by Atty. Tanya Lat
Last January 24-26, 2015, I flew to Tacloban City, Leyte for the very first time. It was the week right after Pope Francis’s visit to this Typhoon Yolanda-ravaged province, and his Holiness’s presence still lingered in the air. I was to meet with an extraordinary team of paralegals and learn more about their unusual form of legal aid.
The paralegals were working for the ABCD Project, which stands for “Access to Claims and Benefits after Disaster.” Typhoon Yolanda had literally swept away all civil records and legal documents of victims and survivors, which made it almost impossible for them to file claims and access benefits from government social protection agencies and private institutions. The ABCD Project responded to the need of families-victims and survivors for assistance in reconstructing their legal identities so they could rebuild their lives after the disaster.
The ABCD Project started out as a post-disaster legal aid advocacy initiated by Palo, Leyte Vice-Mayor and environmental lawyer Atty. Ronnan Christian Reposar, who himself was a victim-survivor of Typhoon Yolanda. Realizing that other typhoon survivors would not be able to access funds and assistance without proof of identity, Atty. Reposar lost no time in mobilizing resources to organize a legal mission for this purpose. In the immediate aftermath of the monster typhoon, Atty. Reposar’s ragtag team of lawyers and paralegals produced handwritten affidavits, making do with pens and water-logged paper that had been dried out. Atty. Reposar reached out to friends to ask for help. He recounts, “it all started with a single text I sent to my friends in November asking for office supplies for us to serve the legal needs (of ‘Yolanda’-affected villages).”
One of those texts reached Edgardo Ligon, the Executive Director of the Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Services, Inc. (IDEALS), a non-government organization and legal advocacy group based in Quezon City. Ligon and the IDEALS legal team wanted to help with Typhoon Yolanda relief efforts but wanted to do something more meaningful than simply repacking goods. Ligon reached out to Atty. Reposar, invited him to Manila, and linked him with Atty. June Macaspac of the IBP National Committee on Legal Aid, Dean Jose Manuel Diokno of De La Salle University, and Atty. Christian Monsod, among others. The outpouring of support from the legal community was immediate and heartfelt: legal missions were organized, and lawyers and law students from various IBP chapters and law schools readily volunteered their time, services, and resources. Over the course of the succeeding months, the legal missions crystallized into the ABCD Project.
Almost all of the ABCD paralegals were law graduates and Typhoon Yolanda survivors who had joined the legal missions in order to “give back” and help their fellow survivors. Some of them had lost members of their immediate families, and taking part in the legal mission helped them cope with their own grief and sense of loss. For Paul Campomanes, patiently gathering data for two hours as clients sobbed felt like an act of “mercy and compassion.” He said, “I have to stay strong those days. Even if we lost our loved ones during the onslaught of monstrous disaster, we have to control our emotions so as not to let our clients down.” “If they cried, we don’t interrupt their moment of mourning. We just have to evaluate if they are ready to access the services.”
Such services consisted largely of reconstructing civil registration documents and preparing “transitional” documents such as affidavits of loss and affidavits of 2 disinterested persons to facilitate claims for assistance. The first three months after Typhoon Yolanda were the most difficult, with resources scarce and the region still reeling from the devastation. The paralegals encountered problems that they had not encountered in law school, had no straightforward answers, and which challenged them to come up with innovative solutions and exercise their advocacy skills with decision-makers. Aside from logistical and resource concerns, they encountered resistance from the local civil registrars (LCRs), some of whom refused to acknowledge or support the work of the legal mission. They also had to contend with the political intramurals between barangay and municipal officials, with the legal mission and the clients getting caught in between.
Although there were the inevitable disappointments, frustrations, and bad days, this did not prevent the paralegals from fulfilling their mission to deliver results for their poor clients. The ingenuity of the ABCD legal team and their zeal for their clients was evident from their determination and the outcome of their efforts. The legal team took great pride in the fact that none of the clients that they serviced ever came back to complain that their documents were incomplete or not accepted by the government offices concerned. When Paul Campomanes recounted the odds that they faced and how they overcame them, I could not help but agree when he triumphantly declared “lahat nagagawan ng paraan.” The ingenuity of these paralegals was simply remarkable.
At the start of the ABCD project, the concerns primarily pertained to facilitating access to benefits post-Yolanda. One year after, now that things have more or less normalized in the region, the nature of the legal concerns brought to the attention of the paralegals has shifted. Now, the concerns pertain to civil registration and the creation of legal identity for the poorest and most marginalized sectors.
The paralegals talked about their encounters with people in their 70’s and 80’s who have no Certificates of Live Birth on record, and thus do not exist as far as the state is concerned. They also voiced their concern that the cost of civil registration is too high and is beyond the reach of the poorest Filipinos. They also stated that the process is burdensome, sometimes unnecessarily restrictive. IDEALS is now working in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on its Mobile Registration Project, to assist in the registration of births, marriages, and deaths for the poorest Filipinos in municipalities in Leyte and Samar. The project aims to give these Filipinos a legal identity that will finally enable them to access government programs such as SSS and PhilHealth.
The paralegals said that being part of the ABCD project has helped them heal from the trauma of Typhoon Yolanda, and to express their oneness with the people of Eastern Visayas. It has also helped them put their legal education to good use. Paralegal Golda Tabao was amazed at how a simple, “petty” affidavit “makes other people happy” and that their clients expressed profound gratitude for such simple services. All the paralegals agreed that people’s gratitude for their services has changed their outlook on life and made all the difficulties of their job worth it.
Atty. Reposar has described the ABCD legal mission as a response to Pope Francis’s exhortation to create a “culture of inclusion.” He said, “legal assistance assures that a poor man can assert his basic right, hence opening windows of opportunities for him.” The ABCD Project and Mobile Registration Project are building this culture of inclusion for poor Filipinos, one document at a time.
*With contributions from Mr. Sarwell Meniano and the ABCD project legal team.