Hope in the rule of law

Continuing her discussion on the rule of law and the present state of impunity in her speech at the 16th National Convention of Lawyers of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) on March 24, 2017 at Marriott Manila, Pasay City, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno stated that addressing impunity becomes the shared burden of those in the judiciary and the legal profession.

It is within this context that I pose my question to all of us—in view of the creeping impunity that we once again find ourselves in, how should we understand the role of lawyers in promoting the rule of law?

She proposed an answer to this by suggesting that we (in the legal profession) should situate ourselves once again in the nobility of our profession and in the best, not the worst, that it has to offer our many publics— our clients, our people, and our country.

To the Chief Justice, an environment of fear and violence is anathematic to the rule of law. It contributes to impunity. To preserve the rule of law, lawyers must steel themselves, to a certain degree, to develop a level of indifference to the ambient noise, and discharge their duties to the best of their abilities as their conscience dictates. Good lawyers must swim against whatever tide meets them.

When judges and lawyers hesitate to do the right thing for fear of being derogated for the company they keep or when they respond to vilification, threats and actual violence with surrender and capitulation, the rule of law is shoved out and impunity steps in, she added.

Chief Justice Sereno reminded the members of the profession that the courts are the refuge, often the final refuge, for those who seek to hold offenders—public and private, highly-ranked or of common station, accountable for their acts of violence. The long arm of the law often finds a face in our courts, yet it has been my experience that the long arm of the law often has a very short reach—before the courts can act, controversies must be investigated, cases must be filed and prosecuted. Practicing lawyers and members of the Bar are part of the long arm of the law. She pleaded with the members of the profession to not limit the reach of the law by inaction, or worse, active collaboration with those who would seek to promote impunity and diminish the rule of law.

She observed that many of our people, including some among our ranks, have been desensitized or rendered numb by violence. Desensitization is the first step towards hopelessness, and an uncritical embrace of the status quo. Our role as lawyers is not to simply embrace uncritically the status quo. It is, rather, to provide a voice for those rendered voiceless, to bring causes that would otherwise not be heard, to provide hope in the midst of impunity.

She then proposed four practical steps that lawyers can do to combat impunity.

First, take the Lawyer’s Oath to heart and grow in character.

As I wrote in the first of this series of columns on the legal profession, Sereno proposed that the Lawyer’s Oath is no ordinary canonical incantation. Nor is it a routine legal requirement. The Oath, far from being a sterile form of words, gives us (lawyers and judges) the road map to action as lawyers and defines us as a profession. In a very real sense, it is a definition of who we are and to what we have been called.

Second, sign up to help.

There are so many ways to help, according to the Chief Justice. If you find yourself in a position to help those who seek to bring suit to protect their rights, then by all means do so. Just be mindful though of the admonition in the Oath as to groundless suits and our intolerance to those.

Third, go against the grain; do not take the path of least resistance.

Challenging the status quo means being unafraid to go against the grain, to take the path least trod, and to break new trails. Challenging the status quo means that we must occasionally confront traditions that may have taken root through inertia and, if necessary, create new traditions, she explained.

Fourth, continue this conversation started in the IBP Convention.

I am doing my share of that through these columns. We must find ways to resist the culture of impunity. We must be innovative. We just can’t raise the flag of surrender and shrug that there is nothing we can do about it.

This is why I do not support a case in the International Criminal Court against Duterte and his people at this time. In my view, there are still legal, judicial, and political avenues we have not tapped and used to fight extrajudicial killings and the crimes against humanity being committed. We have not maximized the Rule of Law to give our people hope.

By way of conclusion, the Chief Justice emphasized that the fight is not against a person or against an establishment. Rather, it is a fight against a culture, a way of thinking, of seeing, and thus of acting or not acting. It is a culture that is ingrained and deeply rooted. It is a culture that started when people started to look the other way; a culture that thrived when people stopped caring; a culture that prevailed when people stopped hoping. The only way to fight against a culture is to be a counter-culture—to stand up for truth and right even when others choose to keep silent or to spread lies; to encourage action when others are apathetic; to dare to hope even when others have given up.

Chief Justice Sereno urged the IBP to stand up, for what is true, what is honorable, what is right, what is pure, what is of good repute, what is excellent and worthy of praise. This, according to her, is the transcendent essence of the lawyer’s oath. For judges and lawyers, this is our common cause, our shared burden, our one hope.

With fullness of conviction, I truly believe that the rule of law assures us that hope will in the end prevail and rule.


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Topics: Tony La Vina , 16th National Convention of Lawyers , Integrated Bar of the Philippines , Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno
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