in the Chinese judicial system,” said Phil He, associate professor of criminal justice at Northeastern and principal investigator of the study.

The study will focus on the first level of trial court in China (known as the District People’s Court), where a majority of cases are handled by a single judge (with two People’s Assessors) or by a group of three judges, but without a jury. The researchers will collect data based on court summary judgments, surveys of Chinese attorneys and observations of selected criminal defense cases in a sample of courts from the Fujian province.

After the data has been collected and analyzed, the international research team will convene a conference with Chinese court officials, academics and representatives from the MacArthur Foundation to present their findings and recommendations for follow-up studies and possible reforms.

“The goal of this research project is to construct a solid framework of information and lay the foundation to inform legislative changes concerning the Chinese criminal court system,” added He.

About the MacArthur Foundation

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. In addition to selecting the MacArthur Fellows, the Foundation works to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security, make cities better places and understand how technology is affecting children and society. More information is available at