PAO Lawyer vs. PAO Lawyer: Walking both sides of the line?
For an autonomous office like PAO to find itself at odds with the Code of Professional Responsibility and Accountability (CPRA) is not just concerning but a reminder of the unresolved complexities within our justice framework.
Aug 24, 20235 min read
PAO Lawyer vs. PAO Lawyer: Walking both sides of the line?

Graphic Designer: Kent Jobo

In the realm of law and justice, conflicts of interest are real matters of concern.  It does not only threaten the balance of trust but also of credibility and impartiality.  For an autonomous office like PAO to find itself at odds with the Code of Professional Responsibility and Accountability (CPRA) is not just concerning but a reminder of the unresolved complexities within our justice framework.

A recent request contained in a letter sent to Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo by PAO officials led by Chief Persida V. Rueda Acosta had made media waves and captured the news spotlight as she sought a dialogue with the Supreme Court.  To cut short - PAO wanted the Supreme Court to remove or revise Section 22, Canon III of the CPRA.

But why is that so? What led PAO Chief Atty. Acosta branded the adoption of the CPRA as unconstitutional and decried it as an undue interference and intrusion by the Supreme Court into PAO’s operations?

The provision in question is as follows:

SECTION 22. Public Attorney’s Office; conflict of interest. — The Public Attorney is the primary legal aid service office of the government. In the pursuit of its mandate under its charter, the Public Attorney’s Office shall ensure ready access to its services by the marginalized sectors of society in a manner that takes into consideration the avoidance of potential conflict of interest situations which will leave these marginalized parties unassisted by counsel.

A conflict of interest of any of the lawyers of the Public Attorney’s Office incident to services rendered for the Office shall be imputed only to the said lawyer and the lawyer’s direct supervisor. Such conflict of interest shall not disqualify the rest of the lawyers from the Public Attorney’s Office from representing the affected client, upon full disclosure to the latter and written informed consent.

From the context, it seems like the primary point of controversy is rooted in the second paragraph of the section above. According to the letter, since PAO did not take part in the drafting of the CPRA, “significant concerns were not properly conveyed to the Sub-Committee for the Revision of the CPRA and to this Honorable Court”

What are these concerns? According to Atty. Acosta, only public attorneys, who are on the ground and are completely familiar with the surrounding circumstances, can clearly explain them.

Well, among the concerns cited is that under Republic Act 9406 or the PAO Act of 2007, only one public attorney may be assigned to one organized sala and the PAO’s plantilla items is “limited.” It also cited that there have been instances when former public attorneys who handled conflicting cases died because of their double-dealing practices. Also, clients of PAO have the pre-conceived notion that justice would be elusive to them because they are poor. Allowing PAO to represent their adversaries would further increase their reservations and distrust of our justice system. It also warned that in the past, public attorneys practice moonlighting such as practicing their legal profession for a fee.  This is because they may appear in several courts and this corrupt practice might resurface if public attorneys are allowed to appear in several courts.

To put it bluntly, would a case where a PAO lawyer  is against another PAO lawyer cause a ruckus and exacerbate the current issues PAO has been facing? Pitting them against each other may only inflame tensions rather than contribute to resolving the challenges at hand. But it is also worth noting: Does limiting legal assistance in the pursuit of avoiding conflicts of interest mean that PAO will contravene its primary function as the primary legal aid service office of the government?

In response to the letter, the Supreme Court reminded PAO that its primordial mandate is to “extend free legal assistance to indigent persons in criminal, civil, labor, administrative and other quasi-judicial cases.” To turn away indigent litigants and bar them from availing of the services of all PAO lawyers nationwide due to alleged conflict of interest would be to contravene PAO’s principal duty and leave hundreds of poor litigants unassisted by legal counsel they cannot otherwise afford.  

Echoing, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla pointed out that PAO is a legal service of the Republic of the Philippines and not a law firm. Thus, it should not be treated like a law firm when it comes to conflict of interest. Isn’t this logical and timely for the office to handle both sides in a case, underscoring the PAO's unique role and the responsibility it holds in serving the country’s legal needs?

On the other hand, the PAO's stance on this matter diverges from these views.

Peeling the layers of the onion, Atty. Acosta expressly highlighted that according to the SEC 14-A Powers and Functions of PAO Law, the PAO shall independently discharge its mandate to render, free of charge, legal representation, assistance, and counseling to indigent persons in criminal, civil, labor, administrative, and other quasi-judicial cases. She reiterated the idea that “for what purpose did Congress make the PAO independent if just a few lines of the new CPRA will change the entire operation of the PAO?"

The Court responded contrary to the claims of Atty. Acosta clarified that it promulgated the CPRA in the exercise of its exclusive rule-making power under the Constitution. This was also in furtherance of the Court’s authority to supervise the practice of law and to provide free legal assistance to the underprivileged.

Well, we cannot lay away the fact that these concerns arose after the drafting of the CPRA. That's why it is somewhat baffling why PAO was not among those who took part in the drafting of the CPRA. It eventually led to unexpressed, significant concerns regarding the Revision of the CPRA.

Taking a different tack, according to the PAO accomplishment report for the year 2022, under organizational outcome and performance indicators, it considers that there are no additional plantilla items for the said appellate courts, NLRC, and other quasi-judicial bodies. Consequently, the public attorneys in field offices nationwide are still overworked. This resulted in the exodus of several public attorneys who could no longer withstand the heavy burden of handling cases not only in courts but also in quasi-judicial bodies.

As the PAO is currently grappling with significant challenges, particularly in its field offices nationwide, the revised CPRA might either help or disrupt the operation of its office. Effective communication and proper implementation should be considered. Because while this issue stands out, there’s an even more pressing matter that underscores the need to address the capability to provide efficient legal aid in this country.  

Cutting to the chase, the Supreme Court En Banc resolved to deny the request of Atty. Acosta to delete or revise Section 22, Canon III of the CPRA.  She was directed by the Supreme Court to show cause why she should not be cited in indirect contempt for her social media posts and newspaper publications. Subsequently, she issued a public apology to the Supreme Court and assured that PAO lawyers would adhere to Section 22 in relation to Sections 13 and 18, Canon III of the CPRA. However, this situation only emphasizes the need for clear boundaries between valid criticism of our Justice system and perceived disruptions, as the integrity of our institution is a matter of concern.

In the pursuit of truth and justice, all legal offices, including PAO, are united by a shared commitment to enhance our legal processes. Conflicts of interest may threaten the balance of trust, credibility and impartiality. But the goal should always be consistent, that is to create a legal environment that serves the best interests of all. To put a pin in it, the recent tussle of conflict is a wake-up call for a more accountable legal system.  For Filipino citizens intertwined with these Justice offices, demanding heightened consciousness is crucial because, after all, justice may come at a cost—sometimes a steep one.

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