©F. Tanggol


Region: Asia-Pacific
Country: Philippines
Categories: Legal Aid
Timeframe: January 2013 - Ongoing

Entities sharing this good practice: Republic of the Philippines, Department of Justice-Refugees and Stateless Persons Protection Unit (DOJ-RSPPU)

Submitted by: Chief State Counsel George Ortha II

Partners: UNHCR Philippines

Visit their website: https://pao.gov.ph

Good practice

In the Philippines, the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), is the attached agency of the Department of Justice (DOJ) that provides indigent litigants free legal assistance, counselling and representation. Access to legal rights is necessary to ensure that persons of concern (POC) will have holistic protection in any country of asylum in the face of their vulnerability. Legal representation and assistance in asylum procedures is a means to enhance POC’s access to justice as enshrined in the 1951 and 1954 Conventions.

Considering possible barriers to access this important right, DOJ and UNHCR have engaged the PAO to ensure that free legal services can be an option for indigent POC to pursue, if needed.

Assistance to POC has even been included in the agency’s operational manual to guide Public Attorneys in managing POC cases. Given their legal expertise and familiarity on POC issues through capacity strengthening initiatives, PAO is in a good position and is equipped to provide the necessary legal assistance to POC. For example, PAO may provide legal representation or assistance to POC in administrative, civil or criminal cases, as well as representation before any administrative quasi-judicial and judicial agencies of the Philippine Government. This is a crucial service for POC as legal assistance can lead to better access to services, including appeals on denied asylum applications, which also assists their local integration.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the PAO and UNHCR is an internal document. Republic Act 9406, which also provides for the mandate of the PAO to extend legal assistance to any indigent individual, can be accessed here.

Impact of good practice
PAO has offices all over the Philippines and is, therefore, accessible to POC wherever they are in the country. In 2020 alone, PAO was able to extend judicial and non-judicial services to 146 POC cases. The availability of PAO assistance ensures that legal concerns of POC are being addressed despite barriers that they would usually encounter (e.g., unfamiliarity with the Philippine legal system, legal assistance for POC at the airport and/or ports of entry, etc).
Impact of COVID-19
The legal assistance of PAO served as a safety net in situations where POC would be involved in any violations, especially during the pandemic, particularly in relation to their documents vis-a-vis travel restrictions. Through PAO’s legal assistance, asylum-seekers and refugees were able to file legal documents pertaining to their asylum status and other charges and ensure their access to rights.
Lessons learned
Free legal assistance, counselling and representation remains an important service to POC as their circumstances might otherwise bar them from accessing it. Where other States do not have an agency like PAO which has the mandate to extend free legal assistance, representation and counselling to indigent clients, there might be educational institutions, bar associations and private firms that can extend assistance to POC. In the case of the Philippines, there is also an option to engage the legal aid clinics of law schools and other private partners to complement the assistance of the Government. Capacity strengthening and continuous engagement also helped in raising the visibility of POC’s legal concerns.