“If every lawyer in the country would only handle one case for an aggrieved pauper litigant, that would go a long way in restoring the faith of the poor in the administration of justice.”
By 1966, Doy Laurel was already a noted law professor and practitioner who had won some of the most celebrated cases in the annals of Philippine criminal justice. Doy himself had said many years later: “I was winning cases. I was also getting better pay for my teaching. I was writing books, and I was improving my golf. Those were my happiest years because I was doing what I enjoyed most” It seemed to Doy, as he reflected on his legal career at the start of the mid-sixties, that he could not ask for more. Still, he had to make a living. But, in 1967, shortly after the termination of a controversial criminal case for which he was the defense counsel, Doy was about to take on a new role shaping up for him— as the “defender of the defenseless.”
At almost the same time, Doy Laurel received a phone call from erstwhile Chief Justice Roman Ozaeta, then President of the Philippine Bar Association (PBA). Justice Ozaeta asked Doy if he would be willing to handle for free the case of a woman whose husband had been murdered. The victim’s bullet-riddled body was found in a trashcan in Paranaque. The suspect, as it turned out, was a notorious and well-entrenched policeman. Because the victim’s wife was poor and could not afford to press charges, Doy agreed to handle the case— pro bono. Convinced that the case was meritorious, Doy immediately launched an investigation and found out that the woman’s husband was a victim of police brutality. Eventually, the case had gone to trial for which Doy won a conviction.
After blazing through his first legal aid case, Doy Laurel’s legal talent drew more notice from the public due to considerable media publicity. Doy, however, saw this as an opportunity for everything he believed in and aspired to—bring justice within the reach of the poor—and seized it.
Indeed, not long afterwards, a dozen of similar cases (involving police brutality) was referred to the PBA and so, as expected, Justice Ozaeta referred all of them to Doy. Recognizing the enormity of the problem, Doy took the same pragmatic approach and suggested a solution: the creation of a legal aid committee composed of some of the brightest legal luminaries as members. Doy ended up choosing nine (9) lawyers, who, in his opinion, were the most respected, the most courageous and able advocates of his day. Among them were Crispin Baizas, Jose Y. Feria, Juan T. David, Gonzalo W. Gonzales, Juan Luces Luna, J. Antonio Araneta, Alberto M.K. Jamir, Francisco Ortigas Jr., and Angel C. Cruz.
Doy’s proposal was approved by the PBA Board and he was tasked to organize and chair the Legal Committee. Thus was born the Citizen’s Legal Aid Committee (CLAC).
Within a month after the celebrated Parisio Tayag case—the case which really put their group on the map— CLAC was swamped with over two hundred cases, all in need of free legal assistance. “From a corporate and tax lawyer,” Doy said, “I was being transformed into a full-time legal aide. The more charity cases I handled, the deeper I became involved in the plight of the poor, and the more determined I become to continue with legal aid.” With the surge of cases requesting for legal assistance, and the view that what they had accomplished in CLAC was just a “tiny trickle compared to the magnitude of the problem,” Doy in time saw the imperative of organizing a nationwide legal aid group. The result was the incorporation on 16 June 1969 of what is now known as the Citizen’s Legal Aid Society of the Philippines (CLASP), a nonprofit corporation registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Because of Doy Laurel’s stature in the legal profession, in no time he was able to enlist over 500 volunteer lawyers all over the country.
For founding CLAC, Doy Laurel was given the “Lawyer of the Year Award” in 1967 by the Justice and Court Reporters Association of the Philippines (JUCRA). Even more poignantly, in the same year, while on the thick of his campaign as NP senatorial candidate, Doy would also earn for himself the sobriquet of “Mr. Public Defender” for his continuous effort to defend the defenseless and the underprivileged. But this was not to be the zenith of his advocacy in the field of legal aid for he was destined to take the international stage much later and give the country international recognition.
From about 750 lawyers in its first year (1966-1967), CLASP’s network expanded even bigger in the ensuing years. Indeed, amidst and despite the imposition of martial rule, CLASP, under Doy’s intensive leadership, worked quietly handling thousands of pro bono cases a year for the indigents.
Then came, in August 1976, the “Most Outstanding Legal Aid Lawyer of the World” award from the International Legal Aid Association (ILAA) of the International Bar Association (IBA), of which Dr. Salvador H. Laurel was the sole recipient— besting four (4) other nominees that year. Doy Laurel, in recognition of his pioneering work in legal aid as Chairman of CLASP, received the award from Sir William Carter, ILAA president, at the Grand Hotel room in Stockholm, Sweden, where ILLA’s biennial meeting was held. More than four hundred (400) legal luminaries representing eighty (80) countries were in attendance; among them was Dr. Enrique Syquia, then an IBA member, and the only Filipino present during the ILLA awarding ceremonies in 1976.
The prestigious Award reads partly:
Despite the imposition of martial rule, DR. SALVADOR H. LAUREL has continued to champion human rights, the rule of law, and the supremacy of justice and to fight for the cause of the defenseless and the oppressed.
I have therefore great pleasure in presenting the INTERNATIONAL AWARD OF MERIT for 1976 to SALVADOR H. LAUREL for his untiring and courageous efforts in the field of Legal Aid, both in his capacity as a Senator and as founder and Chairman of the CITIZEN’S LEGAL AID SOCIETY OF THE PHILIPPINES.
(SGD.) WILLIAM CARTER
INTERNATIONAL LEGAL AID ASSOCIATION
August 16, 1976
CLASP—which inspired today’s Public Attorney’s Office (PAO)— had the biggest number of able and dedicated volunteer lawyers throughout the country who, for many years, had committed themselves to give free legal services to the poor and the underprivileged. Many legal aid groups started to surface after CLASP, especially during martial rule, but like what Dr. Laurel used to say, CLASP was the first.
Dr. Salvador H. Laurel will always be best remembered as a brilliant trial lawyer and as President and founder of the Citizen’s Legal Aid Society of the Philippines (CLASP). For his unwavering dedication in upholding the noble causes of the legal profession, Chief Justice Fred Ruiz Castro recognized Dr. Laurel as one of the “sturdy pillars in the integration of the Philippine Bar.”