OPINION: What attacks against lawyers say about the profession — and our country’s future

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National Union of Peoples' Lawyers President Edre Olalia in 2020 when NUPL sought protection from the Supreme Court against President Rodrigo Duterte and other government officials over supposed violation on their rights to life, liberty, and security. FILE PHOTO

Editor’s note: Ross Tugade is a fellow with the Center for International Law. She also lectures at the UP College of Law and the Ateneo de Manila University Department of Political Science. The views expressed in this article are the author’s.

At the start of the current semester in which I teach the subject Legal Profession, I asked each of my students what they think is the biggest challenge to ethical lawyering in the Philippines today. Their responses could be categorized in two broad themes — excessive self-interest on the one hand, and the systematic attacks on lawyers, on the other. This quick survey of answers somehow represents the ambivalent relationship that most of us have with the legal profession.

There should be no mistake, though: when lawyers, in performing their sworn duties, are placed in the crosshairs of violent attacks, society must stand in their defense.

Shakespeare’s line “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers” from "Henry VI, Part 2" evokes different interpretations depending on the reader. The Philippine Supreme Court quoted this passage at least once in a case for disbarment against an embezzling lawyer, where it emphasized the standard that is demanded of law practitioners. The idea of a society that is hostile to lawyers becomes blood-curdling in light of our present reality.

Just this month, a lawyer was attacked in such a brutal, crude manner. Angelo Karlo Guillen was stabbed multiple times in the head and in the shoulder by two assailants. Guillen was part of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, representing cases of activists and indigenous peoples who are also being targeted by killings and made the subject of arrests. He is also counsel in one of the petitions challenging the constitutionality of the Anti-Terror Act of 2020 before the Supreme Court.

The legal profession will always evoke contentious opinions about how it’s practiced. The President is a lawyer, and so is the Vice President. Their legal careers are sometimes fodder for heated internet debates.

Another brazen threat to the work of lawyers came in the form of a letter from the Philippine National Police in Calbayog City, requesting the Office of the Clerk of Court for the list of lawyers representing “Communist Terrorist Groups” (CTGs). The phrase “mode of neutralization” appears in a matrix as an attachment, leading people to speculate on the letter’s true intent. The Integrated Bar of the Philippines has been swift in condemning these incidents, urging no less than the Supreme Court to take action amid all these attacks.

The legal profession will always evoke contentious opinions about how it’s practiced. The President is a lawyer, and so is the Vice President. Their legal careers are sometimes fodder for heated internet debates. Some lawyers have lent their names and voices to different factions of the political divide. Elsewhere, in the United States for instance, there’s much talk about the complicity of lawyers to the wrongdoings that led to democracy being imperiled. In my own virtual classrooms, I have asked my law students to take stock of how some lawyers have enabled the erosion of our own institutions. I tell them that their role as future lawyers is to confront this damage and help in the enormous task of repair and transformation.

And while not all lawyers handle cases of a clearly political character, the cultivation of widespread impunity invites all forms of attacks against the legal profession at large. It also facilitates accountability to fall through the cracks. According to the Free Legal Assistance Group, 61 lawyers have been killed under the Duterte administration — from July 2016 to January 2021 — without any convictions made against perpetrators. It’s a universal premise that everyone has the right to competent counsel as a part of the access to justice. Lawyers, in turn, should be free to discharge their duties within the limits of professional responsibility.

I grew up for the most part aspiring to be a lawyer — a dream that came to me while watching the theater of impeaching our country’s then-sitting president. Different people have varying motivations in pursuing the legal profession. The promise it holds for those willing to join its ranks comes with the acceptance of the weight of its role in society. This is by no means to excessively praise a profession that already receives its share of awe and mystique, for better or worse. Lawyers should be fair game when it comes to everyone’s scrutiny.

As if real life picks out a horrifying imitation of art, a sweeping assault on lawyers is now happening before our eyes. While it’s not the first thing that has happened in the long chain of impunity, it could very well be part of the finishing touches. For when advocates that stand for justice fall, many are soon to follow. This is far from a doomsayer’s thought.

One of the last things we want to happen is for our lawyers to be killed. It’s not just the value that we, as a society, assign to lawyers that’s at stake; it’s the value that we place on the lives of those who dare challenge injustice.