To the Random Law Student Studying in the Corner

By:Tess Marie  P. Tan

University of San Carlos School of Law and governance


August 30, 2016

Burger King, Escario

Cebu City

To the Random Law Student Studying in the Corner:

          I do not know your name, or where you come from, but I know you.

          I recognize the perpetual eye bags that have taken residence on your face. I know the slight bent on your spine from bearing the weight of the stress heavier than the hardbound textbooks you carry. I know that more than once you have wondered whether Socrates woke up on the wrong side of the bed the day he started teaching using his method, and I know how fast you can read when faced with the threat of major exams in less than 24 hours. I know caffeine courses through your veins, and I know how index cards can become the subject of your nightmares. I know your struggle, because I share it with you.

          I wonder how many times you have asked yourself if the dream is worth it. Do you even remember why you went to law school?

          When there are seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against you, it is easy to forget. So indulge me, my young friend. Allow this humble law school junior to remind you why we are here.

          The other day on my way to school, I chanced upon a cabbie who fancied himself a political analyst – as most cab drivers do, being a regular in the underbelly of the metropolitan. He was adamant about engaging me in a discussion on extra-judicial killings. Fuelled by a passionate host on his AM radio, he was practically thumping his chest with the highest degree of moral indignation only one so misinformed can afford.

          Killing is the only way to rid the city of vermin. Why would we let scum live, let alone       roam free, when the rest of the community suffers? so he went, although I paraphrase.

          I pursed my lips in contemplation. How do I explain due process to a layman? How do I articulate to this stranger that everyone, including those infamous in the community, have the right to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law? How do I argue against this concept of instant justice?

          I considered using the law student card. I could take the academic route and give a lecture on the Bill of Rights. I could cite jurisprudence and recite the graceful prose of the Supreme Court in explaining the substantive and procedural rights of an accused. I could quote the International Criminal Court’s opinion on the need to have the recent killings investigated, and explain the rejection of extra-judicial killings in international law.

          I could give him statistics. Of the 1,160 deaths recorded in the last 55 days, only 700 have been claimed by the Philippine National Police as deaths from “legitimate police operations”. Assuming without conceding that indeed the 700 lives were lost as claimed, what do we make of the remaining 400 or so? Shall we simply charge the body count to collateral damage and call it a day?

          Although a tempting tactic, I realized that the strategy would not work. It would not do much other than probably lose the driver somewhere between probable cause and right to a day in court. Numbers and statistics mean little, if at all, to people on the ground. I would have most likely incited white-collar aversion and alienated him beyond remedy.

          This is the first reminder: we are here to humanize the law. Our role is to make the law less intimidating, and more approachable. We advocate, not argue. We educate, not excoriate.

          I figured humanizing the victims would surely appeal to the driver’s sensibilities. I mentioned Danica May Garcia, the helpless five-year-old girl who was shot in the head by gunmen who barged into her home while her family was having lunch. I lead him to see the grim reality that in this lawless narrative, anyone, including himself, could be the next blurred photo on tomorrow’s headline.

          He then recounted his experience of being held at gunpoint by a customer at two o’clock in the morning. He said the guy had bloodshot eyes, and he looked “possessed”. Naturally, this made my cabbie conclude that the perpetrator was on drugs. Because of the traumatizing event, he said he no longer picks up customers past midnight, which made him lose out on potential earnings for the day.

          Because his life and property were placed in peril, he was willing to impose a restraint on his liberty.

          As I hope you already know, the right to life, liberty and prosperity are so closely intertwined that the impairment of one necessarily impacts the exercise and enjoyment of the other.

          Civil liberties such as the right to earn, the right to peacefully assemble, the right to express and the right to worship, among others, are so sacrosanct that when threatened, even life and limb are risked. These rights are so fundamental that only an over-arching and compelling state interest can override them. The state must pass the strict scrutiny test; otherwise these preferred freedoms cannot be defeated.

          This is the next reminder, my nameless friend: as students of the law, we ipso facto become vanguards of the Constitution. Necessarily, our mandate includes the protection of our people’s rights to life, liberty and prosperity. It is our moral obligation to uphold the supremacy of the rule of law to secure these inherent and sacred rights.

          Last summer I had my internship in a Regional Trial Court considered to have one of the most clogged dockets in the country. To add some context, our Supreme Court assigned three decongestion officers to assist in disposing the 3,000+ cases docketed. Almost 80% of the cases were criminal cases.

          They were mostly drugs cases, with a few rape and estafa cases in between. Every now and then however, though still far too many by my yardstick, there would be cases of qualified theft filed by an employer against an employee who stole rice and a few canned goods from a convenience store where she served as cashier. She had already spent two years in jail for stealing food worth only a little over Php 500.00.

          I distinctly remember being gutted over a 67-year old grandmother begging the judge to “forgive” her and let her go. She was charged with illegal gambling for playing suertres. The police confiscated a meager Php 120.00 from her. She had already been in jail for over a year.

          I understood then why many of our countrymen call our justice system anti-poor.

          The judge, obviously pained, could not do more than articulate his apologies and sentenced her to imprisonment.

          On any given day, there would be inmates requesting to change their plea to guilty. With the deplorable state of the overcrowded prisons, sometimes with the imminent threat of death from contagious diseases like untreated Pulmonary Tuberculosis, inmates (who have served the minimum period for imprisonment imposable for the crime with which they have been accused) place the hope of securing their freedom in the liberality of the judges. Most often than not, if not always, the judge orders their immediate release.

          Upon re-entering a plea of guilty, immediate release is ordered. The now-convict celebrates, failing to realize that the win is only momentary. Months, if not mere weeks down the line, they will be faced with the challenges of fully being reintegrated into society. They will be faced with the grievous fact that employers and business owners are generally not inclined to hire someone with a criminal record. And when once again push comes to shove, they will most likely resort to criminality. Reformation is foregone when mouths need to be fed.

          In the cases I have personally witnessed, a public attorney always represented these inmates. The reason the public attorney encouraged them to plead guilty to secure their immediate release instead of avail of R.A. 10389 or the “Recognizance Act of 2012” escapes me.

          It is an unsustainable cycle – one that is the fate of many as I unfortunately discovered during my jail visit.

          In partnership with the Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation (HLAF), my law school sent sophomores taking Criminal Procedure to interview inmates. The students interview an inmate, go to court to check the status of the case, and then file a report to HLAF. HLAF then relays the information back to the inmate.

          It was a simple exercise with mutual benefits. The students would see how the Rules of Court are applied in real life, and in turn, inmates would be informed of their next court date, or in some cases, shockingly, they would for the first time be informed of the charge/s against them.

          I was assigned to interview and follow-up the case of “Joy” (not her real name). She was charged with qualified theft, although she did not know this fact. I was the one who informed her, as it was already reflected on her file. She had been in detention for two months. She did not know the name of her lawyer, although there was a name on file. She had not yet been arraigned.

          Prior to her detention, Joy worked in a junkyard. Her task was to segregate the different plastic bottle parts. There was a separate pile for the container and the bottle cap. She was paid based on the number of kilos she had segregated. She earned less than a hundred pesos a day. She had two kids – a two-year old boy, and a 3-month old daughter. Her children had different fathers.

          Upon reporting to work one fateful morning, police officers were already waiting for her. She claimed not to have been told why she was placed in handcuffs and was immediately brought to the police station, along with another co-worker. In the police station she was told that her employer was missing Php 10,000.00 from the cash register.

          She was crying throughout our conversation. She said she missed her kids.

          Her demeanor was in stark contrast to her seatmate’s, “Lola Iping” (also not her real name), who was then being interviewed by my classmate. She was probably the most well informed inmate of the bunch, citing particular sections she had allegedly violated. She was in high spirits as she claimed she was charged with violating “sikshun payb sa 9165” or sale of dangerous drugs. She claimed that the police planted sachets of methamphetamine hydrochloride behind the figure of Sto. Niño in her house’s altar. When asked if she had been in jail before, she sheepishly grinned and said yes, for the same offence. She was a veteran.

          The Cebuano term kawad-on comes to mind. Loosely translated, it means depravity.

          You see, my friend, when people are deprived of the right to property, it snowballs into a threat to the right to life. When a means to live and support oneself and one’s family is made inaccessible, whether due to lack of job opportunities or circumstance, even the most pious is constrained to seek any means to secure it. Individual liberty be damned.

          This is my final reminder to you: we do what we do because if not us, then who?

          Policy makers craft laws to better society and remedy evils. That is the role they play. Their wisdom is translated to legislation. They create the platform to grow the economy, regulate businesses, stimulate profit, nurture prosperity and give everyone a fighting chance. The electorate affects these policies through lobbying efforts, or through the language of the ballot. We take control every election, and we place people in power when we believe that they are one with our cause.

          As future lawyers, the role we play is one in partnership with the policy makers. Our role is to uphold laws and advocate for its implementation. We educate to empower. We raise awareness so the likes of Lola Iping and Joy do not have to resort to means outside the bounds of law. We nurture their prosperity and safeguard their liberty by recognizing the supremacy of the rule of law. Anything less than that is a betrayal to who we are and who we are supposed to be.

          There is so much to be done. Whether you choose to go into corporate law and ensure that business owners comply with regulatory and reportorial requirements, or whether you go into criminal law to either vindicate rights or assert them, your obligation, as much as mine, is to practice law with vigilance and integrity.

          Whether you go into private practice and handle cases for clients who can afford legal representation, or go into government service and cater to “the least, the last and the lost”, your obligation, as much as mine, is to provide our clients the best possible solution within the bounds of the law.

          To borrow from Talmud, it is up to us to finish the work; neither are we free to desist from it.

           It is easy to fall into the trap of disillusionment when we are confronted with the realities of being a law student, but the life we have chosen is not for the faint of heart.

          So keep at it, my dear future lawyer. Highlight those provisions with love. Cling to your codals like they are sacred texts. Take those doctrinal pronouncements to heart, for when the hinges of the Bar finally swing open to allow your admittance, the real work begins.

One with you in the struggle and in faith,


Tess Marie P. Tan

Juris Doctor, Major in Litigation and Advocacy – Masters in Legal Studies

University of San Carlos – School of Law and Governance

San Beda College – Graduate School of Law