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March 17, 2022

ABA ROLI Hosts Roundtable Discussion on Pro Bono Lawyering in the Philippines

The American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), in collaboration with the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), held a Roundtable Discussion (RTD) on Pro Bono Lawyering in the Philippines on February 23, 2022. ABA ROLI organized this RTD with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under its five-year “Access to Justice and Support for the Rule of Law” (ACCESS) project. This virtual session drew participation by attorneys working in the government sector, private practitioners, and representatives from academia and civil society organizations (CSOs).

This RTD was a follow-up initiative to the December 2021 National Pro Bono Summit in which the IBP presented its proposed rules on “Unified Legal Aid Service” (ULAS) for all Filipino lawyers. The summit had more than 300 participants, including representatives from top Filipino law firms and CSOs, and members of the judiciary, prosecutors, and lawyers working in various government agencies. Guided by the interest and overwhelmingly positive feedback generated by the summit, this RTD was designed to provide opportunities for further discussion and to encourage conversations on the importance of pro bono lawyers in improving access to justice for vulnerable sectors, in particular indigent individuals and families. This RTD hosted 82 individuals from civil society organizations, the academia, and attorneys working in government and private sector.

ABA ROLI Country Director Mr. Peter Mackenzie welcomed the RTD participants, mentioning “The ACCESS Program has four objectives, one of which is to increase awareness of citizens’ rights and access to legal aid advice and representation. One of our main activities under this objective is the institutionalization of pro bono legal services.” 

The RTD panelists shared best practices regarding pro bono lawyering and advocacy post-pandemic. These panelists included Atty. Cheryl Palacao-Condat, IBP Cebu President; Atty. Michael Hubahib, IBP Cebu Legal Aid Chairman; Atty. Gian Miko Arabejo, Alternative Law Groups Project Coordinator; Atty. Socrates Padua, IBP Pampanga Chapter President; Atty. Theodore Te from the Free Legal Assistance Group; and Atty. Iris Pozon from the Legal Unit of the Commission on Human Rights – National Capital Region.

IBP Cebu President Atty. Cheryl Palacao-Condat shared one of several initiatives by the Cebu Chapter, “Probinsyanong Abogado Mo-Serbisyo,” which organizes legal aid servies on a per municipality. The initiative has already completed activities in 20 target areas in the Philippines. Atty. Condat explained that the chapter designs legal aid activities to promote its “#lawyersforcommunities” campaign to strengthen community's awareness of free legal services and their impact. Atty. Condat spoke about the chapter’s “Grand Legal Aid,” which has provided more than 700 individuals with pro bono services by more than 70 lawyers. IBP Cebu also partners with advocacy groups working on women’s human rights. Atty. Condat noted that many of Cebu’s lawyers have become victims of criminality in recent years, and the province has one of the nation’s highest rates of lawyers being killed.

Atty. Gian Arabejo from Alternative Law Groups discussed the scope of work of alternative or developmental lawyering as distinguished from that of chiefly pro bono lawyering practices. ALG is a coalition of 18 legal resource and non-governmental organizations that handles strategic litigation for the poor and marginalized sectors. Atty. Arabejo explained that while lawyers like himself are not primarily focused on pro bono lawyering for individual clients, there is a need to link the existing pool of pro bono lawyers with NGOs and CSOs that help people in need of lawyers. “We must connect the pro bono lawyers with CSOs, join networks and coalitions, and revise the punitive laws … (and) policies that are contributing to so many cases in the court dockets,” he explained.

IBP Pampanga President Atty. Socrates Padua shared the chapter’s accomplishments in pro bono lawyering and the challenges that come with responding to clients’ needs for scarce pro bono lawyers. Atty. Padua cited the dwindling number of volunteers in their chapter, with only 42 legal aid volunteers among its 951 lawyers, only 13 of whom handle court cases. One of their initiatives is to provide free insurance to entice lawyers to provide free legal aid.

Atty. Padua commended the commitment of his chapter’s lawyers who continue to devote time outside their private practices to participate in pro bono work. “If IBP Cebu has the distinction of consistently being the best legal aid committee, our chapter has the distinction of having the best legal aid lawyers in the Philippines,” he said. He attributed this assessment to the fact that IBP Cebu’s legal aid lawyers handle the most legal aid cases in court.

Atty. Theodore “Ted” Te, the Regional Coordinator of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), law professor in the University of the Philippines (UP) and Director of the Law College’s Clinical Legal Education Program, discussed the various legal assistance initiatives undertaken by FLAG. 

Atty. Te also clarified that pro bono assistance is part of FLAG’s larger program as a human rights organization. “Pro Bono assistance is just one aspect of what we do but it is something that we’ve been doing for 48 years,” he said. FLAG focuses on education, awareness raising, communication, and training. 

Atty Te reported that FLAG receives a high volume of requests for legal assistance every day, which can be difficult to meet given its limited resources. Atty. Te emphasized that it is not enough to make pro bono lawyering available; it is also imperative to fulfill constitutional guarantees of access to justice for all without discrimination.  Atty. Te pointed out that the judiciary must also examine ways to make legal processes affordable to the public and to encourage more lawyers to get involved without having to sacrifice their own opportunities or practices.

Atty. Iris Pozon from the National Capital Region office of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) talked about CHR’s mandate, its best practices and how it is at the forefront of pro bono work given its partnerships and linkages with various government offices and pro bono lawyering groups. Atty. Pozon discussed the assistance and legal services that people can be availed of in their regional office and how to make those services available even to persons deprived of liberty (PDLs).

In this RTD, testimonies were also featured from participants who received assistance from pro bono lawyers who had worked with ACCESS partners.

Ms. Alexandra Pilanga, a social worker from the Katilingban sa Kalambuan Organization, Inc. (KKI) Tanglaw Buhay Center, talked in a recorded video message about how her organization helps victims and survivors of child trafficking access legal assistance to file cases against their perpetrators. KKI is the only center in Western Mindanao that caters to victims and survivors of child trafficking. It provides free legal aid to child victims, from providing the necessary documents to file cases, to case build-up and assistance during hearings.

Ms. Jorive Dizon, a client of Gender Watch Against Violence and Exploitation (GWAVE), shared her experience of receiving legal assistance in filing documents and in case hearings. Ms. Dizon also discussed the Empowered Women of GWAVE Advocates, which serves as a support group for survivors who were provided paralegal training and are now able to educate victims on their rights and available remedies. Ms. Dizon’s story illustrates how women can take an active part in seeking redress when there are breaches of their rights. Through access to programs like ACCESS they can be empowered to become advocates of human rights, justice, and the rule of law.

Ms. Maniyln Piala, another GWAVE client, shared her similar experiences in receiving legal aid from volunteer lawyers who accompanied and assisted her during her hearing. “They are not only focused on our cases but they’re also trying to empower us … to know more about laws, about rights,” Ms. Piala added.

Learn more about ABA ROLI’s work across Asia & the Pacific.