SC now finalizing rules on enhanced legal aid service to marginalized, underprivileged sectors

The Supreme Court (SC) has started finalizing the rules on the Unified Legal Aid Service (ULAS) that would provide enhanced access to the country’s justice system of the marginalized and the underprivileged.

The SC’s final leg of regional consultations on ULAS rules was held last May 31 at the University of San Agustin in Iloilo City. Previous consultations were held in Baguio City, Cagayan de Oro City, and Makati City.

ULAS is one of the SC’s judicial reform projects under its Strategic Plan for Judicial Innovations 2022-2027 (SPJI).

It is envisioned to provide the mandatory rendition of pro bono (for the public good) legal aid services by covered lawyers to qualified beneficiaries – indigents, members of marginalized sectors with respect to their public interest cases, and non-governmental and non-profit organizations with respect to cases beneficial to indigents and members of marginalized sectors. 

Under the constitutional guarantee of adequate legal assistance to Filipinos, the proposed Rules will require covered lawyers to render at least 60 hours of pro bono legal aid services every compliance period of three years in favor of indigent Filipinos.

Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo had said the ULAS Rules aim to put in place a unified and streamlined framework for legal aid services that would “give the indigent, underrepresented, and marginalized members of our society full and effective access to justice.”

“Prescinding from previous legal aid service rules, our proposed ULAS Rules seek to make mandatory legal aid service in the country pursuant to the duty of every lawyer to participate in the development of a legal system, improve the administration of justice, and strengthen the judicial and legal system,” Chief Justice Gesmundo said. 

Gesmundo then extended the SC’s gratitude to the developmental partners -- the Australian Government - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and The Asia Foundation (TAF) -- for supporting the ULAS regional consultations.

The technical working group (TWG) finalizing the ULAS rules is headed by Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin A. Caquioa with Associate Justice Rodil V. Zalameda as vice chairperson. 

 Justice Caguioa said the TWG will begin collating and evaluating all input and feedback from the consultations for the consideration of the SC, as a full court, in drafting the final version of the ULAS Rules.

During the Iloilo City leg of consultations, Caguioa underscored that the continued partnerships and interoperations with other government agencies and organizations which share the purpose of the ULAS Rules must push on, including coordination with the Department of Justice Action Center (DOJAC) for the broadening of the base from which the ULAS Rules will stand.

He encouraged every stakeholder “to stay farsighted when you view the ULAS Rules, and imagine the kind of society that we can contribute to building through it,” by imagining “a nation where people will not think twice about pursuing justice just because they could not afford it; where access to justice is far from being priced, packaged and stacked against the poor.”

For his part, Justice Zalameda said the ULAS Rules is “the SC’s revolutionary initiative to finally and firmly institutionalize effective, efficient, and attainable legal aid service for those who need it.”

Associate Justice Japar B. Dimaampao, who headed the Cagayan de Oro City leg of the consultations, was also in Iloilo City. 

Acting Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Dr. Moya Collett, in a video message, reiterated her government’s commitment “to supporting the Supreme Court’s judicial reform agenda.”

In his welcome remarks, Rev. Fr. Frederick C. Comendador, OSA, president of the University of San Agustin, said the university “is proud to partner in these regional consultations.” He also said: “With this event, we know that we become an instrument, through the Supreme Court, to help the marginalized.”

During the consultation, an overview of the proposed rules and its key provisions was given by Atty. Joseph Anthony P. Lopez of Villaraza & Angangco Law, while Atty. Roslyn Bianca R. Mangaser of ACCRALAW gave a recap and summary of all the recommendations from participants. The two law firms are members of the TWG.

Also present during the consultation were Rev. Fr. Mamerto A. Alfeche,OSA, regent of university’s College of Law, Atty. Jose Mari Benjamin Francisco U. Tirol, dean of College of Law, and Integrated Bar of the Philippines National President Antonio C. Pido.

All ULAS regional consultations were moderated by Atty. Regine Jessica D. Abuel from the office of Justice Caguioa.