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Bringing Justice to the Poor [2005] ADBLPRes 8 (1 May 2005)

Bringing Justice to the Poor

ADB Review [ May 2005 ]

Through innovation—and by listening to the people that matter most—the Philippine Supreme Court is improving access to justice

By Eric Van Zant, (
Consultant Writer

Raymund Narag tells his tale of 7 years in an overcrowded and disease-ridden Manila prison—accused of murder but never convicted—in a loud, amiable tenor, an ironic glint in his eye. Harsh detail and administrative “matter-of-fact” pop out like wisdom from a brilliant social scientist, rather than bitter experience.

Just 3 days before Raymund was due to graduate from the University of the Philippines, he was charged, alongside 11 others, with killing a rival fraternity member in a campus brawl. His mother, thinking that Raymund was handing over his diploma, was distraught to see an arrest warrant instead.

Dejected at first and isolated among hardened criminals, Raymund soon showed a talent for writing letters for fellow detainees that blossomed into providing fullfledged legal advice. His education and skill would ultimately see him become mayor of mayors in the Quezon City Jail, the head of an unofficial, often brutal prisoner-run system of control that he says is common in the Philippines’ underfunded and understaffed urban jails.

“I really made sure that the rights of the inmates would be protected because there were rampant abuses inside the jail before my time, and we came up with many reform programs,” says Raymund.

Two years after his release on an acquittal —after spending 6 years, 9 months, and 4 days in jail—that skill and experience also make him ideal for helping the Philippine Supreme Court find ways to reform the country’s justice system under the Action Program for Judicial Reform (APJR).

Based on ideas espoused by Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide, the APJR seeks to build a foundation for the long-term development of the country’s judicial branch with a wide range of reform projects of more than 100 in all.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is supporting the APJR with aid projects aimed at boosting the independence of the Philippine judiciary as part of growing recognition among global development agencies that support for justice reforms is critical to efforts at reducing poverty.

Giving the Poor a Leg Up

The Philippine Supreme Court plays an unusually activist role in the social development of its country’s citizens, one laid down specifically in the pro-poor constitution written in the wake of, and in reaction to, the dictatorship of former President Ferdinand Marcos.

In the words of Associate Justice Artemio Panganiban, “we are mandated by the constitution to be biased in favor of the poor, the underprivileged, and the dispossessed. This means that in case of doubt we lean in favor of labor and of the poor. Because of this provision, social justice is about giving more law to the poor.” (see Laws to Favor the Poor)

Within that context, a lot of the work to expand access to justice in the Philippines is about giving the underprivileged “a leg up.” One APJR program illustrates that dedication.

At the end of December 2004, a large, white bus pulled into the compound of the Manila Youth Reception Center. Just 2 days later, Alvin, a pleasant-looking and shy 15-year-old from the rough dockside neighborhood of Tondo, was released from the detention center after being held for just more than a year in a case involving petty theft.

In the bus, Alvin’s case was finally heard by a judge and dismissed. He was one of 83 boys and girls released in a month by the so-called mobile court, the first of its kind in Southeast Asia and put together with funding from the APJR. Those released were held on charges of theft, robbery, drug-related offenses, and illegal possession of deadly weapons.

On its first day of operation and with the assistance of seven family court judges, 40 cases were immediately resolved. The large bus staffs a judge, a prosecutor, and a stenographer, among others, to bring justice closer to the people, especially the poor.

“The big difference is they are coming to you, you are not coming to them,” says JR Dumdum, a social worker at the detention center. He says there is just no comparison to the number of children the center could get released under previous arrangements. Months would go by with no releases. Clearing the center of such cases not only helps the children, but also the social workers, giving them more time to concentrate on other more troubled cases.

After his release, Alvin found work in the Las Piñas area, south of Manila. He is now helping his family, and is away from the negative influence of more troubled boys in the detention center.

Many Are Overdue for Release

“There are many in our jails who are already overdue for release. Either their cases are already terminated, or [those involved] are young and they shouldn’t be there in the first place, or they are old. The jails in Manila are 1,000% overcrowded. So if there should be 500 people, there are 5,000. The bus goes to the jail and tries these cases,” says Justice Panganiban.

Equally important, he says, is the symbolic value—that the people will say the Supreme Court is attending to their needs.

For those still stuck in jail, however, Raymund Narag’s organization, the Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation, has produced a useful tool under the APJR. The Defender’s Notebook is a log and information guide for detainees to better track their progress through the crammed and complex Philippine hearing system. It is written in Tagalog, rather than in English, which many have trouble understanding. The book provides invaluable information about the criminal procedure and, at the back, lists nearly two dozen useful numbers inmates can use for obtaining advice—the Supreme Court, Office of the Court Administrator, is at the top.

“What gives us happiness now is that agencies like ADB have taken an interest in the judiciary, whereas before they did not. There is a (recognized) connection between good governance and access to justice and poverty,” says Justice Panganiban.

Raymund Narag says his organization is now looking to get funding from the APJR to install a computer software program at jails that would allow officials to keep track of when a prisoner was put in jail and how long he has been in.

He says there is a real problem with record keeping—many are kept in jail simply because no one has noticed they have stayed well beyond the maximum sentence attached to their alleged crimes. The software program would alert officials when a detainee has reached that point. Under Philippine law, he must be released.

The APJR builds on previous reform efforts by the Supreme Court, including the technical assistance to the Philippine Judiciary on Justice and Development Project, which produced the “Blueprint of Action for the Judiciary.” With considerable support from ADB and the World Bank, the court programs are helping find ways to reduce congestion and increase access for the poor.

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