THE HOUSE of Representatives Committees on Justice, National Defense and Security, and Public Order and Safety have approved a substitute bill that would provide free legal assistance to uniformed personnel facing job-related cases.    

The measure would allow any enlisted personnel of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) facing charges arising from an incident to be entitled to free legal assistance.    

The unnumbered substitute bill, approved in a joint hearing on Wednesday,  would consolidate House Bills 2499, 3141, 3929, 4312, 5972, 9898, 9902, 9961, and 9969.  

The committees also agreed to add an amendment to extend the same benefit to uniformed personnel of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, Bureau of Fire Protection, and the Philippine Coast Guard.   

The measure is one of the priority measures that President Rodrigo R. Duterte asked Congress to pass in his final State of the Nation Address in July.   

Ana Lisa M. Soriano, deputy chief public attorney for Luzon, said during the hearing that while the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) supports the measure, she warned that it would lead to a clear conflict of interest with the office’s mandate since most of their clients undergo criminal cases filed by the police and the military.   

Several versions of the bill would require PAO to provide free legal assistance to the PNP and AFP within 24 hours from the official receipt of charges filed against any enlisted personnel.  

Ms. Soriano suggested that lawyers of the PNP and AFP should instead be authorized to provide the free legal assistance.  

“The strengthening of the AFP and PNP legal offices… such as by expansion of its work force, upgrading of the legal offices’ positions and salaries, and increase in employee’s benefits will truly address the intention of the bills,” she said.   

Gabriela’s Women Party-list Rep. Arlene D. Brosas said that she will oppose the approval of the bill, citing that it extends “special privilege” to uniformed personnel compared to other government workers such as public school teachers. — Russell Louis C. Ku