Lawyers Take Off-the-beaten Path

Lawyers are supposed to act with “cold neutrality,” but a group of legal practitioners in Mindanao has decided to go against this stereotype by pledging to serve poor clients and taking a stand on the current political crisis – aware that they may end up endangering their own lives.


DAVAO CITY – If you’re a lawyer, would you give your services to Lumads (indigenous peoples) who were driven out of their ancestral land? Would you welcome a young Moro accused of bombing a mall, a farmer demanding ownership of the land he tills or a wife looking for her husband who was allegedly abducted by the military?

Questions such as these are not hypothetical since these are faced by both well-meaning and cause-oriented lawyers in the country. Today in Mindanao, southern Philippines, however, those in need of legal services include families of 118 people killed and 600 injured as a result of 39 recent bombings. Aside from them, around 85,000 people have suffered worst cases of human rights violations from 2001-2003; 400,000 people were displaced during the intensified offensive military operations in 2000.

For the more than 65 lawyers, paralegals and law students who attended the First Mindanao Assembly of People’s Lawyers held last week of July at the Brokenshire Resource Center this city, the challenge is daunting. Aside from the obvious problem of not having money to pay for their services, these prospective clients could even hardly afford to go to the court for lack of transportation money.

Lawyers who take in such clients may also get killed in the process.

People’s lawyering in Mindanao

The lawyers formed the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM) which seeks to rekindle people’s lawyering in Mindanao. According to them, people’s lawyering began in the 1970s with the formation of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) in Cotabato City. The latter is said to be the first chapter of FLAG which was founded by Sen. Jose W. Diokno and other human rights lawyers during he Marcos years.

The 1980s saw the Mindanao-wide formation of lawyers called the Concerned Lawyers Union of Mindanao (COLUMN) which had six chapters all over the island. COLUMN had as members lawyers whose names have become synonymous to activism and militancy against the Marcos dictatorship like Larry Ilagan, Antonio Arellana and Marcos Risonar.

The UPLM, according to its first chair Frederico Gapuz, embodies the principles of people’s lawyering. Romeo Capulong – president of the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) and United Nations Judge Ad Litem who was invited as keynote speaker to the assembly – defined people’s lawyering as the “other type of lawyering for the poor.”

Unlike the traditional practitioners who merely plead the client’s cause “with the cold neutrality of a skilled legal technician,” Capulong said that the people’s lawyer “has a high degree of passion and dedication to the legal as well as the social cause of the client.”

Capulong urged his colleagues to develop this as a specialty in legal practice as there is still a small number of lawyers engaged in providing legal aid to the poor out of the 46,000 registered lawyers based on Supreme Court records.

Given the country’s political crisis, Capulong said, lawyers should “play a significant role in the general political education of the people and in bringing forward national as well as local issues that have a direct bearing on the livelihood, rights and welfare of the nation and the people.”

Lawyers denounce globalization, Arroyo administration

In a statement, the UPLM dismissed globalization as a “euphemism for the plunder of the country’s national economy patrimony. For them, these twin evils have given license to the culture of impunity reigning in the country.” These, they also said, “are being rabidly perpetrated by the Arroyo regime, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and other law enforcement units.”

Part of the UPLM’s advocacy is the upholding of international humanitarian laws and the promotion of principled peace negotiations, recognizing that Mindanao is a place where “revolutionary movements are borne from decades of neglect and exploitation.”

In addition, the UPLM vowed to “uphold the sovereign will of the people to demand the ouster of President Arroyo” who they see as “illegitimate and immoral.” They likewise support the creation of a transitional council as a viable legal alternative. (

Share This Post