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Compelled Charity

(Article published in the Jul  1, 2009 issue of Manila Standard Today) 

 I was prepared to start complying beginning today (01 July) with the Supreme Court resolution issued last February as Bar Matter No. 2012 making it a “mandatory requirement for practicing lawyers to render free legal aid services in all cases (whether, civil, criminal or administrative) involving indigent and pauper litigants where the assistance of a lawyer is needed.” After all, the clarion call was sounded by the Supreme Court which has, as its name definitely indicates, supreme authority over members of the bar.

 I was thus ready to follow and, unlike the Light Cavalry’s commander British Commander Lord James Cardigan who decided not to be among the six hundred’s charge into the valley of death (Cardigan is said to have maintained that as a general he, having led his men into action, had no business involving himself in the mêlée), I had decided to bear with it like my unfortunate compañeros and compañeras who do litigation.

 Despite such compliant resolve, however, I continue to have doubts about Bar Matter No. 2012 and, at least until December 31 of this year, we relish the hope that there is still a chance for the court to realize that its issuance was actually a mistake.

 My fundamental hesitation regarding Bar Matter No. 2012 is primarily philosophical: legal aid, by its very nature, is service by a lawyer freely engaged in and freely given.  That is the reason why members of the legal profession admire those of their number who devote time, talent, and, often treasure, in the service of pauper litigants and those who could not afford to pay for legal service. 
 










     

Those who render legal aid, albeit sometimes for government pay which is always meager, are thus a people set apart.  By doing legal aid voluntarily, they demonstrate that law not a business; it is a profession, even if the income tax law lumps doing business and engaging in a profession in the same category. 

Bar Matter No. 2012 takes that source of singular dignity away when it compels a practicing lawyer to at least 60 hours of free legal aid service to indigents in a year; said 60 hours spread within the year with a minimum of 5 hours every month.

 In addition to demeaning the eleemosynary nature of legal aid, Bar Matter No. 2012 in fact may work contrary to its avowed purpose.  Section 2 of the Rule on Mandatory Legal Aid Service says its purpose is to “enhance the duty of lawyers to society as agents of social change and to the courts as officers thereof by helping improve access to justice by the less privileged members of society and expedite the resolution of cases involving them.”

 With due respects, it is difficult to see how compelling legal aid services can improve access to justice by the less privileged.  It simply means that there will be many more lawyers theoretically available for legal aid.  But quantity, even assuming the reality of the expected increase in numbers, does not necessarily mean quality.  The mere fact that there will be many workers in the vineyard does not necessarily mean that the vineyard will be taken care of.  We just have to see the mere number of workers sweeping the streets near election time to realize that mere multitude on the road, assuming they do all work, do not a clean street make. 

 There is always the danger that, just for the sake of complying, practicing lawyers would choose the easiest and least engaging cases to avoid spending too much time and effort in the pauper litigants’ suits. After all, if a practicing lawyer has not yet met his monthly “quota” of 5 hours for the month, then there is always the  temptation to grab any case, irrespective of one’s capability of handling it. 

 The actual implementation of the well-intentioned Bar Matter 2012 is fraught with administrative hassles, if not pitfalls.  In the first place, the practicing lawyer must determine where his services may be needed.  Practicing lawyers whose practice gravitate in the cities would then have to go outside of their usual places of work to go to places where there are not many lawyers. It is possible that on the particular day a practicing lawyer goes out of his usual haunts to hunt for pauper litigants to serve, he would have to come back empty handed if no poor people are around to serve.

 Assuming he does find legal aid work to do, what he needs to come back home with is a certificate from the Clerk of Court attesting to the number of hours spent rendering free legal aid service.  Frankly, it is difficult for the Clerk of Court to make a truthful certification.  What qualifies as free legal aid under the rule is not only appearance in court or quasi-judicial bodies (which assuming the clerk of court has more two eyes capable of monitory the practicing lawyers in his sale), but also preparation of pleadings and motions. 

 Pleadings and motions are prepared in the practitioners’ law office and not within effective sight of the Clerk of Court.  How then, except by plucking figures out of thin air or inventing the number of hours so devoted, by certified to by the Clerk of Court. 

 I submit that Legal Aid should be encouraged, but not made mandatory.  It should be treated as a an area of work reserved for those who wish to live to the fullest the ideals of their profession.  Its dignity ought not be undermined by compulsion.  In the same manner that not all are called to the priesthood, nor is anyone to consider himself compelled to be a priest, so also lawyers ought not be pushed into legal aid service, or else. 
 

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