CHR, UP College of Law Collaborate on Electronic Lawyering Services Project
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR), in collaboration with the University of the Philippines College of Law, conducted a 2-hour webinar on the Human Rights E-Lawyering Service (HRELS) with lawyers and legal interns of the UP College of Law Office of Legal Aid (UP OLA) as participants.
This activity was the first of a series of webinars conducted by the CHR in collaboration with various other institutions. The webinar speakers were Dean Jose Manuel I. Diokno, chairperson of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), Melchor Cayabyab, Training Specialist in the Advocacy and Information Campaign Division of the CHR Human Rights Education and Promotion Office, Atty. Arlene Ven, the Officer-in-Charge of the CHR Legal Division, Jonas Rex Turingan, Communications Specialist under the office of Comm. Cadiz, and Prof. Edgardo Carlo Vistan II, Director of the UP OLA Program.
The ELS, conceived by Commissioners Hon. Roberto Eugenio T. Cadiz and Hon. Gwendolyn Ll. Pimentel-Gana is an innovative program of the CHR launched during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, aiming to provide Filipinos with quick access to legal assistance concerning human rights violations through technology.
According to Comm. Cadiz, the collaboration objective is to mobilize the UP OLA program to help the CHR fulfill its mandate in upholding human rights. On behalf of the CHR, Comm. Cadiz also expressed gratitude for the unrelenting support of UP College of Law Dean Fides Cordero-Tan and UP OLA Director Vistan.
Dean Diokno discussed the challenges and relevance of human rights lawyering, as well as the history of legal aid and the concept of developmental legal aid. Quoting his father, Atty. Jose W. Diokno, one of the FLAG founders, Dean Diokno said that “…[M]artial law added a new dimension to legal aid: by politicizing lawyers and laymen, it politicalized legal aid.” Dean Diokno pointed out that the dictatorship’s dark era saw the birth of human rights lawyers and human rights defenders.
He highlighted that unlike traditional legal aid lawyers who strive only to present the best and strongest case in court, developmental legal aid lawyers, in contrast, also involve themselves, albeit indirectly, in the process of educating, organizing, and mobilizing their clients. Hence, they must know national and international human rights law, the national situation, and that of the social sector or community they serve. They should know the domestic laws being used to oppress the people and suppress their rights and the corresponding progressive laws that can be used in their clients’ favor.
Dean Diokno emphasized that developmental legal aid is needed more than ever in our “New Normal,” as the massive unemployment caused by the economic downturn brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic will starkly affect the poor and marginalized. In conclusion, Dean Diokno again quoted his father, stating that “to allow injustice to prosper without protest, when the occasion to protest arises, is to compound the hardships and the sufferings of the people.”
Mr. Cayabyab discussed the CHR mandate and organizational framework. He described the Commission as an independent office created under the 1987 Constitution in response to grave human rights abuses on Filipinos during the martial law era. He also talked about the Commission’s roles as the government’s advocate, watchdog, adviser, and educator on human rights.
Atty. Ven discussed virtual lawyering or e-lawyering, a form of legal practice that uses web-based tools to interact with clients, primarily giving legal advice and counseling. However, for the CHR, phone calls are also included in e-lawyering. In contrast, traditional lawyering mainly involves legal representation, court appearances, and the drafting and filing of pleadings.
Atty. Ven expounded on the objectives of the CHR HRELS, which was to expand the reach of the CHR protection services especially to persons belonging to the marginalized, disadvantaged or vulnerable sector, to expedite in providing legal advice and to endorse to the Public Attorney’s Office or the Integrated Bar of the Philippines or UP OLA any request for legal representation, as well as to be able to screen requests which concern human rights issues and to refer to the appropriate agencies all other requests which are outside the mandate of the CHR.
Atty. Ven mentioned the brief history of the CHR E-Lawyering Services (precursor to the HRELS), from its launching in March 2020 after the declaration of the Enhanced Community Quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, up to the initiative of Comm. Cadiz to expand the CHR E-Lawyering Services to include other stakeholders such as the UP College of Law to accommodate the massive influx of requests for legal assistance and counseling.
According to Atty. Ven, from March 24 to August 31, 2020, there have been 112 new inquiries, 28 follow-up inquiries, and 140 total inquiries. Within this same period, the CHR has rendered 98 legal advice, prepared or drafted 25 documents, referred 18 cases to other offices within the CHR, and referred 25 cases to other government offices. The CHR E-Lawyering team has provided legal counseling to various inquiries regarding loan payments despite the moratorium or grace period, cyber libel, property, education-related, and family disputes. They also assisted Persons Deprived of Liberty regarding parole applications, commutation of sentence, and pardon. Other services rendered include providing legal opinions on other inquiries, such as whether caning is allowed as punishment for community quarantine violators.
Atty. Ven also discussed the E-Lawyering Service process flow. He explained that the client sends his or her inquiry via email or calls using designated hotlines. This would be read, received, and evaluated by an assigned lawyer who either promptly renders legal advice or refers the client to other offices if necessary. The client would then give her or his feedback or follow-up inquiries related to the legal services provided.
Mr. Turingan discussed the Expanded E-Lawyering Services protocols, where the CHR has partnered and set up a dispatch team with UP OLA legal interns and volunteer lawyers from other civil society organizations to accommodate and respond accordingly to the requests from various sources. Requests come from the CHR Regional Offices, CHR Citizens’ Help and Assistance Division, CHR Investigation Office, CHR Legal Division, all of which have their own numerous hotlines.
Prof. Vistan discussed and elucidated on the role of legal interns in human rights lawyering by expounding to young would-be lawyers the value of learning how the law works and its limitations; in a setting where one’s decisions and actions affect the lives, property, or well-being of others. He said that allowing students to personally experience the law’s application contributes to community building as it marks the infusion of much needed new blood to the legal profession tasked to make the law work for society.
Prof. Vistan also lauded the CHR, the UP College of Law, other civil society organizations, and non-government organizations partners in setting up the means to advance human rights legal aid effort. He pointed out that this will mutually reinforce both institutions and their respective stakeholders’ efforts to achieve their goals. He also said that this groundbreaking collaboration provides the UP OLA and the UP College of Law’s Clinical Legal Education Program a unique and valuable learning experience that it can share with its students.
As the moderator of the webinar training, Atty. Racquel Ruiz-Dimalanta capped off the activity by emphasizing that the legal interns have an auspicious opportunity to make a far more expansive contribution during these unprecedented times in our country. She noted that the COVID-19 pandemic not only adversely affected the physical and mental state of the people but also underscored the great divide on the liberties and freedoms of the rich and the poor. The legal interns, she said, will be in a unique position to provide much-needed assistance to the regular Filipino citizen, the man on the street.
The HRELS is set to launch in December 2020 in time for Human Rights Week.