Refocusing legal aid



Jejomar C. Binay Former Vice President Jejomar C. Binay
Former Vice President

I first learned of the unjust detention of Romalyn Gumapos and her family through one of her professors at the University of Makati (UMAK).

Roma was a student at UMAK. She makes a living as a sidewalk vendor in Manila, together with the other members of her family. When her case was brought to my attention, they had been in detention for more than a month, first at a police precinct, then at the Manila City Jail.

Roma and her family figured in an altercation with an off-duty Manila policeman sometime in August 2018. Roma claims that the policeman grabbed her sister by the hair, and that the family came to her rescue. When the police arrived, the off-duty policeman claimed he was attacked by the family. Police would charge them with attempted murder.

After reviewing her case, I was convinced she and her family had been falsely accused. Together with lawyers from the Manila chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), I represented Roma and her family -- in my capacity as chair of the UMAK School of Law’s Legal Aid Center -- before the Manila Regional Trial Court.

In the course of the trial, we uncovered and presented to the court inconsistencies and outright falsehoods made by the complainant and the prosecution witnesses in their sworn affidavits submitted as evidence.

The judge -- who showed fairness, professionalism, and compassion all throughout the hearing- dismissed the case on March 5 after the Manila policeman withdrew his complaint and the prosecution stated on record that they could no longer proceed with their case. By this time, Roma and her kin had already spent seven months in detention.

Those months Roma and her kin spent behind bars can never be brought back, and the memory of the horrid conditions in the cramped detention cell she and her sister shared with other female detainees will remain etched in the young mind of Roma. Still, justice has been served. Roma’s family are picking up the pieces of their lives, slowly and tentatively, but always in a state of fear.

The law should always protect the weak, the poor, and the vulnerable. As lawyers, it is our responsibility to always strive to protect their rights and dignity. There are many like Roma who have been falsely accused and continue to languish in detention simply because they cannot afford a lawyer.

When I was a human rights lawyer, we represented clients who had been unjustly accused during martial law. Sadly, as shown by the ordeal of Roma and her family, these forms of abuse persist until now.

We still have persons in authority who are supposed to uphold and implement the law abusing their power against the poor and the defenseless.

The case of Roma and her kin was the first case to be handled by our Legal Aid Center at UMAK. It has been my goal, since becoming dean of the School of Law, to pursue a different path for our small college. We not only want to produce good lawyers, but to produce lawyers who are socially aware and steeped in a culture where law is seen not only as a profession but an opportunity to be of service to the people, specially the poor.

In this, I drew on the words of the late senator Jose W. Diokno, the founder of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) during martial law, where I was the head of the Metro Manila chapter.

Ka Pepe made a distinction between traditional legal aid and what he calls critical legal aid, the latter pertaining to legal aid as it should be seen and practiced under oppressive conditions:

“Legal aid has traditionally viewed its function as providing legal solution to legal problems of the poor by vindicating their legal rights. This is a valuable function in itself: every triumph of justice is a cause for celebration,” he says.

However, traditional legal aid “accepts uncritically the basic rightness of the legal order and of the social system and institutions within which it operates.”

“Its premise is that injustice is caused by the frailties of the men who make or enforce the law, not by the inequity of the social system itself. Its thrust is to uphold the law, not to transform society,” he emphasized.

Ka Pepe likened traditional legal aid to a lawyer giving alms to the poor: “Like alms, which provide temporary relief to the poor but do not touch the social structures that keep the poor poor, traditional legal aid redressed particular instances of injustice but does not fundamentally change the structures that generate and sustain injustice.”

Said Ka Pepe: “Above all else, legal aid lawyers in developing societies under authoritarian rule should realize that by serving their clients, they are, in fact, serving the people. For the poor, dispossessed and the oppressed they defend are the people.”

“Moreover, legal aid should not limit its advocacy to individual rights. It should seek to vindicate collective rights as well…In short, the proper scope of legal aid in developing nations is to protect and vindicate both the rights of man and the rights of the people,” he added.

These words of Ka Pepe should guide all of us in the legal profession as we struggle to find our place and purpose in these times of uncertainty.

It bears repeating that the greater purpose of law -- beyond according our clients the best legal representation that we can provide -- is to ensure that each individual receives the opportunities to prosper and grow with dignity.