News Commentary

Beyond questions on lockdown, a dire need for legal assistance and rights education

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Beyond questions on lockdown, a dire need for legal assistance and rights education
A cop joins rounds as the local government imposed a seven-day granular lockdown on Block 41 Zones 4, 5, and 9 at Barangay Addition Hills in Mandaluyong City on Friday midnight, March 12, 2021 to limit the movement of residents and curb the spike in COVID-19 related cases.
The STAR/Miguel de Guzman, file

MANILA, Philippines — When Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Services (IDEALS) Inc. launched its Tisya Hustisya chatbot in 2020, it took on a challenge bigger than the immediate need for free legal consultation.

Beyond helping Filipinos confused by quarantine restrictions, IDEALS wanted "to promote and help Filipino people understand human rights."

In 2020, the Filipino people were forced to grapple with extraordinary times: A public health brought the globe to its knees and the Philippine government enforced lockdowns and confined people to their homes or face arrests and punishment.

IDEALS said in April 2020 that its crisis hotline would answer the public's queries on government protocols, relief operations, social welfare concerns and legal rights education in the context of the Enhanced Community Quarantine.

When Tisya Hustisya was launched in June 2020, law enforcers were patroling the streets and apprehending people for allegedly defying quarantine protocols like curfews and prohibitions on mass gatherings. Some who were caught violating curfew were made to sit under the heat of the sun while some were put inside dog cages.

In May 2020, authorities arrested social media users for posts offering "rewards" to anyone who can kill President Rodrigo Duterte. The posts, possibly made out of frustration over the government's response to the pandemic, were treated as security threats.

Ten months later — with Metro Manila and four nearby provinces reverted to ECQ in March 2021 — Tisya Hustisya has given over 20,770 legal consultation sessions for 13,503 clients since its launch, its legal team says.

“Prior to the announcement of community quarantine, Tisya Hustisya [served] at least 47 clients per day and [attended] to an average of 350 legal consultations per week,” lawyer Ansheline Bacudio, IDEALS program manager, tells Philstar.com in an email.

“As our operations expanded, we were able to reach clients in remote provinces and even abroad. We also received queries from Overseas Filipino Workers, majority of them who are based in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates,” Bacudio adds.

Tisya Hustisya currently has 11,713 followers on its Facebook page. Those seeking legal consultation may head to their Facebook page and send them a private message. 

 IDEALS may also be contacted through hotline numbers 0953-382-6935 for Globe and TM and 0951-0774412 for Smart, TNT and Sun subscribers. 

SPECIAL REPORTS: Beyond arrest, raps: 'Quarantine violators' face trauma, COVID-19 risk too | Driven by hunger, urban poor go out for rumored relief drive but are haled into court instead

Domestic squabbles, property rights and labor violations

Child support and custody: Of the over 20,000 consultations the team has responded to, questions on child support and domestic squabbles were the most commonly raised to them.

Bacudio says single mothers or women estranged from their husbands asked about child support, custody issues, infidelity of spouse or live-in partners, annulment or domestic violence.

Sociologist Mario Aguja, in an earlier report, said the lockdown poses a problem for dysfunctional families as it forced them to live with their abusers for an extended time. “For them, the home became akin to prison,” he said last year.

In April 2020, the Commission on Human Rights launched an online platform where people can report incidents of violence against women and children while living under coronavirus lockdown.

Loan and mortgage, and property rights: Bacudio says clients also consulted them about outstanding loans and debts.

According to Philippine Statistics Authority data, the unemployment rate in 2020 rose to 10.3%, accounting for 4.5 million Filipinos without jobs.

Banks also recorded a dramatic surge in soured loans last year, but they expect the rise in unpaid debts to peak only in 2021 as the debt repayment reprieve extended to pandemic-hit borrowers through the Bayanihan laws expires.

“After millions of Filipinos lost their jobs and livelihood during ECQ and subsequent calibrated lockdowns, some Filipinos who [borrowed] money from online lending companies, money lenders and even loan sharks were unable to settle their dues,” IDEALS said.

The third most common legal question consulted to Tisya Hustisya is about property rights, such as client’s rights over a house and lot, ownership dispute between spouses, siblings, cousins or generations of descendants, and lots awarded by the National Housing Authority.

Labor violations: The Tisya Hustisya team also received questions on “violations of right to work, humane labor conditions, protection against unforeseen unemployment or forced cessation of work, right to social benefits, maternity leave, and other violations of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.”

Bacudio says they also encountered cases of “constructive dismissal without separation pay and cases of employers who failed to update their employees’ Social Security System, PhilHealth, and Home Development Mutual Fund (popularly known as Pag-ibig).” Some had taken their cases up to the National Labor Relations Commission.

She adds that even though some cases brought to them involve incidents that happened even before the pandemic, Tisya Hustisya’s legal team still extends help.

“These clients made ends meet by working as contractual and sub-contractual blue-collar employees. Even before stern lockdown measures encapsulated the country, thousands of security guards, supermarket employees, factory workers and construction workers are paid below minimum wage and render more than eight hours without overtime and hazard pay,” Bacudio also says.

A second ECQ

In a January release, Bacudio said the IDEALS legal team received questions on local ordinances, cyber libel, labor rights and actions for those subjected to curfew violations during the pandemic.

But as Metro Manila and four nearby provinces reverted to ECQ in March, the team did not record an increase in consultations.

“However, our organization remained vigilant to human rights violations during the quarantine period and we equipped ourselves to help them out,” Bacudio adds.

In the second week of ECQ, a Twitter user sought referrals to lawyers to help a doctor friend who had been apprehended for not wearing face shield while biking. It took three nights of detention, but the unnamed doctor was eventually released, although charged with two offenses.

In a series of tweets, veteran rights lawyer Chel Diokno offered legal advice on persons who may face the same situation with the apprehended doctor.

Diokno says that when subjected to same treatment, they should get a lawyer as soon as possible. The lawyer should be present at the time of inquest proceeding, which would determine the validity of the warrantless arrest and whether charges will be filed in court.

He explains that during inquest, the person arrested will be asked if they would like to have a preliminary investigation, a proceeding where the respondent will be given opportunity to rebut allegations by filing a counter-affidavit.

“If you say yes, you will be asked to sign a waiver of Article 125 of the Revised Penal Code. This is important: Do not sign the waiver if you have no lawyer,” Diokno, chair of the Free Legal Assistance Group, stresses.

He warns that signing means you will be detained while the preliminary investigation is ongoing, which can last weeks. “If the inquest prosecutor decides to file charges directly in court, your lawyer should immediately arrange for your release on bail or recognizance,” the rights lawyer adds.

Diokno, on April 5, launched his own Free Legal Helpdesk through his Facebook page, which currently has over 270,000 followers, He said they will be open 24/7, although due to anticipated surge of questions, it may take up to three working days before they can reply.

"Anyone can send questions here. They can ask legal questions, for example, about their spouses, or about land, or disputes between neighbors. We are ready to address those," he says in Filipino.

"Just send a message through the Facebook page and my team and I will answer."

RELATED: What to do if you receive a subpoena from NBI? Diokno offers tips

Going beyond lockdowns

IDEALS’ Bacudio says Tisya Hustisya will continue to operate even when the government orders looser quarantine protocols and even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With the overwhelming patronage the Tisya Hustisya Initiative received from its inception until today, it is clear that the Filipino people have a need or there is a demand for access to free legal advice,” she adds.

Even when the Tisya Hustisya legal team took a break during Holy Week, it left its followers with reminder that the law prohibits acts that offend against religious worship, and encouraged them to respect each other’s religion and beliefs.

Bacudio says that with their initiative, their clients gain knowledge about their rights. “With this knowledge, they are then empowered to become law-abiding citizens who actively assert their rights and participate in the prevention and redress, not only of their own rights, but also of those other members of the community,” she also says.

“In this scenario, we bring about justice to our name – Initiative for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Services. Hence, we see the necessity to continue the Tisya Hustisya initiative, and even improve our operations to better serve the Filipino people,” Bacudio adds.




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