Holly Williams, Asia correspondent
China has said it is reforming the country’s legal system to make it fairer and more independent, but political interference and corruption still plague the courts.
Every morning at the gates of the Supreme People’s Court, hundreds of ordinary Chinese citizens queue patiently.
They clutch evidence of alleged crimes and civil complaints in the hope that court officials will allow their case to be heard.
On the surface, China’s justice system looks similar to those in the West.
Last year, the country’s courts heard over 10 million cases, while professional lawyers now number over 150,000.
With virtually no legal system as recently as 30 years ago, that growth is an extraordinary achievement.
Yet China’s courts are still very much under the control of the Communist Party.
There is no separation of powers – many judges have “political qualifications” rather than any legal training.
Even Wang Shengjun, the president of China’s Supreme Court, has no law degree. His credentials are membership of the Communist Party and experience as a high-ranking policeman.
Missing from Chinese courtrooms are many of the legal concepts we take for granted – there is no presumption of innocence, for example.
The most recent figures available show an acquittal rate of just 0.22%. Trials commonly last only half-an-hour, even those that result in a death sentence.
Court corruption is also endemic. Earlier this year, the former vice president of the Supreme Court was convicted of bribery and embezzlement after allegedly taking payments for favourable decisions.
Legal watchers believe such behaviour is commonplace, especially in lower courts.
For ordinary Chinese people, the combination of political interference and corruption means getting legal redress is virtually impossible.
Outside the Supreme Court, businessman Liu Shuying shows off two decades of legal documents.
Ever since a business agreement with local government officials fell through in 1987, he has been trying to take them to court.
Cui Yuehua lost her life savings in an investment scam three years ago
Instead, he was given three months in a labour camp for causing trouble.
Cui Yuehua lost her life savings – around £60,000 – in an investment scam three years ago.
She broke down as she described multiple failed attempts to get the case heard by the courts.
Yet Mr Liu and Ms Cui have come to the Supreme Court because they still believe in the system.
Like hundreds of millions of others they watch the nightly news on state-controlled TV, which shows criminals and corrupt officials being handed tough sentences by upright judges who adhere to the letter of the law.
Many others who queue outside the Supreme Court share a similar faith, bringing with them dog-eared copies of Chinese legislation.
But in China the very act of demanding justice is frequently viewed as a challenge to the Communist Party’s rule.
Chinese people outside the Supreme Court show off their evidence of alleged crimes
Police, both uniformed and plain-clothed, surround the entrance to the court.
One elderly woman who attempted to tell her story to a Sky News film crew was shouted at, and then shoved away by a group of five police officers.
Lawyers who dare to take on rights cases that challenge the authority of the state face worse treatment.
While investigating the alleged illegal detention of a client last year, Zhang Kai was detained by local police and locked in a cage with his wrists tied overhead.
“The handcuffs were too tight and damaged my nerves,” he explained. “I lost all feeling in part of my hands for over six months.”
Gao Zhisheng – until recently China’s most high profile human rights lawyer – has been in and out of custody after being convicted on subversion charges in 2006.
He claimed to have been tortured with electric shocks to his genitals.
Last month the Chinese government banned the use torture for extracting confessions, the latest in a long series of legal reforms aimed at making courts fairer and more open.
But Zhang Kai and most of his fellow rights lawyers are sceptical.
“It is progress in a sense,” he said, “but the chances of the courts actually being able to independently investigate torture when it does happen are very slim.”