In the trenches of the law

The Supreme Court releases the names of those who passed the 2022 bar examinations. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

“See you in the trenches,” the human rights lawyer and law professor Ted Te said at the tail end of a brief online post addressed to the passers of the 2022 bar examination, whose names were released by the Supreme Court last April 14. 

Te’s message evoked in the attentive observer, not the glamorous, de campanilla connotation that a law degree has acquired in these parts, but the persevering and perilous kind of law practice of which many Filipinos, mostly impoverished, are in crucial need. Who among the 3,992 of the total 9,183 examinees recognized that it was not so much an invitation as a challenge?

The field is awash in opportunities for the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 43.47% who made the passing grade of 74%, including those who vaulted over the rest to occupy the top 30 posts. (Bar topnotchers are lionized in this neck of the woods, the hype more heated than that generated for the top passers of the licensure examination for physicians and dwarfing those of the licensure examination for teachers, despite the significance that teachers carry in a nation’s development. One could say the bar examination has become an annual extravaganza; before the pandemic altered life as we knew it, brass bands even accompanied certain examinees to the testing grounds. Imagine their humiliation when their test results went sideways.) After the formality on May 2 of swearing “with all good fidelity” to, among other things, not “delay [anyone] for money or malice” and signing the roll, the new lawyers can get their hands dirty, if they are so inclined.

Oil spill

The Feb. 28 oil spill that has deprived fishermen of Oriental Mindoro and parts of Antique and Palawan of their means of livelihood requires lawyers to help those so summarily displaced. Two months after the sinking of the MT Princess Empress that resulted in the continuing leak and dispersal of industrial fuel oil in waters including the Verde Island Passage—the center of global marine diversity and protected by law—there’s not much to be heard from relevant government departments and officials beyond sound bites on the dribs and drabs of “ayuda.” And inquiries into the possible role of regulatory agencies in the environmental disaster, such as the Coast Guard and the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina), have yet to yield the results necessary to move the pursuit of justice forward.

Only this week has Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla been heard calling the oil spill “a crime,” in the course of announcing a government plan to sic the writ of “kalikasan” on those responsible. His correct terminology will hopefully needle the government bureaucracy off its snail’s pace and into urgent mode. 

And the young being natural busybodies, the new lawyers can offer legal representation to not only the displaced fishermen and their families but also the present and future generations, in order to, in the words of the Stop the Oil Spill (SOS) coalition, “ensure just reparation and sustained recovery for affected communities and biodiversity.” Per a report by the Inquirer, SOS member Greenpeace Philippines named those liable as RDC Reield Marine Services, the owner of the MT Princess Empress that was carrying 900,000 liters of industrial fuel oil when it sank in waters off Naujan, Oriental Mindoro; SL Harbor Bulk Terminal Corp.; and San Miguel Corp. Shipping and Lighterage.

Those prevented by the oil spill from fishing have been losing as much as P19 million daily, in the estimation of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources through its spokesperson Nazario Briguera. The impact on those whose living depends on tourism, involving, for example, world-famous dive spots, has yet to be fully quantified.

Much to do

So much legal work needed, so little time. The medical risks to the communities in the areas afflicted by the oil spill, to speak nothing of the first responders and others involved in the manual cleanup, constitute an altogether different legal issue.

On another point, lawyer Kristina Conti was quick to issue a call to her new colleagues to consider helping survivors of the Philippine government’s “war on drugs” in submitting  their personal views and comments to the International Criminal Court ( ICC), in connection with its intention to proceed with the inquiry into the extrajudicial killings and other rights violations under the antidrug campaign. ICC principal counsel Paolina Massidda has pointed out that the dismissal of the inquiry, as the Philippine government wishes, would imperil the survivors’ “right to truth, justice and reparations.”

The survivors of the fire that swept MV Lady Mary Joy on March 29-30 in the waters off Basilian and that led to the death of at least 32 persons need legal assistance in coming to just terms with the tragedy. Who is ensuring that their rights are being protected and upheld? Who are the parties liable for the loss of lives and personal injuries caused by the fire found to have stemmed from faulty electrical wiring? Did the concerned Coast Guard and Marina personnel conduct themselves according to their professional duties? What is the scope of Aleson Shipping Lines’ liability as ferry owner, and who will seek appropriate compensation for the passengers?

And indeed, who is representing the medical workers still awaiting their pandemic-related emergency allowances after all these years? At last count, the Department of Budget and Management—from whose procurement bureau billions of pesos had been disbursed to fund the questionable purchase of pandemic equipment—has yet to release P1.94 billion in various emergency allowances guaranteed by law to at least 20,000 medical workers in private hospitals in Metro Manila and certain provinces.

‘Biases of the ruling class’

The new lawyers may be interested to know that the former senator Rene Saguisag, No. 6 in the 1963 bar examination, found his bearings in the United States when he was pursuing a master’s degree in law at Harvard University. 

In an article published in the fortnightly magazine Celebrity in August 1984, Saguisag recounted how he progressed from defending the imperialist war in Vietnam and citing the “communist threat to Southeast Asia” to befriending Blacks, Latinos and others excluded from the mainstream of American life—and eventually pondering on how wealth and power in his homeland could be redistributed.

“I realized that the law, for which I was trained, always represents the biases of the ruling class. If the ruling class wants something, they translate it into law. And the law becomes an instrument of social oppression,” Saguisag told his interviewer, Amadis Ma. Guerrero.

At that time he was 44; husband to Dulce Quintans (since passed) who held a master’s degree in social work; father of four; and founder and ranking officer of the 4-year-old Mabini, or the Movement of Attorneys for Brotherhood, Integrity and Nationalism Inc. “I was an obscure lawyer defending obscure detainees,” he said of his early days defending students and others picked up and arrested by authorities in protest rallies. 

The presence of Mabini and the like-minded FLAG, or the Free Legal Assistance Group, provided “a feeling of hope” during the Marcos dictatorship, and helped ease what would have been truly dire straits, Saguisag said. He said it was what they were constantly told: “Kung wala ang FLAG at Mabini, grabe ang sitwasyon.”

By the time the Marcos dictatorship was toppled in February 1986, Mabini had been representing the April 6 Movement, Operation Takipsilim, Eva Estrada Kalaw, the weekly We Forum, women journalists sued for libel for writing about conditions in the countryside, farmers in Isabela, striking factory workers, and the anti-Marcos activist Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr., among many others.

Nearly four decades later, it’s clear that the lawyer Saguisag has stood by the critical choice he made early on in his professional life: to “always be on the other side,” to “always be with the oppressed,” and being “disturbed by the imbalance, even when it comes to adequate legal help.” 

There are countless other demonstrations of choices made and commitments upheld in the practice of law in the Philippine democratic project. A number paid the heaviest price, including  Anthony Trinidad and Benjamin Ramos, defenders of political prisoners, peasants and environmentalists in court, who were killed in Negros by unknown assailants in July 2019 and November 2018, respectively. Others were killed before and after them, according to Lawyers for Lawyers, which believes that “every lawyer must be able to practice their profession freely and independently,” and seeks “to provide people the legal assistance to which they are entitled, to uphold the rule of law, and to protect human rights.”

No. 1

But who’s to say that it’s criminal for a man or woman of the law to choose to not rock the boat, or to make a living where the big bucks are?

Still, encouraging are the remarks of Czar Matthew Dayday, No. 1 on the list of new lawyers, to the interviewers who besieged him after the release of the names of those who had made the cut. To Rappler he raised the need to “demystify” the law so that the common folk can understand the legal system, and to reform law education so that the focus is not on merely topping or passing the bar examination—the release of the test results has become a “spectacle,” in his opinion—but on producing lawyers with ethical standards and the requisite skills and competencies.

A woman is comforted by a friend after learning of the bar exam results. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

“I think part of being a lawyer for the people is also making sure that the law is accessible… in the sense that people understand the rights, the obligations, the different laws that are in place,” Dayday said.

He also expressed openness to varying points of view, new knowledge, new experiences—a plus point for this new officer of the court who now works as a legal assistant in an established law firm and is thus not compelled to get his feet wet in the swamp of unemployment. His stance will equip him, if the moment calls for it, to slog through terrain different from what he now knows, terrain that may or may not be the trenches—and perhaps use what he learns to find “the good way for me to help others.”

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