Chel Diokno is on a Crusade as Old as Taylor Swift to Cure Ignorance of the Law

Why is the law so hard to understand?
Photo/s: courtesy of Chel Diokno

At the end of every legal proceeding, clients turn to their lawyers and ask “Attorney, anong nangyari?” It's a common question for both Yale graduates and hustlers in the streets, human rights lawyer Chel Diokno said, underscoring how the rules that dictate how society should function gets lost in Latin words.

Diokno hopes to remedy this with a crusade that's 31 years old and counting (as old as Taylor Swift), as one of the movers of the Free Legal Assistance Group, founded by his late father, ex-senator Jose Diokno.

The 61-year-old human rights lawyer said it's important for common folk to understand the law since it governs their daily lives and court jargon can sometimes be used as cover for evil deeds.

“It’s much easier to disguise corruption when you can use legalese to justify a decision. It’s much easier as well to disguise faulty reasoning when you use legalese because we all stumble over these Latin words and foreign phrases that nobody really understands except lawyers,” he told Summit Sandiwch Sessions.

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Literature on Philippine laws and the Constitution are readily available. What exactly makes them so hard to understand?

It's a foreign language

“Everything is written in English, and if anything is written in Filipino, it’s not everyday conversational Filipino,” law student Hannah, not her real name, said. Her schoolmate Bea, also not her real name, agrees: “Even the Filipino translations are so...highfalutin.”

According to Section 7 of Article XIV of the 1987 Constitution of the Philippines, the official languages of the country are Filipino and, until otherwise provided by law, English for purposes of communication and instruction. That’s two out of the roughly 120 languages spoken in the archipelago.

“It’s not only the fact that it’s English, it’s in lawyer’s English, or what we call legalese. That even makes it harder to understand,” he said. From time to time, he’ll get a call from a journalist to request an explanation on the Supreme Court’s decision because the contents aren’t easily understandable.

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“The other issue there is even if it’s written in English, how do we make sure—especially our indigenous brothers and sisters—will get to understand it? There has to be a mechanism,” he said.

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There's distrust in the system

It’s a problem that’s long left Filipinos in the dark about the law and their rights. In 2000, then Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago introduced the Plain Language in Health Insurance Act to eliminate the lack of faith in insurance systems.

The distrust “can be attributed to the legalese and technical terms employed by the insurance companies in marketing and crafting the health insurance policies leading to failure to communicate the benefits of having health insurance.”

Just in November 2020, Sen. Lito Lapid introduced the Plain Language in Government Documents Act which would require all government communication to use plain, simple language to disseminate information to equip citizens with knowledge to abide by rules and exercise their rights.

If approved, it could simplify translation to Filipino and other dialects.

And if the law directly affects certain communities “workshops and other events could be conducted so that they understand what it means and what the effect will be on them. Again this can be done by legislation,” Diokno said.

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“There has to be what I would call the ‘whole of government’ approach to that,” he said. Responsibility will fall on many shoulders—the Supreme Court should come out with decisions that are easily understandable by an ordinary person, and the Congress has the same task when making laws.

That's why there's the Tulfo Court

People who feel that legal procedures take too long seek justice in the way they want. Far from the formalities and legalese of court, Filipinos turn to broadcaster Raffy Tulfo, who has become synonymous with swift justice. It speaks in a language that people understand.

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Law requires four years of pre-law, four years of law school (if you don’t get delayed), and passing the annual bar exam. That’s thousands of cases, recitations, digests, and exams before one earns the permission to interpret the law.

Complex topics take years to master and even longer in the field to explain to those who do not understand. Still, it must be done to deliver justice.

“More times, the law is left to interpretation,” Hannah said, expounding on why it’s extremely difficult to understand and explain to others.

Bea said “Tapos may cross references pa yan to other laws and rules, and you can’t expect ordinary people to just know that,” which is a complication on top of the intimidating legalese. “In lectures they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you have to explain this to litigants in a simple way’,” she added, but it’s a lesson that is learned outside the four walls of law school.

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Both Hannah and Bea said there was a 100% chance the law and legalese could be twisted to disadvantage the innocent, especially if they have no idea what's being discussed.

“Even educated people cannot understand us. I go to court, my client has a Master’s degree from Yale or wherever university it is in the United States or Europe, but we leave the courtroom and their question to me is the same as my poor client; “Attorney, anong nangyari, hindi ko naiintindihan yung pinag-uusapan niyo sa loob ng court,” Diokno said.

“That has to change. We have to conduct proceedings and come out with decisions that anyone can understand,” he said.

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