by Franco Antonio Regalado, for The Asia Foundation
The promulgation of the Revised Law Student Practice Rule (Rule 138-A) is a highly empowering development in the Rules of Court. It allows law students, within certain parameters and under the guidance of a supervising lawyer, to perform actual legal work, including tasks such as giving legal advice, drafting documents, and even representing clients in various hearings.
The goals of the Rule speak for themselves: Section 2(a) of the Rule describes Clinical Legal Education programs as “experiential, interactive and reflective”, aimed at “providing law students with practical knowledge, skills and values necessary for the application of the law, delivery of legal services and promotion of social justice and public interest, especially to the marginalized, while inculcating in the students the values of ethical lawyering and public service.”
Values to aspire to, no doubt, but tricky to translate into reality. As with the rest of our legal system, the rule is merely a tool, and it is up to those armed with it to use it for serving the ends of justice.
The story of the Sarimanok Virtual Law Clinic (SVLC) of Mindanao State University College of Law is one shining example of how these values, when supported by strong practical and technological frameworks, can give passionate lawyers and law students the ability to greatly contribute to their community. To date, the clinic has more than 40 cases resolved under its belt, in addition to a host of legal aid missions, legal literacy campaigns, and other similar activities.
A Revolutionary Revision
The idea that sparked SVLC’s creation came from Atty. Alizedney M. Ditucalan, former Dean of the College of Law and former Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs, now the Chancellor of MSU-IIT.
Ever a believer in innovation, Chancellor Ditucalan had been considering the creation of a distinctly virtual law clinic since 2019. This was in order to augment the service capabilities of MSU-IIT’s current law clinic, which would also be empowered further due to the promulgation of the Revised Law Student Practice Rule.
The Revised Law Student Practice Rule was one of the pillars which helped SVLC stand the way it does today. Initial efforts were hampered by the need for lawyers to personally appear during each of the clinic’s activities. The expanded scope of activities allowed to Law Student Practitioners (LSPs) greatly changed this; through a combination of protocols provided by the school and previous experiences with law clinics, law students currently exercise a significant degree of freedom in performing activities such as interviewing clients and giving of legal advice.
Triumph in Technology
The other pillar in the operation of SVLC is its character as a virtual clinic. The clinic has always had technology integrated into its very concept: providing legal services to the people of Mindanao—specifically Iligan and Lanao del Norte at the time of this writing—through the use of highly-accessible platforms and modes of communication.
The virtual law clinic began as a Facebook page which, while certainly useful at the time, came with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.
“Everyone has Facebook, mas madali kaming mahanap sa Facebook,” said Atty. Joanah Alinog-Disocor, Assistant Dean (AD) and SVLC Adviser.
“Through Facebook, dun namin na-advertise yung website, so it’s really an advantage. The disadvantage is tinatamad sila (website visitors/prospective clients), dahil pag nabasa nila yung website, pumunta na sila, na-direct sila sa website, tinatamad silang mag fill-up, mas gusto nila dire-diretso na sa Facebook. Nagme-message na sila doon, nagsesend ng PM (private message),” added AD Joey, as she is fondly called.
“One of the disadvantages of using Facebook, or itong mga social media platforms, is yung messaging system talaga,” added Ameena Macaan, President of SVLC. “Since only a few members have access to the page, not all concerns are addressed quickly. There are also messages from trolls, or those who just message for fun, or those messages that don’t have any legal concern. This affects pati yung scheduling of interviews with clients: if yung only medium namin is through chat, and there is no other platform, delayed yung pag-receive ng messages, delayed yung replies namin, and yung tendency is tinatamad ‘yung client mag-reply.”
Macaan, however, also acknowledged the platform’s capacity for reaching a wide range of audiences. “One of the advantages is that this platform serves as a way to connect with people from different areas, kasi yung jurisdiction namin is Iligan and Lanao del Norte, so with the use of the platform, wider yung range namin.”
These experiences, the two noted, would shape how the SVLC website—now the clinic’s main platform—would look and feel. The idea, developed through MSU’s partnership* with The Asia Foundation, was to aim for a user experience that was as friendly as Facebook, but was also more efficient in providing the supervising lawyer and LSPs with important information for contacting clients, as well as understanding the nature and context of their legal concerns.
“One of the considerations in designing the website is dapat simple yung approach niya,” said Macaan, who was among those consulted for the website’s look and feel. “We presume that not everyone knows the process of signing up or even logging into websites. To ensure that clients do not have a hard time locating signups and logins, we also make sure na accessible, yung nakikita siya lagi, malaking sign yung login and signup.”
“We also considered the other contents sa website that may be of use, kasi hindi naman lahat ng gumagamit sa website namin are clients, there are those who just want to gain information lang of, for example, cases or different laws. Sa website, meron kaming laws and ordinances na summarized na, at saka case digests na simplified din, only short and concise na mga explanation lang. We also make sure na parang library to, nandito yung laws and ordinances and case briefs, dito yung category ng news, and kung anong updates sa SVLC. We really make sure na accessible talaga siya, very simple, minimalist.”
Macaan also emphasized the importance of having materials in a language that website visitors would be comfortable with. “We presume that not all the time, preferred ng clients or viewers ang English, so we also have this automatic Tagalog translation, para clients or viewers can choose kung ano yung preference nila, yung preferred language nila.”
To turn these insights into reality, The Asia Foundation connected MSU with design and innovation company Limitless Lab. “Limitless Lab had a workshop with us, like, pinasagot kami ng kung sino yung mga target na client, ganoon. There was really a nice collaboration with Limitless Lab, ang ganda ng pagkagawa nila, na-address talaga yung areas ng mga legal services na kailangan,” said AD Joey.
MSU also turned to Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Services (IDEALS) — one of the institutional partners tapped by The Asia Foundation to mentor its law school partners, as well as develop and design their clinical legal education programs—for valuable protocols and best practices for implementation and integration with the website: “How to handle clients, meron din silang online legal aid clinic. And, sila yung tumulong sa amin on how to answer, how to refer cases—for example hindi siya under sa jurisdiction namin—yung paggawa ng referral protocol,” explained AD Joey.
Passion in Practice
Even as the pandemic seems to be winding down, SVLC continues to resonate in the community’s consciousness, indicating that the technological aspects of the clinic were definitely more than a mere knee-jerk reaction to the pandemic’s aftermath, and that its approach to providing legal service is here to stay.
“In my experience as a law student practitioner, people are very responsive, very open to the idea of virtual legal aid. People, especially those from secluded areas in Iligan City or the Lanao del Norte area. Those people who cannot come to Iligan City, due to work or transportation issues, to have an appointment with us face-to-face, it makes it more convenient for these people para gamitin yung virtual platform to address their legal concerns,” Macaan answered while discussing people’s responsiveness to the idea of virtual legal aid.
While practice in the clinic entails much time and effort for the students, it also comes with that sense of satisfaction after having helped a client with their troubles. Macaan recounted her inspirational moments on the job: “Every legal aid consultation or seminar, or legal aid mission, every single time, every after consultation nila, napapa-‘Aaah, ganun ba attorney?’ or ‘Thank you so much attorney!” Yun talaga yung driving force, nagiging inspiration din ng LSP, na somehow nakikita at nararamdaman mo sa clients na na-address mo yung concern nila.”
AD Joey even noted that her students’ passion has made her classes in Legal Counseling and Social Responsibility much easier, as students had a wealth of practical experience to draw from when illustrating certain concepts: “I think sa mga nagiging LSP, mabilis na lang nila ma-grasp kapag mayroon akong sinasabi. Kasi diba usually, kapag naglelecture tayo, theories and all, hindi pa nila naintindihan yan. Pero pag in-apply mo na saka nila na-gets. Diretso na siya, sinasabi mo na lang alam na nila yun, kasi they have already experienced it, naapply na nila. I think it’s really the practice, the experience, the application, it’s a good teacher.”
“Itong mga legal aid missions namin, they were basically conducted in far-flung areas. So, these students, nae-expose sila sa ano yung talagang problema, ano yung kulang, kung saan may kulang talaga na lawyers. Yung students, nakikita nila na talagang kailangan yung lawyers na hindi lahat, like, siguro nakikita ni Ameena sa akin, I’m not using the profession for money-making, it’s really just passion to help,” she added, saying that the clinic has also spurred the social awareness of her students.
Foundations for the Future
“In the first place, walang SVLC kung walang TAF (The Asia Foundation), sila ‘yung nag-fund talaga ng website. Grabe talaga yung importance nila, walang kapalit, sana hindi sila magsawa sa amin,” said AD Joey when asked about how SVLC’s partnership with TAF helps to pave the clinic’s future. “We are a public school, and the funds are really limited, sana mag-continue yung partnership namin.”
As for plans, there are many in store for the clinic. “(We want to) Ink more partnerships. Mayroon na kami with NLRC, CSWD, and ABC. We are planning on inking more partnerships with DAR, PNP if there is no conflict of interest. Para makakuha pa kami ng maraming cases,” AD Joey said, smiling.
Given the circumstances surrounding its birth, the thought put into its development, and the passion by which supervisors and students alike serve the community, even brighter things are in store for SVLC.
The partnership between Mindanao State University and The Asia Foundation is made possible through the Strengthening Rule of Law through Legal Aid Clinics in the Philippines or the Legal Aid Project, supported by the U.S. Department of State – Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Office (DOS-INL). Law schools interested to partner with the Foundation for their Clinical Legal Education Program may contact the Legal Aid Project team at email@example.com.