Friday, June 17, 2016

Counsel de Officio

I flew into General Santos City this morning to attend a hearing at the Regional Trial Court. I was pleased to find the court house neatly laid out like  a big "U" with the court rooms surrounding a garden. I told the guard who courteously   accompanied me to my branch that this is probably the best looking Hall of Justice I've seen in the country. I waited for my case to be called, and the local lawyers came in trickles. A fellow lawyer who turned out to be the IBP head of legal aid guessed I was new there, and warmly greeted me and asked me about my case. I told him a rough description of it and I mentioned the name of my opposing counsel, who turned out to be in Cotabato today and would unlikely be present for today's hearing. As the court staff started calling the cases, the room was filled with detention prisoners and about six local lawyers came in, greeted each other, and watched the proceedings. As it turned out, most of the detention prisoners would be arraigned and  without   counsel. The lawyer from the Public Attorney's Office was not around so the Judge decided to appoint each of the lawyers as counsel de officio for purposes of arraignment. I'm no stranger to this, but I got really amused that my fellow lawyers graciously accepted their appointment and did their jobs with enthusiasm. 

Arraignment is a crucial step in criminal procedure, but the importance of the process is betrayed if a counsel de officio merely advises the accused to make a plea of "not guilty". In Franz Kafka's "The Trial", Francis K's predicament was precisely that he was unaware of the charges against him and yet the trial continued to proceed. And I looked at the blank faces of the detention prisoners and I could tell, most of them didn't know what was going on. That's why a counsel de officio doing services for the arraignment should inform the accused of the charges, the potential penalty, and other relevant matters, so that the accused could properly decide what to plea. 

As the proceedings went on, I noticed the lawyers were doing their second round of duties already, and I had not been appointed yet. I looked at the small crowd in the courtroom, and it seemed they were wondering why this Manila lawyer in a blue suit was not doing what the local lawyers were doing. So, when my case was called, I told the Judge, "Your Honor, before we proceed, I noticed I am the only lawyer here who has not been appointed as counsel de officio, and I am getting embarrassed already. (Laughter from the lawyers and the court staff) So, please your Honor let me tell you I can do that work too, and I will stay a bit to help out the court perform its duties." After my case was called,  I got appointed as counsel de officio to help in the arraignment of two brothers accused of theft. I can't write anything further without breaching confidentiality, so I will stop here. I'm new in General Santos, but I certainly like the legal community here. 

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