The doctrine of self-help

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

The ongoing dramas (emphasis on the plural) that we have on the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Chief Justice Corona made me reflect on the fragility of our legal system. This is not the best of times to be a lawyer, particularly if you are a lawyer who is a) sane and b) intends to take his oath seriously. However, setting aside the plight of lawyers (who, presently, I find difficulty in taking seriously) the present national situation is even more damaging to that vanishing breed of Filipinos: the middle-class.

There are just too many laws (and planned laws) seeking to protect the “poor,” which is well and good. But current law is seemingly detached from reality, romanticizing their plight rather than providing them with the wherewithal to better their situation. Instead, shallow comfort is given by dragging down those fortunate enough to have more material resources (at present) than they do. But since our current laws or system are also constructed to help the elite maintain their undeserved status, the only group left that can be discriminated or trodden upon -- effectively -- is the middle-class.

So, apparently, in this country if you are middle-class, educated, taxpaying, with legal residence and occupation, heterosexual and with family, Catholic (or devoutly religious regardless of faith), not leftist, and not a Chinese or Spanish mestizo (or mestizo of any kind), the laws and our legislators (and our weakened judicial system) are most likely against you.

Take the case of an automobile collision with a jeepney or tricycle. The middle-class individual, who very possibly acquired his car through a company plan and is already struggling with higher gasoline prices, is now faced with the burden of recovering damages from the said driver. Or take the case of a maid (or any employee) suddenly deserting their employers, despite the fact that the latter already advanced the former’s transportation costs from the provinces. Or the middle-class landlord, whose sole source of income would be the few apartment units he owns, whose lessee suddenly stops paying and, even worse, starts taunting the landlord to “sue” if he wants to be paid. Or every delayed flight by an airline or premature disconnection by a phone or electric company.

In all those situations, the law would be incredibly unhelpful in giving relief to our middle class individual. To file a case in court is cumbersome (and expensive). He would need to file leave from the company in which he is employed, as court filings (including lawyer’s conferences) take hours. Then there’s the hugely jaw-breaking slow legal system. Unless you are Gloria Arroyo that the government wants to stop from leaving the country, it would take months, even years, for it to issue an order remotely helpful. And assuming that actually happens, how damages could be recovered from a jeepney driver (or owner), or maid, or lessee without discernible assets or tangible income is inexplicable.

That is why I am grateful to our very own dear leader and his administration for showing the way: if following a law or court ruling will not allow one to achieve a rightful objective or interest, then the law or court ruling should be disregarded. And since we are President Aquino’s “boss” (he said so himself), then what he could do, under this republican, democratic form of government we tell ourselves we follow, we could do as well and more.

Such thinking could actually be justified under the legal concept of “self-help,” which Celia Taylor, assistant professor at the University of Denver College of Law, defined as “private actions taken by those interested in the controversy to prevent or resolve disputes without official assistance of a governmental official or disinterested third party.” It’s a recognized, albeit not necessarily accepted, principle under both domestic and international law. Under the latter, the most recognized example would be the case of Alvarez-Machain, where the US decided, after extradition proceedings with Mexico stalled, to kidnap an alleged Mexican murderer and bring him to the US.

Our laws contains sporadic mentions of self-help, such as Article 429 of the Civil Code, and referred to by our Supreme Court in German Management & Services, Inc. vs. CA (G.R. No. 76217, September 14, 1989). Our criminal laws also contain provisions akin to self-help, particularly relating to individual safety, honor, or property. All permit the use of force or violence as the situation merits.

In any event, our Constitution provides that “no person shall be... denied the equal protection of the laws.” Presumably, this should be interpreted to mean that neither can the laws be used to improperly discriminate against the middle-class in favor of the vote-rich poor and the elite who constantly seeks to benefit from such votes. Now what the limits of self-help are, as we can presently extrapolate from the actions of our government, is something yet to be determined.