IN an elite-dominated society like the Philippines, access to justice is a struggle for the poor. It is difficult, if not nil in most cases.

The mere lack of knowledge of rights, insufficient resources, not to mention, the abuse of power and the lack of impartiality on the part of public officials are just some of the numerous reasons why justice is so out of reach for ordinary Filipinos.

As reflected by various sectors at a recent forum, barriers to the poor’s access to justice are deeply rooted in the prevailing socioeconomic order, characterized by a long history of colonization and the backward economy that serves only the interests of the rich and powerful.

Chief Justice Reynato Puno, keynote speaker at the forum, acknowledged the issues raised, noting that the playing field in the justice system is tilted against the poor.

It’s a situation aggravated by “bribery and corruption, political and other forms of undue pressure, and (the) subculture of pakikisama and utang na loob” which Atty. Romeo Capulong, chairperson of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), said are major weaknesses that pervade in courts and among judges today.

But Puno has proposed several remedies on how justice can be made more accessible and attainable to the oppressed. “Makaaasa po kayo na personal na bibigyan ko ng atensyon itong mga panukala ninyo, (Rest assured that I will personally look into your recommendations),” he said.

For one, he said that the Supreme Court is reviewing the possible expansion of the scope of the writ of amparo. Currently, the writ covers only existing extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances or threats thereof.

In his speech, Puno said that the writ of amparo may be expanded to cover also the protection of the economic, social, and cultural rights of the poor. This would include the protection against demolitions and bringing the judicial structures closer to the poor.

Listen to Chief Justice Reynato Puno’s speech.

‘Slapping the SLAPP’

The Chief Justice also recognized the anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) rule recommended by lawyer Jules Matibag of NUPL.

SLAPP, according to Matibag, are cases meant “to harass, vex, exert undue pressure, stifle the resources of critics or opponents, and burden (the poor) with the cost of a lengthy litigation so that they would be forced to abandon their criticism or opposition.”

These cases are commonly filed by mining companies and banana plantations vs. community residents, indigenous people, environmentalists, and the media; landlords vs. peasants; employers vs. workers; universities and colleges vs. students; and public figures and politicians vs. critics and the media.

Puno said that the High Court would review the measures used by the United States, Canada, and Europe, where SLAPP cases and “SLAPP back” actions originated.

‘Justice on wheels’

Since January 2008, the Supreme Court’s mobile court project has resolved 1,329 cases, and has freed a total of 156 prisoners.

The Chief Justice said that the mobile court annex mediation system will be pushed further, to give quick and free solutions to legal issues via conciliation, mediation, and adjudication.

After visiting the provinces of Rizal, Bulacan, and Cebu, and Manila, Caloocan, and Quezon City, the mobile courts are set to go to several provinces in Mindanao.

Small-claims courts

Puno also added that the Supreme Court is finalizing the rules of procedure for small-claims cases where there would be pilot courts to hear cases involving amounts less than P100,000 without any more need for legal representation.

“Through this system, the people, especially the poor who cannot afford the expenses, would enjoy a quicker access to justice,” he said in Filipino.

On another level, Puno also included the exemption to pay bail bonds on special cases involving the marginalized sectors, reducing the payment of docket fees and the number of copies of pleadings required, and prohibiting the sale of the transcript of stenographic notes.

In collaboration with the Public Attorney’s Office, Commission on Human Rights, and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the creation of legal clinics was also proposed to help familiarize the marginalized sectors about the rules and processes of the justice system.

Sectoral groups like the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) also urged the Court to review trade and investment policies, as well as previous court rulings that Dr. Carol Araullo said “may have compromised the people’s social, economic and cultural rights.”

In the end though, Puno said that aside from the judiciary, other government agencies and sectors must also do their parts and contribute in uplifting the rights of the poor.

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