“A lot have become victims of injustice and they have no one to defend them.  That’s why public interest lawyering is very much needed and remains relevant” — Roan Libarios, Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) president

EMPHASIS. Laywers Neri Colmenares (right) and Roan Libarios (left) stress the importance of public interest lawyers at these times. Laywers group Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao had their 4th assembly in Davao City recently. (davaotoday.com photo by Medel V. Hernani)


Davao Today

DAVAO CITY, Philippines — Peoples’ lawyers from all over Mindanao agreed on one thing: public interest lawyering remains relevant amid recurring issues of human rights, climate justice, and accountability from government officials and state agents.

Lawyer Jose Begil from the Caraga region said, “Public interest lawyering emanates from the causes and interests of the people, especially when these are violated or deprived from them.”

Begil was interviewed during the assembly of the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM) in the city.  The gathering, the group’s 4th since it was established in in 2005, was attended by 40 lawyers and 30 other law students, paralegal staff and human rights advocates from all over Mindanao.

Begil, 38, said the people’s economic and human rights are continuously violated and remain in a dismal situation.  “Poverty has worsened.  Justice is so hard to achieve.  The people’s needs are not answered and their interests are continuously being trampled upon.  That’s why public interest lawyers are needed to advocate and defend the people’s interests,” he explained.

President of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) Roan Libarios said in an interview with Davao Today, “A lot have become victims of injustice and they have no one to defend them.  That’s why public interest lawyering is very much needed and remains relevant.”

Libarios, a Mindanaoan, said IBP has legal aid programs that implement public interest lawyering.  He said they are happy that there are public interest law organizations like the UPLM that advocates human rights in Mindanao.

“The number of those who need legal services is getting bigger especially those who have no capacity to get competent lawyers.  Legal public interest law groups are providing the kind of services needed by the people,” Libarios said.

“Many people can’t afford to hire lawyers for their cases.  And even if they get a lawyer, the financial burden becomes heavier because they would have to pay for the judge too,” says lawyer Emiliano Deleverio of the Zamboanga Peninsula region.

While filing and pursuing a case is already costly, the slow wheel of justice is another problem.  In the Davao region, for instance, the disposal of cases has been a problem.

“Every week a regular court raffles about 40 cases.  It’s very rare that you get to dispose even half of these cases.  The more cases a court has, the lesser its disposal has become,” Pelagio Paguican, executive judge of Davao’s Regional Trial Court (RTC), said.

A regular court raffles cases four times a week.  There are currently 11 RTCs in the city.  Paguican said four more RTCs are needed.  The regional Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), on the other hand, needs two more lawyers to meet the one lawyer per court ratio.  Francis Calatrava, PAO regional director, said his office needs three additional lawyers to review the cases and attend to walk-in clients.

Addressing the root causes

For lawyer Joel Mahinay of the Davao region, “The structural defects of the society must be addressed.  Questions like what is wrong with our society and why there is a problem in our laws should be answered.”

Mahinay cited as example the question on land ownership.  He said structural defects can be seen in the case of poor farmers who have been tilling the lands they don’t own while those who do not toil are the ones who own vast lands.  “Public interest lawyering must address the root causes of poverty and the people’s sufferings,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dominador Lagare, Sr. of the Soccsksargen region said, “I’ve been a human rights lawyer for 38 years.  But the human rights situation hasn’t changed.”

The 78-year old lawyer finds the human rights approach wanting, thus, he suggested more work is needed.  “We must inform the people why the country suffers poverty, what are the primary reasons of its existence.  Everybody must know how the few (ruling elite) continue to oppress the poor,” he said.

Indeed, there are many public interest issues from civil and political rights like extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances to environmental rights, according to lawyer Neri Colmenares, representative of Bayan Muna partylist in the Congress.  Colmenares, lead prosecution counsel of the ongoing impeachment trial of Chief Justice Reynato Corona, said in an interview, “The need for public interest lawyering has become bigger.  This is because there are more violations.”

Colmenares stressed violations are not just against human rights but the general public interest like the issues on mining, climate change, corruption and economic attacks against the people that need public interest lawyers.

“Public interest lawyers are not just confined in the courtrooms.  Part of it is their advocacy outside the courtrooms.  It’s a big thing that they fight these issues and they have a big role to play in that respect,” said Colmenares, who also heads the Manila-based National Union of People’s Lawyers.

Caraga’s Begil agreed with Colmenares, saying, “We are needed not just in the legal front, but also outside the courts.  We have to educate the people on their rights and how to defend their interests,” he said.

Deleverio, a people’s lawyer for more than 30 years, said people’s lawyering must be developed and strengthened.  “If there are no more lawyers who will stand for the people, who else will?” he said.

Deleverio was feted by his peers with an Outstanding People’s Lawyers Award, citing his achievement in winning the first successful Writ of Amparo involving the release of a youth leader taken by the military in 2007.  The writ of amparo enabled the release of Ruel Muñasque, 33 and a leader of the Christian Youth Fellowship of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, from the military’s custody.

“I can only encourage and challenge, especially the new lawyers, to use their skills to serve our poor brothers and sisters; and those who don’t know their rights and the character of the law,” he said.  (Marilou Aguirre-Tuburan/davaotoday.com)

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