A roadmap to better access to justice

BAR NONE - Atty. Ian Vincent Manticajon - The Freeman

For today’s column, I’d like to share some key points made during the recently-concluded National Legal Aid Summit in Bacolod City last November 28-30, 2022. It was organized by the Supreme Court in partnership with the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, Philippine Association of Law Schools, the Free Legal Assistance Group, and Alternative Law Groups.

The three-day summit was a fitting reminder that the people are the focal point of our legal system. In the Philippines, it cannot be denied that many of our people experience difficulties in accessing legal assistance and justice forums. That explains the immense popularity of social media forums and other alternative anecdotal demonstrations of “justice” like the broadcast program Raffy Tulfo in Action.

In his keynote address during the morning session of summit day 1, Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo recognized that the public has indeed turned to personalities in social media for their legal questions. He said that even at the expense of exposing themselves to public ridicule, people seek alternative assistance outside formal legal structures because court litigation and engagement of lawyers are expensive.

This should, therefore, serve as an impetus for those in the legal profession to reassess and rethink their role in society. Fittingly, the summit carried the theme “Reimagining the Art of Legal Empowerment: National Summit on Access to Justice Through Cultivating Approaches on Legal Aid”.

Chief Justice Gesmundo said that the promotion of justice and peace and order carries with it the public dimension. The nobility of the legal profession lies in the unselfish efforts of the legal community to truly become instruments of truth and justice. “The legal profession is a public service --service in need of justice and in search of truth,” Gesmundo said.

“Lawyering does not give us entitlement, nor is it a tool for vengeance. It is a tool for justice, an instrument for peace, unity and equality. It is the last bet for the poor, the last strength for the injured,” the chief magistrate said.

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, chairman of the Supreme Court Committee on Access to Justice/Underserved Areas, in his keynote address, laid down a possible roadmap in which various approaches to legal empowerment and access to justice may be guided.

He emphasized that access to justice means more than just legal aid. Legal aid is still important in light of the fact that in 2021, the Philippines ranked 84th in the world in access to justice. But if we are truly going to provide access to justice, we need to go beyond legal aid, Leonen said.

For one, access to justice is a social justice issue. We live in a society that has the tendency to support problems that in turn create barriers in accessing justice, Leonen said. “Our reality of an unjust society is familiar. Millions do not eat food regularly. Squalor and poverty exists. Poverty is a condition, its causes are many. It must be an obsessive concern,” he said.

Corruption is another key element that hinders access to justice. Corruption undermines our society, it weakens our democracy, Leonen said. When corruption exists, it weakens our ability to enforce the law. Corrupt courts become an instrument of power. Those who are corrupt are protected by the status quo. While those who stand their ground are always vulnerable, Leonen said. But not all corrupt people succeed. The legal system has, in fact, disciplined many of those who are corrupt. Addressing corruption should be part of access to justice.

Another key factor in the roadmap toward access to justice and legal empowerment that Justice Leonen cited is deconstructing cultural stereotypes. Quoting a poet, Leonen said that cultural stereotypes are powerful. They allow certain individuals to become invisible. And these stereotypes find their way into our law. When we fail to identify these, there will be injustice.

For example, we still have the legal concept of “illegitimate child”. “Why is it the child that bears the burden of being illegitimate? Shouldn't it be the parents?” Leonen asked. Also, are we ready to recognize the existence of battered men? Our laws on violence against women typecast all women as victims, where in fact violence is not solely about gender but about power relationships. “Patriarchy, while privileging men, also victimizes them,” Leonen said.

The information and insights shared by the Public Attorney’s Office and alternative law groups are also worth sharing. I’ll make space for them in this column next week.


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