Restoring trust in the majesty of law
Amazing! The Puno Court did it again. Access to justice by our marginalized sectors has been institutionalized in the judicial branch through the Rule on Mandatory Legal Aid Service. The Supreme Court now requires “practicing lawyers” of the country to render 60 hours of free legal aid yearly, effective July 1. Sharing five hours of service a month for the poor and the underprivileged also earns for the members of the Bar credit units under the Mandatory Continuing Legal Education Program.
The mandatory pro bono legal service program is the latest in a series of unprecedented actions by the highest court of the land that truly “bridge gaps and remove roadblocks,” as the Supreme Court’s “Access to Justice” poster points out. It is a response to a major recommendation from the participants of the “Increasing Access to Justice” forum the Supreme Court spearheaded on June 30 to July 2, 2008, simultaneously in Manila, Cebu and Cagayan de Oro.
I am sure our fisherfolk, farmers, pensioners, children, women and men who suffer from injustices due to poverty and lack of knowledge of the law are ecstatic about this development. The rule of law will hopefully be reinvigorated with this program, with more lawyers serving the downtrodden and in public interest advocacy for the environment and women’s and children’s issues.
Because the pace of delivering justice is slow, there is the consequent erosion of trust in the justice system. It is unfortunate that our Supreme Court perennially receives the lowest share of the national budget compared to the executive and legislative branches. How can it operate effectively with meager financial resources? It has been saddled with clogged dockets and enormous challenges in attracting more lawyers to join the judiciary. There are many vacant courts nationwide.
This lack of resources gave rise to legally authorizing local government units to provide for the allowances of the judges. But crafty politicians have unfortunately used this as a tool to pressure judges to “toe the line – or else…” This prevailing arrangement is a big blow to the independence of the judiciary and has to be reevaluated. Giving the Supreme Court a bigger share in the budgetary appropriations is a better solution and detaches it completely from the dirty world of politics.
It is a tribute to the collective vision of the justices that, despite the constraints, the Supreme Court is creative in harnessing its expanded power of judicial review and rule-making power to change mindsets and transform society, not just the lawyers. It has evolved to become a key decision maker on human rights, social justice and in protecting the environment, which, in Tony Oposa’s words, translate to restoring “ecological sanity.”
The rules on the writ of amparo, writ of habeas data, establishment of the green courts and small claims courts, the Justice on Wheels program, the annual forum on prevailing social issues that bring together the stakeholders of society and now the Rule on the Mandatory Legal Aid Service undeniably restore the people’s trust in the majesty of the Law.
Amid rampant corruption and anomalies, earning the shameful label as the most corrupt country in South East Asia, the Philippines is on the alarm list of the most politically unstable nations of the world, ranking No. 59 (of 177 countries) in the 2008 Failed States Index. Culling from the data of the Worldwide Governance Indicators of the World Bank (1996-2007), we are in the 10th to 25th percentile in the bottom list in political stability and in the control of corruption.
Like firemen duty-bound to stop a “conflagration,” who else but the lawyers, as stewards of the law and as officers of the court, should lead in restoring the rule of law, exact accountability from public officials and colleagues in the wrong side of the fence, and narrow the justice gap – at this crucial times?
Hopefully, the members of the Bar will voice out their ideas and be part of the process in the formulation and adoption of the implementing regulations of the program.
On February 28, lawyers will choose the officers and members of the board of directors of their respective IBP chapters. The elections for Cebu and Cebu City Chapter officers will be from 8 a.m. to noon at the lobby of the Justice Hall. We hope for a wider participation from the lawyers in this election.