People’s lawyering goes a long way back in history

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

Apolinario Mabini, Jose Abad Santos, Claro M. Recto, Jose W. Diokno, and Lorenzo M. Tanada. What do these historical figures have in common?

They were all lawyers and patriots, yes. Above and beyond that, at crucial junctures in Philippine history, these men proved to be “passionately committed people’s lawyers.” They serve as polestars to the public-interest, human rights, or people’s lawyers of today.

As a lawyer and head of the Cabinet of the First Philippine Republic at the turn of the 20th century, Mabini’s most important act was to author the decree placing under the government all the agricultural lands that had been grabbed by the Spanish friars, ultimately for distribution to the Filipino tillers.

Mabini was the quintessential advocate of genuine agrarian reform. Sadly, after subduing the First Republic in the Philippine-American War, the Americans reversed that historic decree. Agrarian reform remains unfulfilled until today.

During the Japanese Occupation, Abad Santos (Chief Justice and justice secretary under the Commonwealth) chose to be executed rather than serve the foreign invaders.

In the post-World War II era, Senators Recto, Diokno, and Tanada were the eminently uncompromising nationalists and anti-imperialists. They inspired the youths in the 1960s-70s to deepen and broaden nationalism and democracy into a people’s struggle for fundamental social change, carried on to this day by the progressive people’s organizations and mass movement.

Under martial law, Diokno and Tanada (with Joker Arroyo) founded the Free Legal Assistance Group. FLAG not only provided pro bono legal defense to political detainees but produced legal and paralegal guidelines for asserting and defending human rights. Diokno introduced the concept of “developmental legal aid.”

Lawyers all over the country, mostly young, either joined FLAG or organized like-minded formations, with such acronyms as MABINI, PLLP, BONIFACIO, COLUMN, MAKATAO, BICOLANDIA, SOMOROY, and others like the already existing CLASP.

Several of them became martyrs to their calling and the people’s cause during and even after martial law. Their stories cry out to be told.

In the post-martial law period, most of these lawyers’ groups receded into inactivity. The Diokno family and some associates, however, have maintained FLAG with a modest scope of activities.

However, the social inequities, abuses of power and human rights violations persisted. The need for people’s lawyers remained compelling. Responding to such need, in 1989 Atty. Romeo T. Capulong, a member of the 1971-72 Constitutional Convention, gathered together young lawyers and established the Public Interest Law Center. He remains chair of PILC, which has taken up case loads that have strained the capacities of its small team of lawyers and staff.

Among others, the PILC was in the frontlines of the legal fight of the Hacienda Luisita farm workers against the stock distribution option and for the distribution of the land to them, as mandated by the CARP. They won the case recently in the Supreme Court, although the ruling remains to be implemented.

In 2005, Frederico M. Gapuz, who had joined FLAG, COLUMN, PLLP and other formations in Mindanao during martial law and suffered detention, led the founding of the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao.

In 2007, Capulong and Gapuz were elected chairman and president, respectively, by younger progressive lawyers who organized the National Union of People’s Lawyers, or NUPL. The NUPL is now the biggest grouping of dedicated advocates and practitioners of people’s lawyering.

I have run through this brief historical background to provide context to the memorial tribute given the other day to Atty. Gapuz, who passed away last May 12 at age 77. He had been acclaimed as president emeritus of NUPL in 2010 and remained as UPLM chair till his death.

I flew to Cagayan de Oro City to join people’s lawyers, leaders and members of progressive people’s organizations in Mindanao, along with others, as they bid farewell to the man they call “a lawyer’s lawyer, a warrior and hero of the people.”

For a basic understanding of Gapuz’s deep commitment and passion for serving the people, especially the poor, let me quote these wise words from him:

“Poverty is a question of wealth, they say. But poverty is a question of law as well. Law legitimizes this unequal, exploitative, inhumane social order. And it is our challenge, as public interest lawyers, to save what remains of the law for the benefit of our people’s human rights, as we envision a social order where equality is lived and not merely exists as a concept in legalese.”

“Lawyers come and go… But people’s lawyers do not fade away. We outlive this legal system, that serves and perpetuates the status quo, by ‘stretching’ the law to protect the poor, or (by) achieving jurisprudence that champions the rights of the most lowly so that the generations that come after them can continue to benefit from their small victories.”

The objectives of lawyering for the people, he pointed out, cannot be achieved immediately. Rather, these are “a life-long dream that you and I have to share, not only by shedding our sweat, tears, but probably our blood. We may not achieve this dream, but we’ll take the first step towards a just and humane government.”

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May 19, 2012

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