Asian Developments in Access to Counsel: A Comparative Study

Asian Developments in Access to Counsel: A Comparative Study


F. The Philippines

¶ 43 The final country study, the Philippines, similarly illustrates the challenges facing legal reform in Asia—and a number of inspirational innovations. In the Philippines, access to justice for the poor and marginalized is guaranteed by its constitution.124 Specifically, the Constitution declares that "the State shall promote a just and dynamic social order that will ensure the prosperity and independence of the nation and free the people from poverty" as one of the State policies given the highest priority.125 Furthermore, the Constitution's Bill of Rights aims to ensure that "[f]ree access to the courts and quasi-judicial bodies and adequate legal assistance shall not be denied to any person by reason of poverty."126 Both the government and NGOs implement this mandate.127

¶ 44 The Public Attorney's Office (PAO) serves as the sole government agency for providing legal aid to indigent parties.128 Such parties are meant to be represented, free of charge, in all civil, administrative, and criminal matters.129 While the PAO has worked continuously to provide adequate and affordable access to justice for its clients, limited resources, heavy caseloads,130 and corruption in the courts have increasingly hindered its services.131 Moreover, legal representation of individuals involved in criminal matters remains a significant concern, as the number of pending criminal cases handled by the PAO has risen over time.132

¶ 45 In response to the challenges faced by the PAO, the Philippine Supreme Court instituted a number of reforms.133 In 2001, the Court adopted a judicial reform program known as the Action Program for Judicial Reform (APJR).134 This program prioritized reforms to improve the efficiency and delivery of legal aid services to disadvantaged persons.135 In particular, the APJR sought changes in judicial systems and procedures, legal education, institutional processes, resource generation strategies, and access to justice for the poor.136 More recently, in 2009 the Court issued a rule requiring all practicing lawyers to render a minimum of sixty hours of free legal assistance to indigent litigants in a year.137

¶ 46 At the same time, NGOs committed to empowering poor and marginalized Filipinos have steadily emerged to help meet legal needs.138 In the area of criminal defense, for example, the creation of paralegal classes has served as a form of legal empowerment utilized by certain organizations to provide legal education and legal representation to indigent accused.139 Groups engaging in the paralegal approach to justice services provide basic training in law to laypeople who in turn assist their respective communities to remedy breaches of fundamental rights and freedoms.140

¶ 47 One such project is aimed at helping farmers, who are often falsely accused of crimes, obtain access to justice. Across the Philippines, reforms in the agrarian sector by the government have been met with resistance from landowners and elite land claimants.141 Agrarian farmers asserting their land rights have suffered injustice as a result, being forced to confront arbitrary filings of criminal charges and the consequent issuance of arrest warrants.142 Facing constant harassment and intimidation, farmers are charged with crimes ranging from qualified theft to malicious mischief to trespassing.143 A number of factors influence this problem, including outdated laws, minimal access to legal services, complicit participation of the authorities in the landowners' harassment, and the alienation of farmers from the legal process.144

¶ 48 Rosselyn Jae de la Cruz, a Philippine lawyer, is working to address these issues by establishing a paralegal training class for local women in Bondoc Peninsula, Quezon.145 This initiative, which came on the heels of the government's Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Extension with Reforms Law (CARPER) in 2009, provides these women with the necessary skills to monitor cases filed in court, gather evidence, write affidavits, and help farmers navigate the legal process.146 There are no formal criteria in selecting a paralegal; the individual must have the capacity to understand strategies and processes of the law and displays a willingness to learn.147

¶ 49 Under the module implemented by de la Cruz, the female paralegal takes a four-day course covering basics on criminal procedure, the court system, and rights of the accused upon arrest.148 In addition, she learns the steps to take in the event of an arrest through a warrant, such as asking to see the warrant of arrest, obtaining the name of the arresting officer, contacting a lawyer, and refraining from signing anything that is not clearly explained.149 The paralegal is also educated on certain provisions of CARPER, particularly those that mandate an automatic referral system to the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) upon an allegation that the case is agrarian in nature and one of the parties is a farmer, farm worker, or tenant.150 Overall, the female paralegal uses the skills and knowledge she has developed in the field of the law and the legal system to help her community address its legal problems.151

¶ 50 As a result of de la Cruz's efforts, twenty women in six communities throughout Quezon province are receiving paralegal training.152 Moreover, courses have expanded to four communities in Iloilo, while other organizations operating in Isabela, Negros, and Tarlac have also adopted the module.153 Yet despite these advancements, de la Cruz notes that continued dialogue between representatives of the agrarian community and the relevant government agencies must take place to further enhance access to justice by the rural poor.154

¶ 51 Along with implementing the initiatives to combat legal issues surrounding the agrarian community, another Philippine-based organization is focusing its attention on the injustices faced by prison inmates in city jails.155 The Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation, Inc. (HLAF) works with inmates to improve conditions in prisons as well as the country's penal system.156 According to Rommel Alim Abitria, HLAF's Executive Director, the vast majority of prisoners in city jails are unaware of their rights and have no knowledge of the procedures of the criminal justice system.157 Due to clogged court dockets, there are significant delays in hearing proceedings as well as in the preparation and issuance of judgments and release orders.158 Consequently, inmates are unnecessarily detained for long periods of time, leading to severe overcrowding in prisons.159

¶ 52 To help address these issues, HLAF has established a technical assistance program that employs selected prison inmates as paralegal coordinators.160 Coordinators perform a variety of functions for their fellow inmates, namely informing them of their rights, assisting in case management, and providing counseling.161 Coordinators also conduct trainings for inmates on criminal procedure, rights of the accused, and other pertinent laws.162

¶ 53 HLAF's Paralegal Coordinators Program begins with the selection of the paralegal coordinator.163 First, the coordinator must be at least a high school graduate.164 He or she must also be charismatic and respected by his or her co-inmates, regardless of gang affiliation.165 Further, these coordinators must be inmates who will remain in jail for a long period of time.166 Up to two paralegal coordinators are chosen to operate in each cell, with the assistance of a Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) officer.167

¶ 54 Upon selection, candidates for paralegal coordinators take part in a training program that lasts approximately six months.168 The HLAF training module covers aspects on criminal law, special penal laws, criminal procedure, and modes of release.169 Candidates are also trained on how to prepare a simple affidavit.170 They then work with detainees under direct supervision.171

¶ 55 The impact of the Paralegal Coordinators Program on prison inmates has been immediate.172 In 2004, for instance, HLAF facilitated the release of 69 inmates.173 This number rose to 218 in 2006, and 1,391 in 2009.174 Given the success of the program, paralegal coordinators have expanded to nine jails throughout Metro Manila.175 Moving forward, HLAF hopes to garner support from BJMP officers and wardens across all prisons and advocate for change in the area of juvenile justice.176

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