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New lawyers to render free service to poor litigants

MANILA, Philippines — The Supreme Court (SC) has required new lawyers to render free legal services to indigent litigants in a bid to boost public accessibility to courts.

In a 14-page order published in The STAR yesterday, the high court set the new requirement that will apply to law graduates who will hurdle the bar exams next month and take their oath next year.

Under the new rule, lawyers starting from the next batch who will take their oath next year are required to provide at least 120 hours of free legal services for poor litigants as part of implementation of the constitutional guarantee to “free access to the courts and quasi-judicial bodies.”

“The legal profession is imbued with public interest. As such, lawyers are charged with the duty to give meaning to the guarantee of access to adequate legal assistance under Article III, Section 11 of the 1987 Constitution,” read the order.

“As a way to discharge this constitutional duty, lawyers are obliged to render pro bono services to those who otherwise would be denied access to adequate legal services,” it stressed. 

The SC said lawyers must ensure people’s access to legal services “in an efficient and convenient manner compatible with the independence, integrity and effectiveness of the profession.”

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Apart from indigent litigants, the new lawyers may also render free services to groups, individuals and organizations that cannot get the services of the Public Attorney’s Office due to conflict of interest and on legal issues involving public interests.

The SC stressed the rule was not intended to prevent the successful bar passers from using their profession for their own pecuniary interests.

The SC also clarified the new lawyers will not be barred from practicing and accepting paying clients during the period of compliance to the new requirement.

“Barring any conflict of interest or any other violation of the Code of Professional Responsibility, covered lawyers can engage in private practice and accept paid clients or be employed in the government or in the private sector within the twelve-month period for compliance,” it stressed.

Exempted from the new rule are those already working in the executive and legislative branches six months before they hurdled the bar exams.

They will be exempted from the requirement and also those who have finished the “clinical legal education program” and have rendered free legal work prior to their admission to the bar.    

The new rule, promulgated or approved by the full court last Oct. 10, covers criminal, civil and administrative cases.

The SC tasked its Office of the Bar Confidant (OBC) and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines for the implementation of the new rule dubbed as “Community Legal Aid Service Rule.”

The new lawyers are required to complete the 120 hours of free legal services within one year after signing the roll of attorneys next year.

However, they may ask the OBC for up to two years extension to comply with the requirement by presenting valid and justifiable reason. 

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