What is People’s Lawyering? 

An Excerpt from Lawyering For the Oppressed and Exploited Poor (Selected Speeches on People’s Lawyering in the Philippine Context by Atty. Romeo T. Capulong) 

Public Interest Law Practice as Distinguished from Traditional Legal Aid

Perhaps the best way to define public interest law practice and to distinguish it from traditional legal aid is to state its client-beneficiaries, its mandate, the issues and causes involved, the tactics employed in handling cases, and the kind of commitment and discipline demanded of public interest or people’s lawyers.

Philippine society is highly stratified, with a tiny elite monopolizing political power and economic resources. We have a long history of anti-colonial and neo-colonial struggles against foreign domination, particularly the United States, and the U.S.-controlled multinational corporations and multilateral institutions.Our economic, political, social and cultural life has been dominated by our elite and foreign masters. An overwhelming majority of our people remain poor and disenfranchised.

The people’s lawyers emerged as a response to these social inequities, particularly human rightsabuses, and to the aspirations of the poor for a just and humane society. The people’s lawyers derive their mandate from the poor people’s struggle for justice – not from the government, not from the law, and certainlynot from selfish material agenda.

Our client-beneficiaries and the issues and causes we take up are the following:

    1. The peasants in their struggle for genuine land reform and their legal battle against land-grabbing and eviction in the name of so-called development by land-grabbers masquerading as property developers;
    2. The workers in their struggle for decent wages and working conditions and in their struggle to organize trade unions and associations that empower them and represent their genuine interests;
    3. The urban poor and informal settlers, oftentimes disparagingly called “squatters,” in the defense of their right against summary eviction and for adequate relocation sites, housing, and livelihood;
    4. The migrant workers in the defense of their human rights under national and international law in the host country and in their struggle against the apathy and callousness of their own government to their problems as migrant workers, and to the problems that beset their families in the homeland;
    5. The small fisherfolk in their struggle to defend their fishing grounds against the intrusions of local and foreign fishing magnates;
    6. The indigenous peoples in the defense of their ancestral domain against land-grabbers and local and foreign mining companies;
    7. Political victims of violations of human, civil, and political rights such as extra-judicial killings, involuntary disappearances, torture, illegal arrests, and arbitrary detention committed by the state through its police, military, and paramilitary forces;
    8. Women in their struggle for equal rights and against all forms of violence against their persons and discrimination;
    9. The youth in their struggle for empowerment and meaningful participation in the movement for change; and
    10. The public in general on legal issues like environmental protection and   consumer rights.

Public interest law practice is also lawyering for the poor, just like traditional legal aid. The fundamental difference is that the people’s lawyers extend legal services to the poor not merely because the client cannot afford to pay legal fees, but because the clients’ poverty and the injustice committed against them result from a social system that needs to be changed.

Commitment to social change is therefore an essential component of their legal services. Unlike the typical pro bono lawyer, the people’s lawyers do not limit themselves to the generally accepted interpretation and use of the law to uphold and protect their clients’ interest. They know that in an elite-dominated society, the law is merely the expression of elite interests. Instead, they take a critical view of the law and what the law should be from the perspective of the disenfranchised or marginalized client.

The people’s lawyers give premium to social justice and meaningful reforms over and above their personal interests and material agenda.

Unlike the traditional practitioner who pleads the client’s cause during adversarial proceedings with the cold neutrality of a skilled legal technician, the people’s lawyers fight with passion and dedication to the legal as well as the social cause of the client, pleading such cause in and outside the courtroom or legal fora, in dialogue and negotiations, in networking and building alliances, in street rallies, in media, in legislative inquiries and hearings, and in symposia and conferences.

Allow me to share with you what I believe are some basic principles that guide the people’s lawyers.

First: People’s lawyers should involve themselves in causes, cases, and issues that fundamentally affect the lives of a large number of people, usually a sector of society or even the whole society itself.

Second: We must bear in mind that these issues arose from a conflict of rights or interests and from the exploitation and oppression of the numerous poor by the tiny privileged sector and/or government policies or programs.

Third: Unlike the traditional lawyer, the people’s lawyers view the legal issue in the larger context of social problems. 

Fourth: The people’s lawyers initiate and assist in a process whereby the issue is utilized for organizing and raising the social awareness, unity, and militancy of the people and those who support their cause.

Fifth: The legal battle is not confined to the courtroom. People’s lawyers employ creative forms of collective action, mobilizing and utilizing the people’s strength, unity, and militancy, bringing the issues to the public, and rallying support for the clients’ cause.

Finally, the people’s lawyers interact with clients in a mutually beneficial way, such that they learn or deepen their commitment to the clients’ struggle for the empowerment and betterment of their lives. The relationship is broadened from a mere professional one to a unity of understanding of the problems of society, the common goals for fundamental reforms, and the role of the people’s struggles. 


Legal Services

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NUPL provides competent legal services to victims of human rights violations, handling cases for the prosecution of human rights violators as a core aspect of its commitment to actively combat impunity. It engages appropriate legal avenues and mechanisms at both the national and international levels to pursue justice. 

Under this program, NUPL has litigated landmark cases before the Supreme Court that resonate with human rights and public interest. These include notable suits that challenged the constitutionality of oppressive legislative enactments as well as government acts and policies that undermine and threaten national sovereignty, democracy and civil liberties, such as, among others: 

  • Human Security Act of 2008 (2008);
  • Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking with China and Vietnam (2008);
  • Declaration of martial law in Maguindanao (2009);
  • Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) sticker project (2009);
  • Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (2012); 
  • Approval of the Meralco rate hike (2013); 
  • Privatization of the Philippine Orthopedic Center (2014); 
  • Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States (2015); 
  • Light Rail Transit (LRT) and Metro Rail Transit (MRT) fare hike (2015);
  • Burial of dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (2016);
  • Declaration of martial law in Mindanao and its extension (2017-2018);
  • Social Security Act of 2018 (2019); 
  • Lack of government-mandated mass testing during the COVID-19 pandemic (2020);
  • Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 (2020); 
  • Deprivation of women inmates and their infant children’s’ right to breastfeed (the case of Reina Mae Nasino) (2020); 
  • Continuing application of the Ilagan v. Enrile doctrine in habeas corpus cases (the case of the Human Rights Day 7) (2021); and,
  • SIM Registration Act of 2022 (2023).

NUPL facilitates access to legal remedies and extraordinary reliefs, particularly the writs of habeas corpus, amparo, and habeas data, to confront grievous threats to life, liberty, and security. In 2020, amidst an unprecedented health crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic, NUPL assisted 21 political prisoners who were elderly, sick, or pregnant in petitioning the Supreme Court for humanitarian release or non-custodial measures. 

Since the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, NUPL has steadfastly represented victims of grave human rights violations and/or their families in their pursuit of accountability against the perpetrators. Among them are victims of extrajudicial killings (Ka Lando Olalia, Willem Geertman, Benjamin Bayles, Kidapawan farmers, Emmanuel Asuncion, Ana Mariz Lemita and Ariel Evangelista), enforced disappearances (Sherlyn Cadapan, Karen Empeño, Raymond Manalo, Jonas Burgos, and Steve Abua), torture (Morong 43 healthworkers and Rolly Panesa), human trafficking (Mary Jane Veloso), arbitrary detention (Reina Mae Nasino and Nimfa Lanzanas), cyberattacks and censorship (Bulatlat, Kodao Productions, and Pinoy Weekly), violent dispersals of public assemblies (NutriAsia strike, Tinang 84 bungkalan, and US Embassy protest), and red-tagging (Karapatan Allliance Philippines, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, and AlterMidya). 

NUPL has staunchly defended activists, rights defenders, and political prisoners in numerous unjust criminal actions and egregious abuses of state power. These include instances where law enforcement authorities planted evidence of illegal possession of firearms and explosives, obtained spurious search warrants, and, more recently, wrongfully designated individuals as terrorists or fabricated terrorism-related offenses against them.

Campaigns and Advocacy

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NUPL is deeply committed to advancing the promotion, protection, and defense of human rights through advocacy and public education efforts. Within NUPL, people’s lawyers embody a unique approach to legal advocacy, recognizing that legal battles cannot be fought in isolation from broader social movements and struggles for justice. They harness the power of collective action and grassroots mobilization to advance the causes of marginalized communities. Thus, people’s lawyers actively engage with communities, empowering them to be agents of change in their own right.

At the heart of this approach is a commitment to mobilizing the strength, unity, and militancy of the people. Through collective action, people’s lawyers bring issues to the forefront of public consciousness. Whether through protests, rallies, and media campaigns, they leverage various platforms to shine a spotlight on injustices and mobilize support for their clients’ causes. 

People’s lawyers recognize that legal victories are not solely determined within the confines of courtrooms. They understand the importance of building broad-based coalitions and alliances to challenge systemic injustices and effect meaningful change. By forging partnerships with social movements, advocacy groups, and other stakeholders, they strengthen their collective capacity to confront power structures and push for progressive reforms.

Protection and Welfare of Lawyers

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The Protection and Welfare of Lawyers Program of NUPL is dedicated to ensuring the safety and well-being of lawyers who find themselves under threat due to their practice of the legal profession. 

Central to this program is the proactive monitoring and documentation of threats and attacks targeting lawyers. NUPL diligently tracks instances of intimidation, harassment, physical violence, and other forms of reprisal directed at lawyers, ensuring that these incidents are thoroughly documented and brought to the attention of relevant authorities. NUPL also stands by victims of attacks and their families, providing them with the advocacy and collaboration with allied lawyer groups to pursue justice effectively. 

Under this program, NUPL has facilitated three fact-finding missions conducted by foreign bar associations and international lawyers’ groups to investigate attacks on Filipino lawyers since 2008. By forging alliances with these organizations, NUPL has garnered crucial support during times of crisis, such as the extrajudicial killings of its members Atty. Benjamin Ramos and Atty. Juan Macababbad in 2018 and 2021, respectively. In reciprocity, NUPL has stood in solidarity with lawyers facing persecution in other countries, amplifying their voices and advocating for their rights. Throughout these endeavors, NUPL has consistently demanded that states recognize and adhere to their duties under the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.

NUPL has been proactive in engaging with the Special Rapporteur on the independence of lawyers and judges, consistently submitting communications and advocating for the exercise of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate as an independent expert within the UN human rights system. Recognized as a key stakeholder on issues related to the rule of law and access to justice, NUPL has further contributed by providing shadow reports on threats to the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession to the UN Human Rights Council as part of the Universal Periodic Review process.

Education and Research

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NUPL’s commitment to education and research extends across a wide spectrum of national, international, and sector-specific issues. This initiative not only enhances the knowledge and expertise of NUPL members but also serves as a valuable platform for educating and training the broader public on matters of critical importance.

Under this program, NUPL has implemented a series of Evidence-Gathering and Preservation Trainings (EGPT), which is guided by international recognized standards and designed to equip its members and paralegal volunteers with the necessary skills for building strong cases and prosecuting instances of extrajudicial killings, torture, and other human rights violations. Through these EGPT sessions, participants are provided with practical training on various aspects of evidence gathering and preservation, including techniques for interviewing witnesses and survivors and documenting physical and testimonial evidence. 

NUPL is committed to deepening its understanding and awareness of intersecting legal, social, and human rights issues through rigorous research and documentation. By collaborating with stakeholders and conducting thorough analyses, NUPL generates valuable insights that inform its advocacy efforts and contribute to broader public discourse. In 2007, for instance, NUPL pioneered research on the writs of amparo and habeas data before the Supreme Court promulgated the rules on these remedies. Subsequently, NUPL has continued to identify gaps in procedural rules and provide recommendations for improvement.

Moreover, NUPL actively engages with marginalized communities through the Know Your Rights seminars and legal aid clinics. These initiatives are tailored to address the specific human rights issues faced by each community and provide them with knowledge of their individual and collective rights. Through these grassroots efforts, NUPL serves both as an advocate and  as a catalyst for empowerment at the community level. 

Organization and Expansion

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Through a range of activities and initiatives, NUPL seeks to unite and empower its members, foster relationships, and promote collaboration with other lawyers’ groups across the country. 

NUPL is also committed to cultivating the next generation of human rights lawyers. It actively engages with law students, legal workers, and paralegals, providing them with opportunities for learning, mentorship, and skill development in the field of human rights law. By nurturing emerging talent and instilling a commitment to justice and human rights, NUPL ensures the continued growth and sustainability of the people’s lawyering movement in the Philippines.

Through these efforts, NUPL not only advances its mission of defending human rights but also contributes to the broader goal of promoting a legal profession that is grounded on principles of justice and respect for human dignity.

International Solidarity

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NUPL aims to serve as a pivotal hub not only within the Philippine legal sphere but also within the broader spectrum of international activism. By cultivating professional relationships and solidarity ties with various international groups and organizations, the NUPL transcends geographical boundaries to amplify its impact. This engagement extends beyond conventional legal frameworks and encompasses a diverse array of social issues, with human rights at the forefront.

Through its involvement in international activities and campaigns, the NUPL effectively channels its advocacy efforts onto the global stage. Since the First Cycle of the Universal Periodic Review in 2008, NUPL has actively participated in activities of the Philippine UPR Watch, engaging and lobbying the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and the diplomatic community to pressure the Philippine government to effectively address the longstanding impunity and dire human rights situation in the country. 

Its membership in the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), an international NGO with consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) as well as the Confederation of Lawyers of Asia and the Pacific (COLAP) not only underscores the NUPL’s commitment to democratic principles but also provides a strategic platform for shaping global discourse and policy formulation on matters pertaining to human rights and justice.


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