Monday, October 12, 2009

Legal professionals: major requesters of public information

During the first six months after implementation of the FOI Regulations, Chinese legal professionals were the most frequent requesters in China (Appendix 1). Their requests have the following four features. First, a wide range of legal professionals, such as lawyers, law academics and students, used FOI legislation to access government information. In particular, Chinese lawyers showed special interest in requesting information. Second, their requests were primarily for information in the public interest. The information sought covered a wide range of areas, such as the use of charges and public funds, and the exercise of administrative power. Third, legal professionals played an educational role in promoting information access. Professor Xixin Wang and his colleagues aimed at boosting the use of FOI legislation through their requests. Hongxiang Wen, a Shenyang lawyer, said that his requests were largely for teaching ordinary citizens how to request government information. Fourth, legal professionals understood how to work closely with media outlets in reporting the progress of their requests, thus bringing about a maximum propaganda effect.
Chinese legal professionals have an advantage over other groups when using FOI legislation. They have greater professional knowledge as they are likely to know which information is needed and which government agency holds the information, as well as how to use FOI legislation. They, especially lawyers, are also wealthier and more independent than other groups, and so have greater capacity and willingness to request public information. The use of FOI legislation by Chinese legal professionals is a positive response to the impetus of law-based administration for FOI reform in China, though they may use FOI legislation as part of their private commercial lawsuits. However, the use of FOI legislation by legal professionals is largely individualised. It is necessary to initiate a coalition of active FOI requesters to apply for public information in the future.

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