[Blueboard] Faces behind laws by Atty. Gilbert V. Sembrano in Poverty, Capacity, Nation [BusinessWorld]
Marry Ann I. Romero
mromero at ateneo.edu
Tue Nov 9 14:57:03 PHT 2010
Since July 13, and every 2nd and 4th Tuesday thereafter, the Ateneo
Professional Schools and its partners have been sharing their stories of
capacity building, attacking poverty and building the nation through the
opinion column, "Poverty, Capacity, Nation" in the Business World newspaper.
We invite you to read more of the stories of our partners and school units.
More importantly, we urge you to share your own stories of capacity building
with us as well so we can deepen and enrich our collective efforts of nation
building through building capacity of individuals and institutions.
Below is the latest piece for this column authored by Atty. Gilbert V.
Sembrano, director of the Ateneo Legal Services as well as the director for
litigation of the Ateneo Human Rights Center and a professorial lecturer at
the Ateneo Law School.
First posted on November 9, 2010
Faces behind the laws -- By Gilbert V. Sembrano
As a young student at the Ateneo Law School, amidst the pressures of
readings and recitations, I carried with me a nagging feeling of
restlessness. Later on, I realized that this restlessness was a call to
service and I began to search for a venue, where I, as a student, could make
a difference in people's lives. I searched for faces behind the laws I was
This led me to join the Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) -- one of the
first university-based non-governmental organizations in the Philippines.
AHRC's primary objective is to provide venues for law students to
experience, understand, and practice the developmental dimension of law,
commonly referred to as alternative lawyering.
Reflecting upon this dimension of law practice, I find it ironic that it is
referred to as "alternative" when it is, I believe, how law should be
practiced -- client-centered, as opposed to lawyer-centered, which
characterizes traditional or maintream law practice.
I do not know how this manner of proceeding in the legal system came to be,
but my experiences and years of work as a full-time lawyer at the AHRC have
given me insights on why this brand of law practice is important and
crucial, especially in the Philippines.
Manang Cording and a group of farmers from Northern Luzon were among those
who helped me arrive at these insights. I met Manang Cording and her group
in my work in developmental legal advocacy. A big corporation was allegedly
threatening to dispossess them of the lands they tilled by sponsoring dummy
agrarian beneficiaries. What was clear in the farmers' minds was that there
was injustice that was done to them and that they needed to fight for their
land. However, these farmers did not have the wherewithal or the capacity to
navigate a justice system that was slow, complex, and expensive -- hence,
We then provided assistance to Manang Cording and her group by using the
legal procedures outlined in the law to navigate the justice system. Over
and above this, however, AHRC advocated that it was equally important that
the farmer-beneficiaries led the fight to reclaim their lands. It was
crucial that the farmers understood what they were fighting for.
The AHRC could not do this from the comfortable confines of their
air-conditioned offices -- their lawyers and interns had to spend time in
the communities, understand and immerse in the givens and contexts of their
client-beneficiaries, and educate the farmers about the basics of the law.
In doing this, the wide gap that separated us lawyers and experts in the
legal system and the clients and beneficiaries we wished to serve was
lessened -- it was a way for us to connect. This also made the farmers
become more involved in their fight to reclaim their land, and they became
our active partners in their ongoing legal battle.
This was the same mind-set that guided us in assisting a victim-survivor of
incestuous rape. Many are aware that such crimes are difficult to handle
because of the cultural and social underpinnings of sexual cases like rape.
When the victim decided to file a case against her father, she was
threatened with withdrawal of financial support by her family. Thus, with
much fear, she had to abandon the case because she did not have sufficient
skills to allow her to be gainfully employed and economically productive --
a situation made possible by female subordination which is still prevalent
in Philippine society.
Months later, the victim came to the Ateneo Law School Legal Services Center
(ALSC) to ask for help in re-filing her case. Thus, the lawyers at ALSC set
about re-filing the case and more important, took steps to assist her in a
holistic manner. One of our stark realizations was that prejudicial
perceptions of crimes such as this, and biased attitudes toward victims of
sexual violence are deeply rooted and lead to more suffering and pain for
It became clear to us that aside from providing legal advice and support, we
also needed to connect her to a crisis center for a much needed
psycho-social intervention. Legal intervention alone could not solve the
problems that this victim of incestuous rape had to face. The other
interventions were not strictly within the domain of our work as lawyers,
but we realized that to ensure that justice was served to the victim, we
needed to step out of our comfort zones and find ways to help and connect
our client to other sectors and services that could address her other needs.
When we talk about "access to justice" what immediately comes to mind is the
court system. Access to the legal system is available to all yet a common
behavior and attitude that many take in dealing with the legal system is one
of lawyer-dependency, as the client entrusts everything to the lawyer who,
in turn, tends to view his services as a dole-out.
This is the "traditional" concept of lawyering that the developmental
practice of the law seeks to address. Perhaps for now, work in this field is
still insignificant, relative to the typical or traditional practice of law
in this country. Yet, if we are to seriously fulfill our responsibilities as
guardians of the law to ensure that justice is truly served, then the
fundamental scaffold of alternative lawyering should serve as the
disposition and framework toward re-orienting a lawyer's perspective in
dealing with clients. Understanding the law may not be easy for the clients,
as it requires familiarity with technical and complex concepts, but this
should not preclude them from participating in the process as they are
partners in the pursuit of justice.
The faces and circumstances of Manang Cording, the farmer groups, the
victims of crimes against women, the displaced urban settlers and laborers
are the faces behind the laws. In order to serve them well, we must not only
navigate the legal system for them but we must also connect to them so that
they are not merely recipients of our services but true partners in the
pursuit of justice.
Perhaps, someday, the developmental practice of the law will become
mainstream and will no longer be only an alternative way for us.
The Poverty, Capacity, Nation series is an initiative of the Ateneo
Professional Schools to connect to readers and invite them to share the
stories of their own struggles and efforts of building capacity to attack
poverty. We seek to inform, inspire and move people to action, whatever
their circumstances, offering our value proposition as their handle to help
build the nation. For inquiries, please e-mail: 150.ateneo.edu.
Marry Ann I. Romero
University Communication and Public Relations Office
Ateneo de Manila University
Katipunan Avenue, Loyola Heights, Quezon City
T - 426-6001 local 4095
E - mromero at ateneo.edu
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