Implementing equity into law

I remember Ramon Magsaysay and this famous saying from him from my history classes and is in full agreement with the concept he championed. However, implementing the cause without creating new inequities is sometimes a difficult task.

From BusinessWorld Philippines

July 01, 2012The more-in-law syndrome

“Those who have less in life should have more in law” was the slogan which defined Ramon Magsaysay’s tragedy-shortened presidency. Law and Economics became inextricably bound together for better or for worse. But as a legal principle, it is not without controversy. “Less in life” is easy to measure. “More in law” has many interpretations. The Law at its best construal is represented by Lady Justice in blindfolds. Rich and poor alike are subject to the same law.

But in the real world, recourse to legal remedies has a price not everyone can pay. The poor would likely fail to afford the acceptance fee — let alone other fees — of a lawyer.The law has several dimensions: the letter of the law, the customary interpretation issued by the final arbiters, the enforcement of the same, and the penalty attached to its violation and access to its protection. The letter of the law can be written to favor the poor: where “private property is robbery,” as it was in the erstwhile Soviet bloc, it made bandits of landowners and capitalists who were promptly dispossessed of chattels, if not of life itself. The interpretation and enforcement of the law could also be slanted to favor the marginalized along the famous dictum “Necessity knows no law.” Should Lady Justice lower her blindfold and mete justice with favor?

The best interpretation of the dictum is still equal access: those who have less in life should have as much access to the law’s protection as those who have more. Lady Justice remains blind but entry to her magistry is equalized. The heroes here are outfits that offer free legal service to the poor. There are as yet too few of them and they must be supported, if need be, by government.

My own interest is elsewhere: How the pursuit of “more in law” in real time translates into the future prospect of those possessed of “less in life.” The application of the Magsaysay’s legal principle has been largely short-sighted and perhaps counter-productive. To date, we already have nine Magna Carta Acts of Congress trying to empower the poor and powerless (Magna Carta for Small Farmers, for Disabled Persons, for Women, for Small Enterprises, for Public Health Workers, for Homeowners and Homeowners’ Association, for Barangay businesses, for Scientists and Researchers in Government).

The Lower House has just passed on second reading HB 4484 known as the “Magna Carta for the Poor.” It features the usual litany of rights of the poor, the government’s obligation to ensure full enjoyment of these rights and the need for more employment opportunities as the fountainhead of exit from poverty.

A curious provision (Section 4.2) mandates that 5% of all casual hires by government or government-funded projects be members of people’s organization. Is it the case that the poor constitute less than 5% of government casual hires? And if so, could it not be that being so hired graduates them out of poverty, but, if de-hired in compliance with the law, they will return to poverty? And why should one, if properly poor, be a member of people’s organization to qualify? Despite government agencies being already loaded with programs for the poor (4Ps of DSWD and numerous programs of NAPC), they will now be mandated to do even more (not clear what) with the same budget. To sum up, the proposed Magna Carta for the Poor as conceived will do little of substance for the poor although advocates will go to town with it in the 2013 elections. Its saving grace is that it stopped short of doing more harm.

Some predecessor Magna Cartas did not. Section 21 of the Magna Carta for Small Farmers mandates that interest on loans to small farmers be less than or equal to 75% of going commercial rate. That is a prescription for a credit squeeze and economic depression. Formal lenders flee and informal lenders take over. Which is the danger posed by the More-in-Law Syndrome: it oozes with compassion but can, though not always, end up hurting the very people they seek to help.

Was PNoy violating the Magsaysay dictum when he rejected the P125 minimum wage hike demand this past May? Should workers have been accorded “more in law” in the form of this wage adjustment? Unfortunately, the Magsaysay dictum is almost exclusively interpreted as a legal mandate to secure a larger share for the poor in “today’s” economic pie. The problem is that the same mandate may abort growth in the economic pie and employment in the future. The P125 adjustment will improve the lot of the insiders (already employed) but can reduce the prospect of the unemployed as investment and job creation falter. “More in law” conceived in myopia can translate into “less in life.”

I think President Magsaysay will sleep better in his grave if his cherished dictum is embraced with more forethought and foresight.

Article location : more in law syndrome&id=54396

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