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PAO’s free legal assistance for indigent foreign nationals

October 22, 2019


Speech delivered by Dr. Persida Acosta, Chief Public Attorney of the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) at the monthly luncheon meeting of the Consular Corps of the Philippines (CCP) on Aug. 28, 2019 at the Makati Shangri-La Hotel.

PURSUANT to the second endorsement of the undersecretary of Justice, dated March 25, 1974, as early as that date, the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) had already been giving free legal assistance to qualified indigent aliens (Chapter 2, Article 5, 2016 Revised PAO Operations Manual).

As to the requirement of the Certificate of Indigency, the foreigner concerned must secure his or her Certificate of Indigency from the embassy of the country of which he or she is a citizen, since it is the appropriate agency, which can properly determine whether the foreigner concerned is an indigent.

The free legal services, which can be availed of from the PAO, are judicial, non-judicial and outreach services.

Judicial services refer to legal representation in court or quasi-judicial bodies. One of the mandates of the Public Attorney’s Office is to render free legal representation to indigent persons and other qualified clients in criminal, civil, labor, administrative and other quasi-judicial cases. Thus, the PAO handles criminal and civil cases, whether ordinary or special, falling within the jurisdiction of the regular courts, as well as labor, administrative and other quasi-judicial cases recognizable by special courts or quasi-judicial bodies. The office handles these types of cases from their institution up to finality of judgment, including the appeals, subject to existing PAO law, rules and regulations.

Non-judicial services refer to the instant services and outreach activities of the office. The instant services include legal counselling and documentation (i.e. preparation of affidavits, notices, etc.), administering oaths, and mediation and conciliation of disputes. On the other hand, outreach activities include police custodial investigation and inquest proceedings, jail visitations and barangay or community outreach programs. These services are likewise available subject to existing PAO law, rules and regulations.

Free court representation has been given by the PAO to indigent foreign nationals, such as Carl Leon Saunders and John Bulluss.

We succeeded in seeking for the granting of the permanent dismissal of the charge of the violation of Republic Act (RA) 9262 (Violence Against Women and Children Law) against Saunders, an Australian national.

As requested by the Australian Embassy, and with the authority of the Department of Justice, I led the medical team, which escorted Saunders (who had a medical condition), back to Australia on Jan. 19, 2016, to ensure his safety while in transit up to the custodial turnover to his mother.

Saunders, an alleged victim of his Filipina girlfriend who took away his documents and personal belongings, was qualified for voluntary deportation. Saunders’ girlfriend was the private complainant in the case of the violation of RA 9262 that was charged against him. As per the record of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 43 of Manila, the return of notices indicated that the private complainant could no longer be located and/or unknown.

John Bulluss, another Australian national was also assisted by the Public Attorney’s Office. He was charged with estafa, in RTC-Branch 57 in Makati City. The court issued an order dated March, 14, 2017, permanently dismissing the case due to “nolle prosequi,” or failure of the prosecution to prosecute the case.

At the request of the Australian Embassy, I served as counsel for Mr. Bulluss, with lawyer Mikhail Maverick P. Tumacder of PAO-Makati City, as assistant counsel. Mr. Bulluss, whose hold departure order was lifted, through the assistance of the PAO, was able to leave the Philippines for Australia.

Aside from the free court representation, which the PAO continuously renders to qualified foreign nationals, the latter may also benefit from the PAO’s non-judicial services and other legal services without cost. Pursuant to the memorandum of agreement (MoA) of the Public Attorney’s Office and the Bureau of Immigration signed on Feb. 4, 2009, the public attorneys may render legal assistance and legal advice to foreign nationals, including free notarization of their immigration documents and such other legal services assigned by the immigration commissioner.

These services were directly available from the public attorneys formerly assigned at the Bureau of Immigration to attend to the combined clientele of these two offices from 2009 to 2013. In particular, under the February MoA, the public attorneys formerly assigned at the Bureau of Immigration, rendered legal assistance and legal advice to the clients therein, both Filipinos and foreign nationals, in the processing of different visa applications.

They likewise provided them with free notarization of their immigration documents, which, during the abovementioned public attorneys’ detail, had greatly eliminated the “fly-by-night” notaries who charged exorbitant amounts for such service. The foreign nationals trusted the free notarization service of the PAO, because their respective documents were done in their presence and within the vicinity of the bureau.

Equally important was the detailed public attorneys’ rendition of legal representation (during administrative hearings in the bureau) to hundreds of foreign nationals confronted with deportation charges. Most of these charges sprang from overstaying in the Philippines beyond the period to which they were allowed, being undocumented aliens, becoming public charge within five years after their entry, violation of any limitation or condition under which they were admitted as non-immigrants, and the like. Several of them were exonerated of the administrative charges filed against them, while those who opted for voluntary deportation were assisted by the PAO in coordinating with their respective embassies or consular offices, as well as with local Philippine authorities, in the processing of their immediate expatriation. To date, rendition of full legal assistance and legal advice may still be availed of from the PAO’s main office as well as from its regional and district offices nationwide.

Further, the Legal Aid Foundation, ROC (Taiwan), and the Public Attorney’s Office have entered into an agreement regarding mutual legal assistance for citizens of both countries and liaison mechanisms between the two parties applying both the merit and indigency tests subject to its existing laws, rules and regulations or upon orders and directives of government authorities pursuant to RA 9406. The agreement was signed on Oct. 27, 2014.

The performance of our duty to indigent foreign nationals, within PAO’s mandate, has been recognized by our partners in legal and public service, such as (among others), the Australian Embassy in the Philippines and the Legal Aid Foundation, ROC (Taiwan). The Australian Embassy in the Philippines appreciated the efforts of the PAO in the cases of Mr. Saunders and Mr. Bulluss, as well as other Australians with a similar predicament. Two officials from the Australian Embassy went to our Central Office in May 2018 to present a Certificate of Appreciation. Last Nov. 3, 2018, I was also given a Certificate of Appreciation in my capacity as Chief Public Attorney, by the Legal Aid Foundation, ROC (Taiwan), during the 2018 International Forum on Legal Aid held in Taipei, where I served as a sponsored delegate/speaker at the forum. The foundation conveyed its gratitude for “steadfast support at the 2005, 2009, 2014 and 2018 International Forum on Legal Aid” of the international organization; the LAF said my “participation and contributions have been invaluable to the success of the events.”

(To be continued)

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