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Surveying 30 Years of Paralegal Programs in the Philippines

Last month, the World Bank published a new study documenting the contributions of community-based paralegals in the Philippines. The study surveys 12 paralegal organizations, government officials, and a few international institutions. The report touches on the history of paralegalism in the Philippines (predating independence!), factors that strengthen and weaken paralegal work, advantages and disadvantages to linking with government entities, and paralegal work on rights awareness, private disputes, state, and corporate accountability. Check it out below!

Credit: Deutsche Bank

Credit: Deutsche Bank

Political Context Leading to the Popular Spread of Paralegalism in the Philippines

Contemporary paralegal work in the Philippines is not a new phenomenon. Rather, there is precedent for paralegal work in the lawyering for the poor that dates back to the early 1930s, when agrarian and labor unrest arose in response to deteriorating social and economic conditions. Demands over land tenure and labor issues were shaped by political-legal support received from individual local lawyers who sympathized with these movements and their aspirations. The experience launched a tradition of lawyering for the poor and other marginalized groups.

A major contributor to the work of paralegals was the democratization process after the overthrow of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and the continuing evolution of legal rights spurred by the relatively progressive constitution ratified in 1987. The main anchor of paralegalism has been the broad movement for social change.

Mistrust of the Word Bank

Several of the civil society groups…expressed various degrees of concern about participating in a project initiated by the World Bank. Some were particularly concerned about how the World Bank would use the data, especially on issues where the World Bank’s advocacy and activities in the country were seen as deeply at odds with their own, especially the promotion of large-scale mining but also other far-reaching economic activities perceived as having intolerable negative social and environmental impacts.

Scope of Paralegal Work

Paralegals in the Philippines today engage in: (i) education on human rights, constitutional rights and provisions, and legal rights and procedures; (ii) legal research/investigation/documentation or casework proper; (iii) mediation in conflict-resolution or dispute-processing venues, especially the village-level barangay justice system; (iv) representation in certain quasi-judicial dispute resolution tribunals; (v) law enforcement as bantay gubat (forest guards) and bantay dagat (municipal water guards); (vi) policy advocacy around local ordinances and national laws, policies, and programs; and (vii) organization and mobilization of people to more effectively address their justice concerns by making claims based on legal rights.

Formal Recognition of Paralegals

Community-based paralegals are now recognized and encouraged in some quasi-judicial tribunals, but not yet formally recognized by the judiciary. For some, more crucial (and more acceptable) than official state recognition is unofficial but formal recognition in the form of identification cards issued by legal NGOs to those they train as paralegals.

In other cases, paralegals frequently interact with local court employees and officials to befriend them and win their respect, so that even without official recognition of their work as paralegals, eventually they are given unofficial recognition as representatives of their organizations, which in their experience serves them well. In other cases, more formal types of state recognition are perceived as essential for their work.

Factors Promoting and Threatening the Paralegal System

Scarcity of Public Interest Lawyers

The relative scarcity of public interest lawyers, for example, creates a substantial need for paralegals to fill in the gap. Yet, the scarcity also means that the persons who do become public interest lawyers become all the more important, as they are the ones who provide the training and mentoring needed to support a paralegal movement.

Institutional Support

Public interest lawyers and paralegals need to be incorporated into more formal institutional structures and in this way sustained in order for paralegal formation programs to survive. Institutionalization is not automatic or fixed over time, but must be continuously cultivated, particularly as there is concern among some informants that traditional sources of funding for paralegal programs are drying up.

Legal Defense Fund for Paralegals

The creation of a fund dedicated to legal defense work is another mechanism that serves to sustain paralegal work. The extent that paralegal work threatens to upset an unjust status quo, increase claim-making, and facilitate social justice activism often provokes legal offensives by entrenched elites, making it necessary to divert scarce financial resources away from the social change work itself and into legal defense. Having a dedicated legal defense fund can help to ease this problem to some extent.

Paralegals’ Dual Strategy: Exerting Legal and Community Pressure

Also seen as a crucial factor facilitating paralegal programs and work is community organizing. An important political resource for people in this situation is their capacity to organize and mobilize social pressure. This is particularly critical in settings where “good law” exists, [but] making legal rights actually authoritative requires a struggle against powerful, entrenched interests.

In the Philippines, the mixed, uneven, and often hostile social-political setting has given rise to community-based paralegal formation as part of a broader political strategy. Network members refer to this strategy as “legal-metalegal,” a concept that emphasizes the limitations of a purely legal strategy and the need for organized, “metalegal” collective action as well.

Low Capacity and Declining Funding

The low capacity of CSOs to absorb the public interest lawyers needed to anchor and guide paralegal practice and programs is linked to decreased funding for public interest law work. In the Philippines, civil society organizations primarily provide the platform upon which the public interest lawyers are able to do their work. Although there has been long-term donor support in this area, many traditional sources of funding are shifting away from such work.

Lack of Resources for M&E

M&E systems have been given a low priority by legal NGO leaders and paralegal program funders alike, according to study informants, who also cite limited resources as the reason for this (for example, given limited funds, priority should be given to training over M&E). Since the paralegal work is not properly documented and evaluated, it becomes harder for the NGOs to provide evidence to funders that such types of paralegal activities work and are effective.

Corrupt or Indifferent Local Officials

Seeing government officials violate the law has an immediate “chilling” effect on paralegal work. Paralegals commonly encounter local officials who are not aware of certain new provisions of the law. Typically, the paralegals engage local governments and try to convince them to enforce this new legislation for the common good. But when the local officials themselves sanction illegal practices, then the local government officials become hindering factors. Perhaps more common are local government officials who are “unsympathetic” to a given cause in which paralegals have become active, even when the latter are “in the right” in legal terms.

Credit: Joanne Valdez

Credit: Joanne Valdez

Lack of Community Support for Paralegalism

This point was raised especially by a group of women paralegals working at the barangay [village] level on issues of violence against women, who felt that their efforts were not supported enough by the barangay officials. Despite the existence of a government policy mandating that 5% of the local government budget go toward financing gender and development work, the barangay officials in these paralegals’ area of work had yet to release any funds

Physical and Legal Harassment

Arises especially in cases where paralegals are involved in struggles against a prevailing status quo perceived as unjust, if not unlawful. Examples include: cases where members of a grassroots organization—including its paralegals—get slapped with criminal charges in the course of trying to push forward the implementation of the government’s agrarian reform law

Skepticism of Paralegals’ Abilities

Paralegals have also been hindered by the persistence of a “lawyer-centered” legal consciousness among ordinary citizens, including paralegals themselves, which leads them to doubt their own capacity to study and practice law. The strong perception that it is only lawyers who can know and should practice law makes it difficult for paralegals to gain effective recognition, whether formally or informally, even in venues where they are officially recognized by law, such as the quasi-judicial labor tribunals.

Weak Grassroots Organizations

The absence of grassroots efforts can undermine paralegal work. When community organizing work and organizational strengthening efforts are not sustained in conjunction with paralegal practice, problems can result. For instance, in areas where labor unions are becoming weaker, there is increasing pressure on the legal NGOs doing paralegal formation work to do some of the organizing work also, thereby diverting attention and resources away from the paralegal formation work.

Concerns with Linking Paralegal Work to Local Government Structures

Many respondents expressed concerns about linking (or linking too closely) with local governments. Most common was the observation that electoral politics can “make or break” one’s paralegal practice, depending on “whose side you’re on” in an election.  In the Philippines, the capacity to engage with local government officials often has more to do with one’s political and personal affiliations than the social relevance of the paralegal program; consequently, your strength can also become your weakness if the network you are affiliated with loses in the next election

One argument in favor of supporting linkages comes from the need to address the rights and welfare of women or children. Often, the first responders tend to be barangay [village] officials, who are traditionally and still oftentimes men and may not be sensitive or knowledgeable in handling the cases. Paralegals armed with specialized training are needed to intervene in cases arising on a day-to-day basis and also to help influence and change the entrenched patriarchal culture that still largely determines local official response.

State Intervention in Certifying and Regulating Paralegals

A second point of debate has to do with whether and how the state should intervene and be involved in the certification and regulation of all paralegals. Those for state intervention believe it could be a potential safeguard against poor quality or corrupt practices.

Arguments against state intervention include: (i) that it can also be used to filter out perceived “undesirables” based on social or political biases; and (ii) that it can end up filtering out the very kinds of people (for example, from the poor and marginalized groups) that community-based paralegalism tries to tap and mobilize. As an alternative, some respondents suggest either relying on CSO-led certification and regulation, or coursing state intervention through the governmental Commission on Human Rights.

Paralegal Work on Rights Awareness

Paralegal training today makes a clear distinction between legal literacy (know your rights) and skills training (taking action to enforce and implement your rights). A typical training for paralegals would include: (i) a “situationer” on the specific sector (or population) of concern (for example, the national and local situation on the state of indigenous peoples); (ii) the human rights and legal rights pertinent to that sector; (iii) and the skills that may be needed in order to enforce those rights

To Read More about the Skills Taught in Paralegal Programs in the Philippines, click here and scroll to page 22.

Paralegal Training during Martial Law

The martial law era modules on paralegal training typically contained skills building on how to preserve evidence, how to make an affidavit based on what one has personally witnessed (very useful when someone has been arrested by the military, for example), and which government agencies to approach in cases of human rights violations.

Challenges with Paralegal Trainings on Rights Awareness

Experience suggests that gaining knowledge does not automatically lead to success; as one informant put it, “paralegal knowledge is very useful, but implementation is the problem.” Among the informants there was a perception too that increased rights awareness and paralegal skills can lead to frustration and inaction in the absence of successful outcomes. “Government agencies that ought to implement don’t, and citizens feel that they are the ones who have to implement.”

As this shows, many political factors are perceived as beyond the control of paralegals, no matter how well trained. The skills training part of paralegal instruction and formation today does emphasize the need for collective action on the part of citizens in the enforcement of rights and the implementation of programs, but in the end, what matters to the affected people are the results of any action.

‘Battle Fatigue’ Challenge for Paralegals

When the struggle for the land has been finally “won,” there may be a tendency for the farmers organizations and their paralegals to demobilize to focus on more immediate household level concerns, even if the next immediate challenge remain. Some advocates argue that this kind of situation requires creative interaction between the paralegal, the community organizers, and the legal NGO workers supporting the paralegals to devise sustaining strategies for the continued involvement of paralegals in the area.

Paralegal Work on Settling Private Disputes

In the Philippine context, the settlement of private disputes is not a high priority for the kind of paralegals studied here. Because paralegalism in the Philippines historically has been tied to social change, it tends to address issues affecting traditionally marginalized segments of the population or broad public interest issues that can affect the entire population or an entire community. However, paralegals may still be called upon by to resolve disputes by neighbors or friends.

Some respondents from the judicial sector highlighted a need to attend to the more commonplace legal concerns of the relatively unorganized poor, especially in far-flung communities. The unorganized poor usually have little or no access to legal services in cases such as death benefits claims, discrepancies in the records of birth, marriage, or death, and issues of registration during election time, among other matters

Paralegal Work on State and Corporate Accountability

Some of this state accountability work is international in character and involves mobilizing to push the Philippine government to carry out its obligations under international human rights law to protect, defend, and fulfill the human rights of its citizens. Other work is more national in character, revolving around the passage and meaningful implementation of national laws and associated policies and programs.

Paralegal work on corporate accountability ranges from documenting violations and gathering evidence, to persuading victims to pursue and sustain cases, to trying to activate relevant and appropriate state bodies and agencies to mobilize and decide in favor of the groups and communities harmed by corporate activities. There are numerous examples of paralegal involvement in efforts to hold large corporate entities (both foreign and domestic) accountable for either civil and political rights violations and/or social and environmental harms caused by their activities, especially mining, logging, fishing, and commercial farming, but also including illegal recruitment of migrant workers, unfair labor practices, and human trafficking

To read the entire report, including recommendations (page 31), click here.


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This entry was posted on April 2, 2014 by in General, Reports and tagged , .

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