Members of NUPL hold up streamers at the start of Bar exams on November 4, 2018. The exams are held at the University of Santo Tomas on the four Sundays of November.
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'Confusing' times call for more people's lawyers, NUPL says
Kristine Joy Patag ( - November 11, 2018 - 10:40am

MANILA, Philippines — More than 8,700 law graduates are taking the Bar exams this year—enough to fill the Rizal Memorial Coliseum, as National Union of Peoples' Lawyers points out.

The decades-old human rights lawyers’ group is more than eager to welcome new allies into their ranks, but note that recent events have not exactly been encouraging for the law profession.

"Is it still worth taking the Bar after all?" the NUPL asked in an open letter at the opening of the exams, which are held on the four Sundays of November.

NUPL: To be a peoples' lawyer

"By calling yourselves the ‘people’s lawyer,’ you have made a remarkable choice. You decided not to remain on the sidelines. Where human rights are assaulted, you have chosen to sacrifice the comfort of the fence for the dangers of the battlefield. But only those who choose to fight on the battlefields live beyond irrelevance.”

These were the words of then-Chief Justice Reynato Puno during the NUPL Founding Congress in September 2007. Back then, they had 80 members.

"It united various independent human rights lawyer groups and was a response to the political and legal repression at time of President [Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo]," NUPL president Edre Olalia told

The NUPL's website still carries these words, as they vow to “render competent legal the marginalized sectors for the upholding of their rights and freedoms.”

Olalia said that, as of now, there are around 500 members, composed of litigators, prosecutors, public attorneys, judges, law professors, government lawyers, law students and paralegals. The union now has 20 chapters across the country.

Pro bono cases are, ironically, the bread and butter of NUPL lawyers. Their clients are farmers, workers, activists, indigenous peoples, the urban poor, mass organizations environmentalists and human rights defenders, explained Olalia.

From martial law to Mary Jane Veloso

When Mary Jane Veloso, a mother who crossed countries in the hope of giving her two sons a better life, was duped into carrying heroin into Indonesia, the NUPL took up the cudgels to bring her recruiters to court.

This is a battle that they continue to lose in court as Veloso, whose execution in Indonesia was stayed in 2015, has yet to be allowed to give her testimony.

RELATED: Veloso couple run to SC: Let Mary Jane tell her story

People's lawyers were among the first to lend legal assistance, dispatching a quick reaction team, to the victims of the killings of nine sugarcane workers in Sagay, Negros Occidental on October 20.

They were with Australian Sister Patricia Fox until her last hours on Philippine soil, after the Bureau of Immigration rejected her plea to extend her visitor's visa. They vowed to take the elderly nun's battle to the highest court of the land.

NUPL also helped secure the conviction for kidnapping in September of retired general Jovito Palparan Jr. over the disappearance of UP students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan in 2006.

They have taken up the task of representing martial law victims, in lower courts and at the Supreme Court, when they challenged President Rodrigo Duterte's order to bury the remains of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

And Duterte's burial order, which was later ruled as constitutional by the SC, was not their only challenge against the country's firebrand leader. 

'Drug war' cases

The numbers of those allegedly killed under the Duterte administration's campaign against illegal drugs differ depending on who one is asking: The government acknowledged 4,948 by September, while human rights groups and government critics have estimates of around 20,000.

The NUPL has taken the Duterte administration to court over the deaths: Filing a petition before the Supreme Court against the drug war and taking the case to an International Peoples' Tribunal on Belgium. Although non-binding, the IPT's findings were sent to the International Criminal Court.

The ICC prosecutor announced earlier this year that the office has opened a preliminary examination on the communications filed regarding alleged extrajudicial killings in the government's campaign against illegal drugs.

But even as defenders of the people, lawyers are not spared by bullets.

Among those killed in the last two years are officials of the court: Clerks, lawyers, prosecutors and even judges.

'Pens against bullets'

Two days after more than 8,000 hopefuls took the first day of the Bar exams, a human rights lawyer was brutally killed.

Benjamin Ramos was merely taking a break from working on his pro bono cases—he had been handling cases pro bono for years, colleagues said—when he was gunned down by unidentified men.

Among the cases he had been handling was of the "Mabinay 6", six youth activists arrested in Negros Oriental in March and charged for illegal possession of firearms and explosives

Ramos is the 34th lawyer slain under the Duterte administration. For officers of the court, the numbers are higher: A pregnant prosecutor was killed while she was in her car, a prosecutor was gunned down as he was alighting his car going to work at the City Hall, even retired prosecutors were killed.

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the national organization of lawyers, aptly put it: "Our pens and typewriters are helpless against guns and bullets that have tilted the scales of justice alarmingly in favor impunity and lawlessness, all in arrant disregard of the sanctity of human life."

The NUPL also claimed that their national officers and members in Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya, Albay, Antique and the National Capital Regional have constantly been threatened and vilified, as they are usually "red-tagged" and subject to surveillance.

READ: Murdered NUPL lawyer was 'red-tagged' earlier in 2018

Police have floated the theory that Ramos was killed over his supposed gambling, a claim that his widow Clarissa has rejected. She said her husband had been under surveillance for years for working on cases involving activists.

NUPL lawyers have also had to face legal battles themselves.

Kathy Panguban, also one of the laywers of Sister Fox, is facing criminal raps from the police. She is being accused of kidnapping a minor who survived the killing of nine sugarcane workers in Sagay, Negros Occidental.

NUPL said Panguban was acting as lawyer to the witness's mother, to whom the minor was released by the Sagay City social welfare office.

READ: 'Kidnapping raps vs lawyer of 'Sagay 9' witness's mother baseless'

'Confusing' times for legal profession

If the prospect of bullets and criminal cases are not enough, recent events in the Judiciary may also be "confusing" for aspiring lawyers, the NUPL said.

Citing recent controversial cases—the ouster of Maria Lourdes Sereno as chief justice through quo warranto, the release for health reasons of reelectionist Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, the arrest order against Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV due to a voided amnesty—the NUPL said that Bar hopefuls may have found recent events "redefining" textbook legal concepts.

"And are you not dismayed to see high-profile, swaggering, cussing, and even dirty-finger pointing, swashbuckling, opportunist lawyers redefining and twisting the facts and the law in defense or in blind loyalty of the powers that be?" the NUPL added.

But, they posed a challenge as well: "When you know that law is ultimately for justice; that you will not be an instrument to perpetuate injustice and inequity; or that you will serve the poor, exploited and helpless; that you aspire to become one of the best lawyers money can not buy; that you will use your education, training and skills to change the ills of society; and that you vow to change the law of rulers to the rule of justice — then take that Bar by all means, and do the best performance of your life."

"Then it will all be worth it, despite or in spite of the confusing and confused turn of events of late," the NUPL said.

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