CJ Gesmundo: Lawyers’ free legal service must be 'visible, readily available, quick to action'

Published December 2, 2021, 4:51 PM

by Rey Panaligan 

Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo (2)

“True dedication to the spirit of public service requires pro bono lawyers (those who render their services free of charge) to be constantly visible, readily accessible and quick to action.”

This was stressed by Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo in his keynote speech during the 2nd Philippine Pro Bono Summit held online on Thursday, Dec. 2.

Gesmundo told the participants:

“Pro bono service is not about making your legal services free and available only in times of need. Pro bono lawyering requires the adoption of a holistic approach which may only be done through collaboration and coordination of efforts by the members of the legal community and civil society.”

The summit was hosted by the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) in collaboration with the Supreme Court of the Philippines, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the Legal Education Board (LEB). It was supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Gesmundo said he has proposed to the SC the adoption of Strategic Plan for the Judiciary.

The five-year strategic plan would make the country’s courts “consistently efficient and accountable havens for the disadvantaged, the wronged, the injured.”

“Once and for all, the Judiciary must deliver its services, both adjudicative and administrative, real time,” Gesmundo declared.

Also included in the plan is the strengthening of legal aid in the country.

Gesmundo pointed out that legal representation is “the backbone of the due process right to a day court.” But because of the expense, he lamented, many are denied legal representation.

The SC allots yearly a budget for legal aid given to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP). “Despite this, there is a great room for improvement in the IBP’s Legal Aid Program,” Gesmundo said.

“The IBP should thus step up its Legal Aid Program by requiring its members, as a condition for remaining a member in good standing, to render free legal aid services for a fixed number of hours per year. Such legal aid services should include acting as Supervising Lawyers to Law Student Practitioners under Rule 138-A.”

Rule 138-A, which institutionalized the Clinical Legal Education Program (CLEP), should be harnessed by the IBP in coordination with the Legal Education Board (LEB) and the Philippine Association of Law Schools (PALS), he said.

“The IBP through its Chapters should partner with the established Legal Aid Clinics of LEB-accredited law schools in their respective areas,” he added.

“To raise awareness among our people on the availability of free legal aid, a National Summit on Legal Aid will showcase the two-pronged Legal Aid Initiative of the Supreme Court: through the revitalized IBP Legal Aid Program and through the CLEP. The Court will also see to the inclusion of a Database of Free Legal Aid Providers in the Supreme Court Website and the AI platforms of the Judiciary that will be deployed,” he also said.

During the online summit, Gesmundo said the SC would study the proposal of Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin S. Caguioa, the justice in-charge of Bar matters on legal aid, of tapping the resources and experience of law firms and seasoned practitioners in order to provide “real and effective” legal service to indigent and pauper litigants.

He said Justice Caguioa’s proposal “will require lawyers with at least three (3) years experience to render pro bono service in exchange for incentives, such as crediting certain units of compliance for Mandatory Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) in proportion to the amount of time expended, and allowing deductions from gross income as provided under the Free Legal Assistance Act of 2010.”

“Under his (Caguioa) proposal, the IBP Chapters or law school legal aid clinics would determine the minimum eligibility requirements for recipients of pro bono legal aid, while the law firms will choose the qualified lawyers who would do the pro bono work and decide the allocation of MCLE credits or tax deductions to its lawyers in a fair and equitable manner,” he said.

He expressed hopes that “the IBP, members of the legal community, and civil society groups, will rise to the challenge of complementing these activities with the sole purpose of further expanding, strengthening and making more efficient, the provision of legal aid service in the country.”

He paid tribute to the efforts of ABA ROLI in the Philippines “for holding this summit, and allowing the members of the legal community to rethink their current strategies in providing legal assistance to the underprivileged sector of society.”