Salute to the People’s Lawyer Romeo Capulong
(uploaded, the Romy Capulong papers. Keynote, Conference of Lawyers in Asia-Pacific)
5TH CONFERENCE OF LAWYERS IN ASIA-PACIFIC September 18-19, 2010 | Manila
Human Rights and Peace Amidst Global Economic Crisis and Conflict
KEYNOTE SPEECH # 3 PUBLIC INTEREST LITIGATION IN THE PHILIPPINES: CHALLENGES,PROBLEMS, AND PROSPECTS by Romeo T. Capulong, President, Public Interest Law Center (PILC) , Chairperson, National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) ,Philippines
“Lawyers perform a strategic role in shaping our national life. Rightly or wrongly, we are
often perceived as leaders with the wisdom and capability not normally attributed to other
“Perhaps it is because of this perception and the preparation inherent in our craft that
many lawyers occupy prominent positions in government politics, business, and many other
fields of human endeavor. Lawyers play a significant role in political education and in promoting
national as well as local issues that have a direct bearing on people’s livelihood, rights, and
“Conversely, it is also true that in the public mind we are oftentimes stereotyped as
shrewd, self-seeking, ambitious, opportunists, and protectors and advocates of the status quo,
who are generally wanting in commitment to social change.
“Some of the criticisms and observations about lawyers are valid; most, of course, are
not. It may be true that, by reason of their training, legal education and experience in law
practice, lawyers are generally conservative and naturally inclined to defend the establishment.
After all, the law, stripped of its usual rhetorical façade is merely the collective expression of
the interests and a sophisticated mechanism of the dominant elite to perpetuate the existing
system in any given society. It is also true that legal education in the Philippines and the
educational system in general have been so structured and oriented to serve elite and foreign
(Footnotes: 1Based on speeches delivered during the (1) 7th National Convention of the IBP, Davao City, Philippines, 21-25 April. 2: 1999 and (2) Conference on Public Interest Litigation and Public Interest Law from Asian Experience co-sponsored by the Dongfang Public Interest and Legal Aid Law Firm, the Asian Legal Resource Center, and the Chinese Bar Association. Beijing, China, 19-20 April 2006. )
interests. Finally, it cannot be denied that quite a number in our profession, in opting to serve
the interests of the elite, have identified and sometimes merged their interests with that of
their clients and have completely abandoned their ethical values. They became conspirators in
the plunder of our economy, the exploitation of our workers and peasants, and the repression
of our people.
“But the foregoing are the exceptions rather than the rule. Our historical experience has
shown that lawyers, by nature, are sensitive to social and political conditions and especially to
injustices and human rights violations. We generally respond to the challenge to contribute our
skills in defending the poor and even serve and lead in the struggle for a just and humane society.
“At crucial junctures in our history, we produced passionately committed people’s lawyers like Apolinario Mabini, Jose Abad Santos, Claro M. Recto, Jose W. Diokno, and Lorenzo M. Tanada.
“The Marcos dictatorship saw the flowering of people’s lawyering, with many young
lawyers in all parts of the country taking the people’s side versus military and political
repression. These lawyers joined FLAG, MABINI, PLLP, BONIFACIO, COLUMN, MAKATAO,
BICOLANDIA, SOMOROY, and other human rights lawyers’ organizations. In the United States,
the New York-based Filipino Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights similarly responded to the
challenge by supporting the people’s movement and by exposing and denouncing human rights
violations and suppression of our freedoms. They have also led – at great personal risk and
financial sacrifice – in handling public interest cases which exposed and challenged the validity
of unjust, oppressive, undemocratic, and anti-people legislation and policies, and in utilizing
whatever judicial remedies were available for upholding human rights and the rule of law.
“In the Philippine context, lawyering for the poor means lawyering for the peasants,
workers, urban poor, small fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, and migrant workers who comprise
the overwhelming majority of our people.
“The Philippine legal system serves the poor in two ways. The first is through traditional
legal aid or free legal assistance to indigent litigants, a practice introduced by our Spanish and
American colonizers along with their legal systems.
“The second is through human rights lawyering or public interest law practice.
Sometimes it is also called alternative law practice, to distinguish it from traditional law practice.
“The late Senator Jose W. Diokno called it developmental legal aid.
“Whichever name is used, the fact remains that in addition to rendering competent and
dedicated legal services, we are also committed to our clients’ aspirations for social change.
“Traditional Law Practice and Legal Aid
“There are about 50,000 Filipino lawyers, according to the Integrated Bar of the
Philippines (IBP), the national bar association where membership, by law, is mandatory. This is
not a bad number for a population of 85 million Filipinos.
“As earlier stated, traditional legal aid or legal aid to indigent litigants is a feature of the
legal system introduced by colonial powers. The Philippine Constitution defines the rights of
poor litigants to adequate legal assistance in the following emphatic terms: “Free access to the
courts and quasi-judicial bodies and adequate legal assistance shall not be denied to any person
by reason of poverty” (Article III, Section 11).
“This is a strong constitutional mandate both to the government and to the lawyers’
organizations in the country. Pursuant to this mandate, the Department of Justice maintains a
bureau called Public Attorneys’ Office which renders free legal assistance in almost all courts in
the country. Other government agencies like the Department of Labor and Employment and the Department of Agrarian Reform as well as local government units also have their own free legal assistance programs. Some public officials and politicians hire, either at their personal expense or at the expense of the government, private lawyers who extend free legal services to their constituents and political followers.
“The private sector has similar responses. For example, the Roberto Concepcion Legal
Aid Program of the IBP provides free legal aid in all its chapters. Credit must also be given to
voluntary bar associations such as the Philippine Bar Association, Citizens Legal Aid Society of
the Philippines, and some corporate law firms. The country’s leading law schools maintain legal
aid clinics which serve the dual purposes of giving apprenticeship and training programs for
senior law students and legal aid for the poor. Trade unions and mass-based organizations of
peasants and urban poor train their own paralegals to provide legal services that do not require
admission to the bar as a requisite. You could even argue that all of us private practitioners
maintain free legal assistance programs for our relatives, friends, and neighbors.
“I think the recent trend in our legal system allowing pro se appearances and
representation and assistance to litigants by non-lawyers in quasi-judicial bodies is another form of legal aid program for the poor.
“Indeed, we can proudly say that in terms of human and material resources, the Philippine
legal system is relatively coping with its legal duty to provide free legal assistance to poor
Filipinos. This fulfills the social responsibility of the bar and the constitutional duty of the state
to ensure that poor people’s rights are protected in an orderly and impartial dispensation of
“Human Rights and Peace Amidst Global Economic Crisis and Conflict
“I have no intention of belittling the importance of traditional legal aid. On the contrary, I
believe that this type of legal aid must be encouraged by both the public and the private
sectors. Surely, in a country like the Philippines where more than 70% of the population live
below the poverty line, there is great need for a socialized or a purely welfare program of providing free legal services to the poor.
“The challenge is to transform even partially and gradually traditional legal aid into public
interest lawyering – something we have been trying to do with limited success. Welfare aid to
the poor, including free legal services, may provide temporary relief to the beneficiaries. But
without a complementary program to raise the client-beneficiaries’ awareness of the social and
economic inequities prevailing in the country, this kind of legal aid diminishes rather than helps
the poor by perpetuating a system that breeds poverty and injustice.
“Public Interest Law Practice As Distinguished from Traditional Legal Aid
“Perhaps the best way to define public interest law practice and to distinguish it from
traditional legal aid is to state its client-beneficiaries, its mandate, the issues and causes
involved, the tactics employed in handling cases, and the kind of commitment and discipline
demanded of public interest or people’s lawyers.
“Philippine society is highly stratified, with a tiny elite monopolizing political power and
economic resources. We have a long history of anti-colonial and neo-colonial struggles against
foreign domination, particularly the United States, and the U.S.-controlled multinational
corporations and multilateral institutions. Our economic, political, social and cultural life has
been dominated by our elite and foreign masters. An overwhelming majority of our people
remain poor and disenfranchised.
“The people’s lawyers emerged as a response to these social inequities, particularly
human rights abuses, and to the aspirations of the poor for a just and humane society. The
people’s lawyers derive their mandate from the poor people’s struggle for justice – not from
the government, not from the law, and certainly not from selfish material agenda.
“Our client-beneficiaries and the issues and causes we take up are the following:
“1. The peasants in their struggle for genuine land reform and their legal battle
against land-grabbing and eviction in the name of so-called development by land-
grabbers masquerading as property developers;
“2. The workers in their struggle for decent wages and working conditions and in their
struggle to organize trade unions and associations that empower them and represent
their genuine interests;
“3. The urban poor and informal settlers, oftentimes disparagingly called “squatters,” in
the defense of their right against summary eviction and for adequate relocation sites,
housing, and livelihood;
“4.The migrant workers in the defense of their human rights under national and
international law in the host country and in their struggle against the apathy and
callousness of their own government to their problems as migrant workers, and to
the problems that beset their families in the homeland;
“5. The small fisherfolk in their struggle to defend their fishing grounds against the
intrusions of local and foreign fishing magnates;
“6. The indigenous peoples in the defense of their ancestral domain against land-
grabbers and local and foreign mining companies;
“7.Political victims of violations of human, civil, and political rights such as extra-judicial
killings, involuntary disappearances, torture, illegal arrests, and arbitrary detention
committed by the state through its police, military, and paramilitary forces;
“8. Women in their struggle for equal rights and against all forms of violence against their
persons and discrimination;
“9. The youth in their struggle for empowerment and meaningful participation in the
movement for change; and
“10.The public in general on legal issues like environmental protection and consumer
“Public interest law practice is also lawyering for the poor, just like traditional legal aid.
The fundamental difference is that the people’s lawyers extend legal services to the poor not
merely because the client cannot afford to pay legal fees, but because the clients’ poverty and the injustice committed against them result from a social system that needs to be changed.
“Commitment to social change is therefore an essential component of their legal
services. Unlike the typical pro bono lawyer, the people’s lawyers do not limit themselves to the
generally accepted interpretation and use of the law to uphold and protect their clients’
interest. They know that in an elite-dominated society, the law is merely the expression of elite
interests. Instead, they take a critical view of the law and what the law should be from the
perspective of the disenfranchised or marginalized client.
“The people’s lawyers give premium to social justice and meaningful reforms over and
above their personal interests and material agenda.
“Unlike the traditional practitioner who pleads the client’s cause during adversarial
proceedings with the cold neutrality of a skilled legal technician, the people’s lawyers fight with
passion and dedication to the legal as well as the social cause of the client, pleading such cause in and outside the courtroom or legal fora, in dialogues and negotiations, in networking and building alliances, in street rallies, in media, in legislative inquiries and hearings, and in symposia and conferences.
“Allow me to share with you what I believe are some basic principles that guide the
“First: People’s lawyers should involve themselves in causes, cases, and issues that
fundamentally affect the lives of a large number of people, usually a sector of society or even
the whole society itself.
“Second: We must bear in mind that these issues arose from a conflict of rights or
interests and from the exploitation and oppression of the numerous poor by the tiny privileged
sector and/or government policies or programs.
“Third: Unlike the traditional lawyer, the people’s lawyers view the legal issue in the larger
context of social problems.
“Fourth: The people’s lawyers initiate and assist in a process whereby the issue is
utilized for organizing and raising the social awareness, unity, and militancy of the people and
those who support their cause.
“Fifth: The legal battle is not confined to the courtroom. People’s lawyers employ
creative forms of collective action, mobilizing and utilizing the people’s strength, unity, and
militancy, bringing the issues to the public, and rallying support for the clients’ cause.
“Finally, the people’s lawyers interact with clients in a mutually beneficial way, such
that they learn or deepen their commitment to the clients’ struggle for the empowerment and
betterment of their lives. The relationship is broadened from a mere professional one to a unity
of understanding of the problems of society, the common goals for fundamental reforms, and
the role of thepeople’s struggles.
“These principles may be illustrated in the following example.
“We in the Public Interest Law Center are the lead lawyers for the 5,000 farm workers
and employees of Hacienda Luisita, a 6,453-hectare sugarcane plantation in Tarlac province
owned by the family of late President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino. In 1988, Hacienda Luisita
should have been covered by the government’s agrarian reform program and subdivided and
distributed to the actual tillers working on the land. But because of the clan’s political clout, they continue to own and control the land. The so-called stock distribution option (SDO) of the
government’s agrarian reform program would have farm workers and employees believe they
are co-owners of 33% of the capital stock. In reality, they remain daily wage workers, receiving
starvation pay and without any real voice in management or share of profits or dividends.
Worse, the Cojuango family converted a big portion of the land into commercial, industrial, and
residential tracts and a leisure farm. These converted areas were sold and the family
appropriated unto themselvestheproceedsfromthesales. Meantime, the area being worked on
by the farm workers shrank, and their daily income likewise dropped.
“In response, the employees and farm workers staged a strike that paralyzed the
operations of the entire farm, including the sugar mill and the real estate business for one year.
In November 2004, the Philippine army and police and Hacienda Luisita’s private army retaliated, resulting in the massacre of seven strikers and the wounding of more than 40 others.
“The struggle of the farm workers and employees to own the land continues, both at the
grassroots level and in court and other legal fora. Because of the farm union’s strength and
militancy, its broad network of supporters locally and overseas, and the public sympathy
generated for the strikers, the government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was
pressured to revoke and cancel the stock distribution program. It then placed the hacienda
under compulsory acquisition, a scheme that will enable farm workers and employees to own
the land by paying the government in installments over several years. To be sure, the farm
workers and employees’ struggle to own the land is far from over. But their sacrifices, anguish,
and initial success elicit important lessons, not only for the clients but also for the people’s
“First, for a long time, the leaders of the workers’ and employees’ unions were
subservient to management. They allowed management to influence the elections of union
officers and to control the latter. A transformation came about when the rank-and-file members decided to elect officers who genuinely represent their interests;
“Second, in conflicts pitting peasants/workers against landowners and capitalists, one
cannot always rely on government to uphold the peasants’ rights and the rule of law. This will
happen only if the peasants and workers are sufficiently organized, strong, united, militant, and
enjoy the support of a broad alliance of supporters;
“Third, the legal rights of our poor clients cannot be adequately protected in an elite
“Fourth, both the people’s lawyers and the clients recognize that legal issues have
national and generational significance. The outcome of the case will leave an impact on the
entire Philippine peasantry’s struggle for land and life. The Hacienda Luisita farm workers and
employees carry the heavy burden of defending and asserting not only their own rights, but
also the rights of millions of other Filipino peasants; and
“Fifth, the people’s lawyers and clients must guard against state violence employed to
protect the ruling class. Aside from the massacre of striking workers, the president of the
employees’ union was likewise killed, along with the president of the umbrella organization,
two priests supportive of the strike, and a city councilor. Those implicated are forces identified
with the police, the military and the death squad of the company management. Our response to those killings has been good documentation and solid gathering of evidence, filing of charges in the Commission on Human Rights, Office of the Ombudsman and United Nations Human Rights bodies, fact-finding missions, strong denunciations and protest activities, and appeals for
support among local and international human rights organizations and personalities.
“People’s Lawyering and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP)
“Since its establishment, the IBP has been mandated by its charter to (1) elevate the
standards of the legal profession, (2) improve the administration of justice, and (3) enable the
“Within the IBP, its traditional free legal aid program is commonly seen as adequate
fulfillment of its social responsibility. As a result, the IBP has oftentimes been criticized as
passive and indifferent to public interest issues and social problems. Some say that, by its very
nature, the IBP is saddled with limitations that arise from its composition, leadership, and the
dynamics of its relationship with the incumbent dispensation and the existing political and
economic order. Worst, our detractors say that our programs and activities are ineffective, if
not irrelevant, to our goals and especially to the challenges of our time.
“But there have been numerous occasions when the IBP took up the challenge of going
beyond traditional legal aid and into people’s lawyering.
“In 1991, for example, the IBP board of governors took an unequivocal position in
contributing to the long and heroic struggle to dismantle the US bases in the Philippines. That
same year, our House of Delegates unanimously affirmed a resolution of the Board of
Governors, which I sponsored as IBP governor, adopting Developmental Legal Aid as a program
of the IBP under the National Legal Aid Committee which I was presiding then. The unanimous
adoption of the program was made after a long workshop and detailed presentation of its
merits. Despite limited resources, we have sustained this program, often in collaboration with
the Public Interest Law Center where I am also involved. The IBP Committee on Human Rights
and Due Process is now managing the program.
“In 1994, at the instance of its national leadership, then headed by President Mervyn
Encanto, the IBP took an unprecedented step in helping lead opposition to oil price increases by
challenging its legality in the Supreme Court. Subsequently, the IBP Committee on Human Rights and Due Process and the National Committee on Legal Aid were asked by the national
leadership to study the expanded value-added tax law as a public interest issue and present a
position paper to the Board of Governors with the objective of either taking the issue again to
“Indeed, in 1995, the IBP took a lead role in the celebrated case of Flor Contemplacion, a
domestic helper in Singapore sentenced to death for a crime she did not commit. Then IBP
President Jose Grapilon, Atty. Edre Olalia of the Public Interest Law Center, and I collaborated to save the victim of a frame-up. Because of neglect by the Philippine government, Flor
Contemplacion’s plight gained public attention only very late into the case. We agreed to
represent her less than a week before the scheduled date of hanging. We were aware that the
whole nation was following the case, and that our client’s plight would project the consequence
of government apathy to the deplorable conditions of millions of Filipino migrant workers
around the world. We needed the active participation of militant organizations like Migrante
and Bayan as well as of the media to expose the frame-up and manipulation of the Singaporean
judicial system by the rich and powerful culprit, to project our strong newly discovered evidence, and to make it an international embarrassment for the Singaporean government to deny our petition for a new trial.
“We were pained by our failure to save her life. The martyrdom of Flor Contemplacion is now part of the history of Filipino migrant workers’ struggle for a better life. But we are consoled by the fact that, because of this case, the Philippine government has since shown a little more sensitivity to the problems of our so-called “Modern Heroes.”
“Unlike in traditional legal aid, our work as people’s lawyers did not end upon
termination of the case. We remain deeply committed to the legal defense, protection, and
promotion of the human rights of millions of Filipino migrant workers. We believe their struggle
is also our struggle, and the government should not only respond to the problems of migrant
workers in the host countries, but also confront the root causes of such migration by providing
adequate job opportunities in our own country.
“Many other public interest issues have been taken up by IBP officers, committees, and
members on the national and local levels pursuant to our mandate to discharge our
responsibility to our people. While there is a lot more we can and need to do to elevate the
standards of our profession and improve the administration of justice, it is the effective
discharge of our public responsibility that will make the IBP truly relevant to our time and allow us all to be proud and be counted.
“Problems and Prospects
“We cannot talk about public interest litigation without discussing the problems of those
engaged in this endeavor. These problems are obvious and difficult, although not necessarily
“In the Philippines, two major factors impede the development of public interest law
practice as a truly viable alternative law practice. These are the problem of legitimacy and the
problem of material base.
“In 1991, I was honored to be elected to the national leadership of the IBP. One of the
first projects I proposed was the adoption of a program called Developmental Legal Aid, which
is another name for public interest law practice. As part of our research, the IBP conducted a
survey among its members on whether public interest law practice could be considered as an
accepted field of specialization among lawyers and, therefore, legitimate. To our great
frustration, many considered it as unknown, not viable, a radical undertaking, a subversive field
– and therefore those engaged in it were queer and subversives, too! The problem of legitimacy
remains a big challenge. Our goal is to make public interest lawyering a strong option for law
students and young lawyers.
“Public interest law practice still lacks a strong and stable material base to support it. Many
public interest law firms and practitioners rely on funding partners to support their practice.
Others rely on other private sources or even on government programs. I am an advocate of self-
reliance. By this I mean we have to develop our client base: the peasants, workers, urban poor,
small fisherfolk, indigenous peoples and migrant workers as our material base. I do not see any
reason why, in a highly stratified society controlled by a tiny elite constituting 3% of the
population, the remaining 97% cannot serve as a reliable material base for public interest law
practice. It is not the resources alone coming from our poor clients that matter; it is also their
recognition of the value of our services and that they alone can make public interest law
practice truly viable.
“After long years of experience as a people’s lawyer, I can honestly say it has been a
treasured journey of self-fulfillment and rewarding achievement. I know it will be the same for
all others who choose to tread this path. # “
(Notes of the Conference-Organizer: “Romeo T. Capulong is the Philippines’ leading human rights lawyer, having served as counsel and lead spokesperson in all principal human rights cases in the country for the past three decades. In 1989, he founded the
country’s first public interest law firm, the Public Interest Law Center (PILC), of which he is currently the Chairperson. In 2000, he led the Preparatory Committee for the formation of the International Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL), later on becoming its first Eminent Person.
Atty. Capulong was elected by the UN General Assembly in 2001 as Ad Litem Judge of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. He is currently the Chairperson of the largest voluntary national association of human rights lawyers in the Philippines, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), founded in 2007. Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno had this to say about him: “Atty. Capulong is the most steadfast, the most impressive defender of human rights in the Philippines among the present crop of
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