Sen. Leila M. de Lima has filed a measure redefining the mandate of the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) to make it more responsive to the needs of indigents with legal concerns.
Noting how the existing functions of PAO has been used by affluent personalities at the detriment of indigent clients, De Lima filed Senate Bill (SB) No. 1345 amending Republic Act 9406 creating PAO as the government’s principal law office for indigents.
“The existing Public Attorney’s law allows the PAO, in the exigency of service, to be called upon by proper government authorities to render service to other persons, even if they be non-indigent,” she said in the bill’s explanatory note.
“This power, as we have seen in recent years, has been invoked to represent individuals who can afford to contract the services of their own private counsels, to the detriment of those who need PAO’s services the most, such as indigent individuals who are threatened to be deprived of their liberty or property and indigent accused who are languishing in ails due to adequate legal representation,” she added.
The former justice secretary noted that the PAO has been used by non-indigent individuals to the detriment of those who need the services of public attorneys, such as the Bilibid convicts notorious for their luxurious lifestyle inside the state penitentiary; Ma. Cristina Sergio, the illegal recruiter behind the drug trafficking case of Mary Jane Veloso; and Janet Lim Napoles during a previous Senate hearing, among others.
The PAO was chided by De Lima for allowing itself to be used as a tool for political persecution, particularly during the inquiry of the House Justice Committee probing the alleged illegal drugs trade inside the state penitentiary.
The senator from Bicol also pointed out that PAO lawyers are spread too thin due to such unnecessary work forced onto each lawyer due to its existing mandate.
“The existing mandate of PAO needs to be fleshed out so that its personnel will be unburdened of other matters and can focus on providing the utmost attention to their clients accused of committing a crime,” she added.
“In 2014 alone, PAO had served 7.5 million clients, mostly for non-judicial clients, with each public attorney handling more than 500 cases,” she said.
“The present enabling law of the PAO establishes it as the principal law office of the Government in extending free legal assistance to indigent persons in criminal, civil, labor, administrative, and other quasi-judicial cases, a mandate that is too broad for its personnel complement and resource constraints. PAO should focus on its original mandate of serving truly indigent defendants in criminal cases,” she added.
De Lima said she hopes the immediate enactment into law of SB 1345 would pave the way for a more efficient delivery of justice to indigent citizens, improving the case disposition with the availability of more lawyers to defend the poorest of the poor.
If enacted, SB 1345 shall:
1. Redefine the mandate of the PAO to primarily serve indigent accused in criminal proceedings;
2. Limit the services to be extended by PAO to non-indigent persons, in the exigency of the service, to legal assistance and counselling only, not representation;
3. Create a self-contained Public Defender Unit within the PAO, which shall exclusively cater to criminal defense in order to avoid situations of conflict of interest when other PAO lawyers extended legal assistance or counselling to the offended party prior to the filing of the case in court;
4. Provide for a term of office for the Chief Public Attorney and for the Judicial and Bar Council to screen and nominate to the President the person best fit for the position;
5. Repeal the support provided by local government to PAO to ensure its independence and allowing the PAO to recover reasonable payment from persons served but not entitled to its services; and
6. Automatically increase the number of public attorney positions when a new court or branch is created by law.