“…Let’s kill all the lawyers.” An old lawyer joke, killing all lawyers wasn’t necessarily Shakespeare’s advocacy for a better society.

This particular line does appear in the playwright’s Henry VI (part 2), and must have drawn a raft of laughs when first said, lawyers being as unpopular among ordinary folk in 16th century England as they are now in many countries. But because the intention was uttered by Dick the Butcher, one of Shakespeare’s most villainous characters and a murderer, it’s usually argued (by lawyers, who else) that he was condemning the idea, and was actually defending the profession as “the protector of truth and order”.

Hah. What’s more likely is that Shakespeare knew the line would appeal to the playgoers of the time, who, even then, suspected that neither the legalese lawyers used nor their maneuvering through the so-called justice system didn’t always lead to justice’s being served.

Like the Englishmen of Shakespeare’s era 400 years ago, many Filipinos suspect as much nowadays. And you can’t blame them for being skeptical of lawyers and even of the entire justice system. After all, the country has more lawyers than it knows what to do with, and that complex bureaucracy known as the department of justice and a multi-layered court system run by lawyers. And yet justice has been an elusive value in these isles of chaos, where murderers, plunderers and rapists are regularly pardoned by Malacanang, and the killers of activists and journalists roam the streets with impunity.

The skepticism of the non-lawyers who attended the International Training Course on the Investigation and Prosecution of Extra-judicial Killings, Enforced Disappearances and Torture in Cebu City (Sept. 29 and 30) and in Cagayan de Oro (Oct. 2-3) was therefore understandable.

A pastor, for example, wondered aloud if the government would ever get around to identifying, much less arresting and indicting, the killers of Church people. Prosecuting the killers of the more than 900 political activists and the 54 journalists slain since 2001 has been incredibly difficult. Prosecutors have been passive and the police indifferent. Rather than look into reports of political and journalists’ killings in their jurisdictions, prosecutors wait for police reports, some of which aren’t forthcoming either because policemen are themselves involved, or are incompetent.

A project of the Center for International Law, the Course has also been held in Subic and Davao, and from Cagayan de Oro will go on to Zamboanga City. It is intended to enhance the capacity of the government prosecutorial service to investigate extra-judicial killings, etc., and to prosecute those responsible. The trainees were the prosecutors of the department of justice, and the hope was that the training would provide them additional understanding of the international legal context of Philippine human rights law and such recent Supreme Court initiatives as the Writ of Amparo and would also prod them into being more pro-active.

If some of the reactions were any gauge, the friends and kin of slain activists and journalists shouldn’t hold their breath.

One Cagayan de Oro prosecutor argued that what the press needed was more state regulation rather than less. He wanted to strengthen the libel law by increasing the penalties for libel. Earlier, in Cebu City, another had argued that the media were responsible for the proliferation of pornography and therefore needed closer government regulation.

Article III Section 4 (“No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances”) of the Philippine Constitution was apparently of no moment to either lawyer. Neither was the continuing abuse of the libel law, the way it has been used to intimidate journalists with threats of imprisonment, nor the problematic definition of pornography, which in recent times has been so broad in some proposed laws (such as one before the Manila Council) as to include even descriptions of the human body.

These reactions were variations on the same theme, which basically focused attention on, and even blames, the victims rather than the killers. Journalists are to blame for being killed because they’re too critical. In the case of political activists, several prosecutors in private grumbled that they saw no need to prosecute the killers of “communists” who—repeating an excuse most often heard from the police—in the first place didn’t believe in “our democracy.”

There we have the crux of the problem. The killing of political activists and journalists involves the deeply ideological issues of state accountability, the class character of governance and politics, and even reform and revolution, rather than mere legal issues and expertise. On the ground, whether in the capital or in the communities where the justice system is weakest, what the law says very often takes a backseat to ideological prejudices, without most lawyers’ even noticing it.

But there are lawyers and lawyers, just as there are journalists and journalists. There’s Harry Roque, whose advocacies have ranged from press freedom issues to lawyering for NBN-ZTE whistleblower “Jun” Lozada and the effort to extradite former Agriculture Secretary “Joc Joc” Bolante. There’s former UN Judge Romeo Capulong, who has been fighting for human rights and a just society for decades. There’s Neri Colmenares, whose presentation on the writ of Amparo and observations on the justice system were nothing short of brilliant. And there is, of course, Chief Justice Reynato Puno, whose unwavering and pro-active commitment to human rights has resulted in the current ebb in extra-judicial killings.

Still and all, however, the way some lawyers are makes one wonder whether, indeed, law and justice are as inseparable as lawyers claim, and if there’s no way to get justice other than through lawyers. Maybe we need to get rid of SOME lawyers? Or did Dick the Butcher have a point?



Luis V. Teodoro

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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