Commentary Law Practice

Continuous trial of criminal cases will lead to less lawyers doing cases pro bono

Strict implementation of the Revised Guidelines for Continuous Trial of Criminal Cases will ultimately lead to less and less private lawyers taking on criminal cases pro bono or for lower rates than the standard Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) tariff.

I remember the first time that I appeared as defense counsel in a criminal case. The judge happened to be my professor in law school. Still with passion for justice burning in my heart untempered by the realities of actual practice, I demanded that trial be conducted daily. The judge asked me to approach the bench, and lectured me on why even for MTC cases, court hearings are spaced a month apart: to allow litigants to raise their lawyer’s appearance fees, as well as the staggered payments for the acceptance fee, with the good judge assuring me that staggered acceptance fees are the norm, rather than the exception, if you want to defend the truly innocent who does not have much money to spare.

The Revised Guidelines, however, forces judges to schedule hearings weekly, if not daily, because they are supposed to decide the case within six (6) months. If the total number of witnesses both for the prosecution and the defense exceed five (5), there is no choice but to conduct hearings more often than once a month. Also, since the judge is working within a certain time frame, the counsels’ calendars cannot be fully respected, and the court orders hearings on dates which conflict with the lawyers’ other commitments. Under the new rules, in the absence of the lawyer engaged by the accused, the court will appoint a lawyer within the court room to represent the accused for that hearing – surely a recipe for disaster for the accused, because even if the private lawyer left his notes on how to proceed with the case with the case files in the court (who would do that???), it would take hours for a typical lawyer to familiarize himself or herself with the case to be able to defend the accused properly.

So consider a typical privately practicing lawyer. Why would he or she accept your case for less than the IBP tariff, or less than what accepting your case will represent to him or her a loss of income from other clients? Considered now would also be the possibility that you would not be able to raise the required appearance fee, which would be anywhere from PHP 1,500.00 to PHP 5,000.00 per hearing – and the hearings would be weekly. Before, when a client conveniently forgets to bring the appearance fee for the current hearing, the lawyer conveniently forgets to be present during the next hearing. That tit-for-a-tat makes sure that clients pay up. That can’t be done now, since the court is authorized to appoint a temporary counsel for that hearing – who would probably do his or her job only to the best of his or her preparation in say a half hour before the case is called again.

The old system of hearings spaced a month or two apart, with less drastic consequences when counsel absents himself from the hearing, allows privately practicing lawyers to represent indigent clients pro bono, consistent with their need to raise enough funds monthly to pay off office expenses and taxes and still get a comfortable income. The strain on the lawyer’s resources for the pro bono case is not that much, and is absorbed by the other more lucrative cases.

The Revised Guidelines were crafted with our clogged court system in mind. Overall, it is a good move forward to improve our justice system. But one of its certain effects would be to increase the barrier between clients who could not afford to pay and privately practicing lawyers.

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