Reflections on Corruption in the Philippines

Atty. Rami Hourani

In the Philippines, corruption is seen as a fact of life. The layman’s understanding of corruption typically does not go beyond general allusions to the state of public services. It is a unique experience as a lawyer though to be consulted on corruption in the day-to-day lives of people and be constrained to give a legal opinion.

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Part of utility of lawyers is our ability to give the unvarnished truth of the state of enforcement on certain rules that can vary in application or appreciated in many ways. In some scenarios, we may be called to comment on the idiosyncrasies of obtaining a permit from a given government office. We could comment on the order in which government offices require one of a set of licenses to be procured because they view their approval as more important than those that would otherwise come before. We may even be called to give an opinion on the disposition of a particular judge in a case. These are all things that are firmly and fairly the right of a lawyer to comment upon. However, I only hesitate to comment on these matters in one situation: when my client is approached about quid pro quo corruption.

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Contrary to the popular conception of corruption, not everyone who engages in it is necessarily Living La Vida Imelda. The people who have been involved in corrupt schemes are ordinary people who find themselves at the mercy of government process and/or machinery. In the throngs of something that creates a high level of uncertainty as to outcome they are approached by an intermediary who will smooth things over and cut them a good deal. In exchange, the intermediary will got some of the benefit that is rightfully due them. It is in this context the most common questions fielded to me about corruption are made.

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It is common knowledge that the legal process is difficult to understand and cumbersome in the Philippines. As a lawyer you become accustomed to it. In some instances a lawyer may even rely on the slowness of the law’s pace to obtain a respite from the work. Without question though, the opacity of the law and its leisurely gait is a large part of the reason why lawyers become indispensable to society. These aspects of the law that make sitting in consultation for corruption so difficult.

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You are obligated as a lawyer to inform them that this is corruption and that engaging in it is a felony under the revised penal code and similarly prohibited under special law. You then have to discuss what it would take to ventilate the claim in a court of law. You must tell them the process is long and difficult especially because the respondent is a public officer. Further, you inform them that for the foreseeable future they will likely not see the benefit promised even if entitled to it because of how much antagonism the prosecutorial and court processes can engender. You will inform them of the option of trying to have the claim be settled by a different officer in the same office. This scenario typically plays out in one of two ways: First, it falls in the lap of someone who may be employing similar schemes or, Second, they have no idea and simply perceive you as someone who wants to stir trouble in what otherwise would have been a routine transaction for a colleague.

It is no wonder why most leave my office and never seek my assistance again. This article is not an indictment of the Philippines, the vast majority of transactions with the government takes place without a whiff of corruption. For the few that do though, I do wish it was more feasible to counsel to not give in and to stand on principle. Currently though, all I can do is honestly answer questions.

Atty. Hourani practices law in Cebu City, PhilippinesIf you would like to set an appointment with him, you may reach him here.

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