The Alternative Law Groups (ALG) shared developmental legal aid best practices and challenges in the three-day national legal aid summit organized by the Supreme Court of the Philippines in Bacolod City.
For more than 30 years, the ALG has been engaging and empowering grassroots communities through legal education, the development of paralegals, strategic litigation, and policy reforms, among others.
“Public interest lawyers and their groups, like the ALG, as well as their partners have memorable and colorful stories to share. These narratives put into concrete reality what development legal aid is all about, alternative lawyering entails working with the poor and marginalized sectors, not for the communities.” Attorney Grizelda Mayo-Anda, executive director of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), said.
ELAC is one of the member organizations of ALG working with environmental defenders and indigenous peoples in their fight for environmental rights.
“[Through developmental legal aid] lumalawak ang paningin mo sa mundo at nagkakaroon ka na pagkakaintindi sa batas at sa mga problema ng Pilipinas … at kung paano ito sosolusyunan,” Attorney Gian Miko Arabejo of the ALG Secretariat said in a video presentation.
(“Through developmental legal aid, your views of the world and your understanding of the law and the problems of the Philippines widen. It also helps you have a deeper understanding of how to solve them,” Attorney Gian Miko Arabejo of the ALG Secretariat said in a video presentation.)
The video presentation featured the struggles of the sectors of indigenous peoples, persons deprived of liberty (PDLs), and women, and how developmental legal aid empowered their communities to fight for their rights and access legal remedies for their problems.
“Sa tatlo naming areas, mga 1000 na kaming mga kababaihan na naturuan ng kanilang mga karapatan,” Mylen, a community leader said in the video. “Simula noong ma-empower ako, nakakapag-argumento na ako mula sa barangay hanggang sa LGU. May lakas ng loob na kaming i-argumento ‘yung mga gusto namin. Nakikipag-dialogue na kami para doon sa aming mga demanda.”
On the spectrum of legal assistance
Member organizations of ALG also shared their legal empowerment work with the sectors they are working with. Research and publications, paralegal development, strategic litigation, and policy reforms are the common strategies undertaken by the network’s members.
Attorney Mary Claire Demaisip of the Kaisahan Tungo sa Kaunlaran ng Kanayunan at Repormang Pansakahan (KAISAHAN) discussed their work with farmers and rural communities in resolving their land rights issues.
“Farmers do not have access to many services and resources that can enable them to avail of remedies and actions to defend their rights,” Demaisip said. “It is also a challenge for them to sustain their land claims and support their legal cases due to high costs of litigation.”
To bridge these gaps and challenges, KAISAHAN intervenes through paralegal formation and community organizing, case handling, and policy advocacy. The organization capacitates farmers by teaching them about the laws, rules and regulations relevant to their cases. Then, KAISAHAN guides them in formulating strategies, plans, and action points for the resolution of their cases.
Rainbow Rights Philippines’ (R-Rights) Executive Director, Attorney Jazz Tamayo, highlighted the importance of having a national law that solely addresses the needs of persons of diverse SOGIESC. Without such law, they will continue to be discriminated against, stigmatized, and treated unequally.
For the past 22 years, Anti-Discrimination and SOGIE Equality bills have been filed in Congress, but they have never successfully passed into law. R-Rights empower persons of diverse SOGIESC through legislative and policy work, capacity-building, research and publication, and community paralegal programs.
On the other hand, Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panlegal (SALIGAN) focused on their work with the urban poor and informal settlers.
“The urban poor and informal settlers are often seen as a nuisance, a hindrance to ‘development,’ and encroaches on other’s property rights, resulting in the adoption of certain policies such as ejectment, land titling, and the repealed law criminalizing squatting,” SALIGAN’s Executive Director Attorney Hazel Lavitoria said.
SALIGAN organizes and trains members of these communities to participate in local governance, allowing them to have a voice in formulating local development plans and local shelter plans, among others.
Lastly, Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center-Friends of the Earth Philippines (LRC) presented their work with indigenous peoples: direct legal services, research and policy development, and advocacy.
“Indigenous peoples’ vulnerability is characterized by their lack of resources, protection, and recourse in the law. This vulnerability erodes the ability of communities to look to the justice system to address rights violations,” LRC Executive Director Attorney Efenita “Mai” Taqueban said.
“By providing legal services and using the law as a tool to enhance access to justice of indigenous and poor communities, LRC intends to contribute to the work towards a transformative legal praxis,” she said.
On challenges and opportunities
On the last day of the summit, ALG led a breakout session to share the challenges and opportunities in developmental legal aid with the other delegates. The coalition identified three pressing concerns which include weak implementation of laws and policies, harassment suits and killings of human rights defenders, and vulnerable communities often getting divided on issues affecting them due to abject poverty.
Sustainability is also a big challenge for ALG. “I think that for all NGOs [non-government organizations] – the alternative lawyers have a problem with sustainability, especially for maintaining their lawyers. How can you sustain them in our small organizations when there are many big opportunities around? [such as working for the government or in private corporations],” Attorney Joan Dymphna Saniel of the Children's Legal Bureau (CLB) said.
“When you talk about alternative lawyering, what makes it alternative is we work with communities. So, when we talk about sustainability, it’s important to sustain our organizing and community base, as well. Not only to sustain us but how do we also partner with these communities for their continuous movement for community empowerment,” Attorney Anna Liza Mones of ALG Secretariat said.
On the other hand, there are opportunities for developmental legal aid, such as, the special writs and rule-making power of the Supreme Court, creating precedents through strategic litigation, and maximizing existing networks.
The 2022 National Legal Aid Summit
The three-day legal aid summit entitled Reimagining the Art of Legal Empowerment: A National Summit on Access to Justice through Cultivating approaches on Legal Aid aims to “develop a roadmap that will amplify, provide, and sustain avenues of access” to legal assistance of underserved communities.
“Lawyering does not exploit a person’s ignorance. On the contrary, it looks after the disadvantaged and the marginalized, in order to give them a voice, to give them the chance to be equal with others, if not in life, at least in law,” Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo said in his keynote address.
The summit was convened by the Supreme Court in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental, from November 28-30, 2022. ALG is one of the organizational partners, together with the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the Philippine Association of Law Schools (PALS), and the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG).