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Laws to Favor the Poor [2005] ADBLPRes 12 (1 May 2005)

Laws to Favor the Poor

ADB Review [ May 2005 ]

Philippine Supreme Court Associate Justice Artemio Panganiban explains what a pro-poor constitution means--and its impact on justice reforms

By Eric Van Zant, (
Consultant Writer

The Philippine Supreme Court is mandated by the country’s 1987 Constitution—drafted just after the fall of the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos—to be biased in favor of the poor, the underprivileged, and the dispossessed.

Under its provisions the Supreme Court, in the words of Associate Supreme Court Justice Artemio Panganiban, “safeguards not only food, but also freedom; not only jobs, but also justice; not only indulgences, but also integrity; not only development, but also democracy; not only prosperity, but also peace.”

Perhaps as a consequence, the Philippine judiciary extends into every aspect of national and community life, be it social, economic, political, or humanitarian. Providing adequate access to justice, in this case, means leaning in favor of labor and of the poor, says Mr. Panganiban, and putting in place measures that help the poor have access to decent legal services.

“Those that have less in life should have more in law to give them a better chance at competing with those that have more in life,” he says. “If the people are not happy with the access to justice and the economy, they will rebel.”

“You must first have good governance and people that have trust in the government. And to have trust, you must give them a fighting chance to be able to enter the process of government. Give them a little advantage. By experience, even though the constitution is this way there are still many instances where the poor don’t believe they have a chance.”

When that happens, people will take the law in their own hands. “In the long term, it will still be bad for investors, the monied, and the economy if the poor cannot get justice or at least perceive that they cannot get justice in the democratic institutions.”

The Philippine Constitution was drafted by those who fought against the Marcos dictatorship, including current Chief Justice Hilario Davide. Its pro-poor provisions are a recognition of the need to remedy the great social, political, and economic divisions in the country.

Broadly speaking, the Supreme Court has opened the justice system to the poor through several measures. They are exempted from paying docket and other fees and for transcripts of court proceedings, for example, and are granted free legal counsel. Lawyers can be required to provide free representation to poor litigants.

Several legal services for the public are also provided by nongovernment organizations, among them the Free Legal Aid Program provided by the Integrated Bar of the Philippines with help from an annual grant from the Supreme Court.

Many programs to improve access to the justice system for the poor come under the Action Program for Judicial Reform (APJR). (see Bringing Justice to the Poor)

The pro-poor Constitution also mandates action in areas of business and in government.

“Whenever there is unfairness, in whatever field, whether science, economics, statistics, the court will come in, not because it wants to be officious but because it is mandated by the constitution to apply the law,” says Mr. Panganiban.

And “in a long line of decisions, the Supreme Court has been unabashedly pro-poor, pro-labor, and pro-human rights,” he says.

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