MANILA, Philippines – The Supreme Court ordered incoming lawyers to provide 120 hours of “pro bono” legal work for poor litigants as part of its efforts to champion the constitutional guarantee to “free access to the courts and quasi-judicial bodies”.
The SC en banc, in a 14-page decision dated Oct. 10, passed a new rule on Community Legal Aid Service, stating that “the legal profession is imbued with public interest”.
“As such, lawyers are charged with the duty to give meaning to the guarantee of access to adequate legal assistance under Article III, Section 11 of the 1987 Constitution,” it said. “As a way to discharge this constitutional duty, lawyers are obliged to render pro bono services to those who otherwise would be denied access to adequate legal services.”
The magistrates said lawyers must ensure people’s access to legal services “in an efficient and convenient manner compatible with the independence, integrity and effectiveness of the profession.”
The new rule, signed by 15 magistrates, tasked the Office of the Bar Confidant (OBC) and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the country’s biggest lawyers’ group, to oversee the compliance of the new lawyers with its order, entitled “Community Legal Aid Service Rule”.
Under the rule, rookie lawyers are given one year after signing the roll of attorneys to complete the required 120-hour free legal services in criminal, civil and administrative cases.
Aside from indigent litigants, also entitled to pro bono legal aid are groups, individuals and organizations that cannot get the services of the Public Attorney’s Office due to conflict of interest.
The new lawyers may also render their professional services for public interest cases and legal issues that affect the society.
The tribunal said the rule does not intend to prevent the successful bar passers from using their profession for their own pecuniary interests.
“This rule is not intended to impair the private practice or employment of covered lawyers. Barring any conflict of interest or any other violation of the Code of Professional Responsibility, covered lawyers can engage in private practice and accept paid clients or be employed in the government or in the private sector within the 12-month period for compliance,” it stated.
The rule will be implemented starting with the successful barristers who are set to take this year’s bar exams, which will be held during the four Sundays of November.
New lawyers who are already working in the executive and legislative branches six months before they hurdled the bar exams will be exempted from the requirement.
Also spared are those who have finished the “clinical legal education program” and have already rendered pro bono legal work prior to their admission to the bar.
Those covered by the rule may ask the OBC for up to two years extension to comply with the requirement by presenting valid and justifiable reason. (PNA)