THE number of lawyers killed in the Philippines has increased by one more with the murder of Jonnah John Ungab on Feb. 19 in a busy street near the current Cebu City Palace of Justice. The fact that he acted as counsel for self-confessed drug lord Rolando “Kerwin” Espinosa Jr. has led some people, like Chief Insp. Jovie Espenido (who charged Ungab with receiving drug payola), to conclude that the killing was “the consequence.”
A list of lawyers killed from 2004 to 2014 showed 38 names, including Noel D. Archival (2014), Jubian P. Achas (2013), Richard W. Sison (2008), and Arbet Sta. Ana-Yongco (2004). In 2017, environmental lawyer Mia Mascariñas-Green was gunned down in Tagbilaran City.
In 2012, Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) president Roan Libarios convened a task force that looked into the murder of at least 200 lawyers and judges for 10 years beginning in 2002 with the aim of shielding lawyers from violent actions. But then the killings have not stopped.
In the aftermath of the slaying of Baler Regional Trial Court Judge Jude Erwin Alaba in 2015, Australian law professor Gill Boehringer called the Philippines as “a very dangerous place for lawyers.” He asked the Philippine Government to act on protecting the lawyers under threat.
If lawyers, as officers of the court, are killed with impunity, the justice system itself is under threat. One of the principles of the criminal justice system is the presumption of innocence, which connotes that the accused must be heard before being condemned. Corollary to this is the right of the accused to be assisted by counsel. If an accused can’t afford one, the government assigns a public attorney.
Sadly, though, there is a misconception that lawyers act upon the instruction of their clients. A lawyer is bound by the Code of Professional Responsibility. Rule 19.03 provides: “A lawyer shall not allow his client to dictate the procedure in handling the case.” On the other hand, Rule 10.01 states: “A lawyer shall not do any falsehood, nor consent to the doing of any in Court; nor shall he mislead, or allow the Court to be misled by any artifice.” If a lawyer violates his sworn duty, there is a process that is in place. If found guilty of unethical practice, then he or she may be penalized, if not disbarred.
One of the purposes of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines is to “Encourage and foster legal education” and I believe that goes beyond the profession, but to the community as well. Public ignorance of the function of law and the role of lawyers threaten the justice system.
The rule of law is one of the safeguards of a civilized society; absence of such will result in disorder and chaos. On the other hand, the law enforcement component of the criminal justice system must do its part as well – that is capture the suspected criminals.