Halls of Justice dress code is anti-poor

Members of the legal profession are expected to observe proper attire when they appear in court, or when they participate in an activity that may require their special skills as lawyers.  That expectation, of course, takes into consideration ideal circumstances and may, in fact, recite only the general rule.  There are lawyers who do not comport themselves properly enough to be seen as exponents of justice.  Some lawyers are even mistaken for the accused they are defending, because of their lack of sartorial refinement.  Fortunately, that situation is the exception.

To repeat, lawyers who appear in court are required to be in proper attire, usually a barong or a suit for the men, and the corresponding equivalent for the women.  The requirement not only makes the lawyer look respectable to his client and to the public; it is likewise a way of maintaining the public respect the court is entitled to as an institution vested by law to dispense justice “though the heavens fall.”

In addition, there is the public perception that if one can afford the expenses involved in becoming a lawyer, one should be able to afford to dress up like one.

Of course, the level of a lawyer’s legal competence is not determined by his attire in court.  Study, preparation, and experience all have a hand in that.  Nonetheless, clients find it more comforting to be represented by a lawyer in smart and elegant attire than one who is not.

In fine, a dress code need not be imposed on members of the legal profession.  It is but expected of lawyers to dress up for the occasion.

Even police officers who appear in court must be in proper uniform.  As law enforcement officials, they are also expected to give the court the respect due it by being in proper attire.  Since they are in proper uniform, these police officers are allowed to bring their guns, properly holstered, inside the courtroom.           

Major cities in the Philippines have a building designated as the “Hall of Justice” of that city.  Since that is where all cases are supposed to be litigated, the trial courts of the city, the offices of the city prosecutor and his assistants, and the public attorney’s office are all there.

For quite some time now, a dress code has been in force in these halls of justice.  It prohibits people who are “inappropriately” attired from entering the building.  Those who are in shorts or in slippers are among those who are considered “inappropriately” attired.  The regulation is enforced against anyone who wishes to enter the building, lawyers or otherwise.

While the dress code seems premised on a laudable policy of making non-lawyers comport themselves in a manner appropriate for a forum for justice, it has the badges of an anti-poor measure.

First, what is to be considered “appropriate” or “proper” attire may be easy to define by those who can afford such attire, but may be beyond compliance by those who are restrained by limited funds, if not by abject poverty.  The requirement creates an obvious social inequality between those who have and those who don’t.  In other words, the dress code discriminates against people who cannot afford shoes, and/or certain footwear and clothing.

Second, the Hall of Justice is a public building.  Admission to a public building should not be restricted on the basis of what attire one is wearing, as long as the attire does not violate the norms of public morality.  Thus, one who is in Spartan attire and is unable to afford anything more than that, ought not to be barred from admission to the public building, especially when he has good reason to be there.

Third, there are instances when vendors who, despite their “inappropriate” attire, are allowed to enter the Hall of Justice to make food and beverage deliveries.  This special treatment is unwarranted if the rule is to apply to all who enter the building.

Fourth, since the construction of the Hall of Justice is funded by taxpayer money, all taxpayers have a right to enter it during reasonable office hours, and provided they do not create trouble.  Considering that almost every purchase of goods in this country is subject to a value added tax, and that almost everyone in the country must have bought something in his or her life, the law-abiding citizen has the right to enter the Hall of Justice in an attire he or she can afford to wear, provided that the attire is decent.

Fifth, a dress code may be imposed as a regulation in a public building where it may be reasonable to require it, as in a public university where the students are being trained to dress up as future professionals.  On the other hand, a Hall of Justice, by its very name, should be accessible to anybody who needs justice, even if he or she is unable to afford “appropriate” attire or footwear.  One’s entitlement to justice is based on certain events in one’s life, and not because of one’s attire or footwear.

The dress code in the Hall of Justice is likewise incompatible with provisions of the Constitution, particularly Section 11, Article III thereof which provides —“Free access to the courts … and adequate legal assistance shall not be denied to any person by reason of poverty.”

as well as Section 1, Article XIII which states –

“The Congress shall give highest priority to the enactment of measures that protect and enhance the right of all the people to human dignity, reduce social, economic, and political inequities …”

Since the dress code is, as shown above, an anti-poor measure and creates a social inequality where it is least expected, it is in conflict with the above-quoted provisions of the fundamental law of the land.  Like the Sandiganbayan Justice who was recently cashiered by the Supreme Court, the dress code in the Halls of Justice must be removed.   


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