What a week it was in April, with commencement exercises and recognition rites. It was also a week where I got to listen to four speeches—from two of the country’s most eminent lawyers, a new law graduate, and a student who finished economics, summa cum laude, and who will enter law school in August.
At the general commencement exercise of the University of the Philippines Diliman, we had Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno as guest of honor. She delivered her speech in flawless Filipino, and it was clearly meant to inspire the new graduates with its refreshing sense of optimism.
The Chief Justice used the English word “exciting” to refer to UP, her alma mater. “Exciting,” too, was her description of what she was going to talk about in terms of the tasks ahead.
Why her optimism? She pointed out that until recently, it was impossible to know how much of the nation’s coffers had been plundered. There were no whistle-blowers, there was no in-depth audit of government funds. There was little interest in the concept of accountability. And even with a noisy press, even corrupt politicians could get elected, and there was little chance they would ever be imprisoned.
The situation has changed, with more people coming forward to expose anomalies. The Chief Justice was optimistic we would make more gains, as long as citizens were vigilant, not just about the nation’s coffers, but about the constitutionally-mandated tasks of government officials: “from the judges in the lowest courts to the Supreme Court justices, from the clerks of the Bureau of Internal Revenue to the district officers and beyond, from the administrative officers of the two houses of Congress to the legislators themselves.” Later in her speech, she paid homage to the clerks of court who know how important their work is for dispensing justice.
She was optimistic, too, because she was seeing many young people willing to serve in government. And here she described the many ways one can serve, from the tourist guide proud of the Philippines, to environmentalists guarding our natural resources, to athletes winning in international competitions.
The Chief Justice’s point, summarized in the title of her speech “Iisang pakikibaka, isang libong anyo ng kadakilaan,” is that we have one common struggle but a thousand ways toward greatness, toward expressing love of country. “Authentic life of service” was her description of the aspirations of the young today.
I would add: one struggle, thousands of faces. We had more than 4,000 graduates that afternoon, and I would like to think they will indeed aim for greatness in the sense of the Filipino “kadakilaan,” nobility of spirit.
Among those faces was Jose Maria L. Marella, who delivered a speech in behalf of his graduating class. He had done his homework, researching on Apolinario Mabini, whose birth sesquicentennial we celebrate this year. (For foreign readers and perhaps Filipinos who didn’t listen to their history professors: Mabini was crippled by polio but was able to study and finish law, and joined the revolution against Spain.)
Marella mentioned that Mabini was once unable to pay a P29 fee for a final examination. (Actually there were more instances where Mabini nearly stopped his college education because of lack of funds.) He drew parallels between Mabini and UP students, who constantly have to appeal for late payment of tuition to avoid dropping out.
He asked if we have in a sense all become crippled, too, by all the problems of our “system,” and urged us to draw inspiration again from Mabini, who was able to overcome adversity because of a deep love of country.
At the College of Law recognition rites two days after the commencement exercises, the valedictorian Ricardo Jesus E. Gutierrez was profuse in his thanks—to his professors and classmates, the staff, and the taxpayers—for being able to study law at UP. He raised the need to return the favor.
I should point out that our law students are more than the usual “iskolar ng bayan” because the subsidies for their education come, not just from government budgets assigned to UP, but also from a Legal Research Fund consisting of a percentage of the legal fees received by government agencies nationwide. The Fund, which goes to the UP College of Law, amounts to more than P100 million a year.
Problem-solvers, not gladiators
It was during the college recognition rites that a doctor of laws degree, honoris causa, was conferred on Senate President Franklin Drilon. His speech was the most intriguing and challenging, captured in one line: “Lawyers should be problem-solvers rather than gladiators. They should be more result-oriented rather than procedure-based.”
The senator bemoaned the way the practice of law has become adversarial, because of our system of litigation. The result is that courts become clogged with cases that take much too long to resolve.
I wondered if indeed our new lawyers could move away from the gladiator model of lawyering. We seem instead to be headed toward becoming like the United States, where people are always too ready to file lawsuits. I also worry that the law is seen more to prosecute, than to defend.
I thought that perhaps law schools should require their students to be exposed to our barangay system of resolving cases. Visit any low-income neighborhood’s barangay center on a weekend and you will find the kapitana (many barangay chiefs now are women) or her representatives presiding over an informal court. The scene is noisy, with the litigants as well as kibitzers (uzis) shouting at each other, lots of tears, fainting, chest-pounding. Many of the cases are domestic—for example, a wife going after a straying husband, but there are also many neighborhood disputes involving loud karaoke-playing, barking dogs, theft, drunken behavior, drug-pushing, and more extramarital affairs.
Many cases are adeptly resolved on the spot because our barangay chiefs, and their councils, aren’t quite as rule-bound. They modify, even break, the rules. They sit back sometimes and let the litigants shout it out, even slug it out.
I’m not saying that’s the way our courts should be. Rules and procedures do count, but what we’ve seen over the years is a judiciary gone awry. The rules are now used to the advantage of the rich and powerful, and lawyers are brought in to use those very rules to delay justice.
It’s important for law students to keep in touch with the world outside, to see the kinds of disputes that do arise, and the way people resolve those disputes on their own. When the more community-based forms of conflict resolution fail, then the courts, and lawyers, come in.
There is continuity there, which is why those congressional hearings on scams have become popular TV fare: They are in a sense like the barangay hearings, this time a whole nation of kibitzers coming to cheer or jeer.
The speeches during that week from our lawyers and lawyers-to-be keep going back to a theme of justice: law students owing taxpayers for their education, new law students urged to look into government service, lawyers reminded that they are obliged to deliver justice.
Throughout the speeches, I kept remembering the late senator Jose W. Diokno and how often he mentioned that what is legal is not always just, and what is just is not always legal. The challenge to future lawyers is to find ways for a better fit between the law and justice.
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