Public Attorney's Office

Human rights at the heart of lawyering for public attorney Noliver Barrido

Jairo Bolledo

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Human rights at the heart of lawyering for public attorney Noliver Barrido

PUBLIC LAWYER. PAO lawyer Noliver Barrido squeezes in time and effort at the PAO Central Office in Quezon City.


From being an NGO volunteer to public lawyer, Barrido's value for human rights remained with him and now helps him handle cases with a more humane approach

Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) lawyer Noliver Barrido initially thought he would become a doctor.

Growing up, Barrido said he had a proclivity for pure and natural sciences. In school, he exceled in science so he took a program related to it. He obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and then later decided to enter medical school. But things didn’t work out as he had planned.

Barrido said he believed his aspirations were valid and refused to think he failed – his path was only redirected. He thought hard and later realized he had been pursuing his ultimate dream all along: to help people.

Barrido first became a volunteer for nongovernment organization (NGO) Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP), which helps in promoting and advocating for human rights in the country. As a TFDP volunteer, Barrido said he went to far-flung areas to help implement projects that allowed people to understand their basic human rights.

They helped people from all walks of life (from victims of large-scale mining in mountain ranges, to the youth) to be more informed about what they deserve and are entitled to as human beings. Barrido told Rappler he also spent some holidays inside prisons to uplift the spirits of persons deprived of liberty.

“‘Yong mga exposure ko sa TFDP, ‘yon ‘yong eventually nagpapasok, nagpapa-realize sa akin na mukhang hindi ako pang-natural sciences. Mukhang dito ako sa social sciences,” Barrido told Rappler. (My exposures with TFDP eventually made me realize that I was not for natural sciences. I realized I was more for the social sciences.)

Barrido said his involvement with TFDP was the main reason why he chose to study law and become a lawyer. He said his experience helping people for TFDP before now helps him in his profession as a public lawyer. Aside from both TFDP and PAO catering to indigent clients, Barrido said his previous organization also advocated for human rights, which is very similar to PAO’s mandate to ensure the rights of those who need legal assistance.

His passion for human rights remained with him as he entered PAO, Barrido said. In PAO, he added, there should be a human rights-based approach in handling cases to better determine what rights were violated and what rights people are entitled to.

Hindi ko tinitingnan na ito ay trabaho lang, kung hindi may malalim na adbokasiya, at ‘yong adbokasiya na ‘yon ay nanggaling pa doon sa pinanggalingan ko na NGO,” Barrido said. (I don’t regard this as just work, but something that is part of my advocacy, and that advocacy comes from my experience with the NGO I came from.)

A day in the life

A PAO lawyer for seven years, Barrido heads the labor section of PAO Central Office and is also part of the special and appeals case service (SACS).

Under SACS, Barrido said he handles cases that are set for appeal. So either PAO is the winning party, or the losing one. They prepare the appeal filed with the Court of Appeals, Supreme Court, or Office of the President.

His other responsibility, being their labor section’s head, demands more time and exerts more pressure.

Barrido checks the outputs of lawyers under him to ensure quality. The checking includes a review of grammar, arguments, and cited jurisprudence to make sure that their clients’ cases are well represented in court. He said they try to maintain high standards, such that they won’t file a case that isn’t properly checked.

On a daily basis, lawyers would seek him out in their small office to ask for advice or talk about concerns regarding the cases they handle. Barrido said that in a day, he would check two to three cases. He would also talk to his subordinates for around 10 to 15 instances in a single day.

At times, Barrido said his direct intervention is needed for troubleshooting.

“Pumapagitna po tayo. Kasi may mga times po na may mga abogado po tayo na may problema sa kliyente, may problema sa kaso. Kailangan din po nating gabayan o tulungan,” Barrido said. (We intervene. Because there are times when our lawyers have problems with their clients, with their cases. We need to guide or help them.)

PUBLIC LAWYER. PAO lawyer Noliver Barrido during a sitdown interview with Rappler.
Not an easy task

Republic Act No. 9406, also known as the PAO law, mandates the PAO to provide legal assistance to indigent Filipinos who need it. The legal assistance covers criminal, civil, labor, and administrative cases, among others. But being a public lawyer in the Philippines is not an easy task.

In fact, there is a “high turnover of public attorneys,” said the PAO in its 2023 accomplishment report, with 36% or majority of its personnel staying for only four years or less. The usual reasons cited were the heavy workload and resignations of their lawyers to engage in private practice. Some also transferred to the judiciary, prosecution, or other government agencies and government-owned and controlled corporations.

Of the millions of Filipinos it serves, the PAO only has 2,505 lawyers. For 2023, each PAO lawyer served around 4,997 clients, while one lawyer handled an average of 333 cases within the same period. PAO chief Persida Acosta earlier said they need at least 4,000 lawyers to meet the demands of the office.

So paano mo ma-handle ‘yon [cases]? Paano mo matututukan ‘yong isang kaso? Paano mo makakabisado ‘yong facts no’ng case, arguments, etc. kung sobrang dami? So tingin ko, ‘yon talaga ‘yong number one na problem,” Barrido told Rappler. (So how can you handle the cases? How can you focus in one case? How can you memorize the facts of the case, the arguments, etc. if you handle too many cases? So I think that’s the number one problem.)

The heavy workload could compromise not only the quality of their job, but also the health of PAO lawyers, Barrido said. The tediousness of the profession could lead to burnout, he added.

In terms naman sa health, may iba ‘kong mga kakilala na umabot sa gano’n na kinailangang magpa-ospital, mag-undergo ng psychiatric counseling dahil umabot na sa gano’ng point ‘yong effect ng workload,” Barrido said. (In terms of health, I know a few people who had to go to a hospital or undergo psychiatric counseling because the stress from the workload already reached that level.)

Despite this string of challenges, Barrido is optimistic that things will be better for PAO lawyers like him. He believes that lawyers who belong to the younger generation of PAO lawyers can help improve the situation.

Since his generation is into technology, they can provide suggestions on how to use it to improve their work and quality of service. Barrido added that it’s important for young PAO lawyers like him to continue the mandate of helping indigent Filipinos to preserve the integrity of their office.

Hindi puwedeng mawala ang PAO. Puwedeng mag-improve, puwedeng magdagdag ng mga lawyer, maging modernized ang approach sa mga kaso, sa mga pagse-serve sa client. Pero kailangan, andiyan pa rin ang PAO,” Barrido added. (PAO should remain. It could be improved, have additional lawyers, modernize its approach to cases, in serving clients. But PAO needs to continue to exist.)

Love for his craft

As a PAO lawyer for almost a decade, Barrido has had a fair share of interesting and challenging experiences in handling public cases. Among the most memorable ones he handled was a drug case involving a man from northern Philippines.

This case was complicated because it was up for appeal and Barrido said the lower court’s decision was actually favorable to his client already. If they appealed, there was a chance their appeal would be dismissed and the penalty would be harsher. At worst, Barrido said his client could have faced two counts of life imprisonment. He said his conscience would not have been able to take it had it happened.

Barrido said he wanted to explain the options to his client in detail, but the client refused to go to the PAO central office, citing monetary concerns and old age. To reach out to him, Barrido traveled all the way from Manila to La Union to meet on the time they both agreed on. Despite traveling for eight hours just to meet his client, Barrido said the man bailed out on him without a word.

Later on, the client apologized to Barrido and said he thought the PAO lawyer would have him arrested. The case proceeded and to Barrido’s surprise, he and his client later won the case. Because of this experience, he realized that in their work, they need to reach out to their clients and build a connection with them to create trust and a healthy working relationship.

Aside from offering a rich experience, Barrido shared that the PAO also provides good training for lawyers since they are exposed to a variety of cases. The challenging arena also enhances their discipline in terms of time management because of the heavy case load.

Barrido said choosing PAO is also practical because it provides a competitive salary, on top of the the fulfillment that comes with being able to help others. In PAO, pay is considerably good compared to other government lawyers, with entry level public attorneys receiving P95,083 as their basic pay.

Hindi naman nalugi ‘yong PAO o ‘yong abogado kung pipiliin niya ‘yong PAO. Kasi kung magiging practical tayo, hindi lang naman ano, hindi lang siya purely advocacy eh. Kailangan meron ka ring personal na growth as a person, as a professional,” Barrido told Rappler.

(Both lawyers and PAO win when PAO is chosen as a workplace because lawyers are also well compensated. Because if we were to be practical, it’s not all just advocacy. There should also be personal and professional growth.) To be concluded

NEXT: Part 2 | Mario Dionisio Jr. juggled security guard job and law school, now he’s a PAO lawyer

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Jairo Bolledo

Jairo Bolledo is a multimedia reporter at Rappler covering justice, police, and crime.