TAIPEI, Taiwan: Free legal aid must be available to all persons, whether Filipino or foreigner, as part of basic human rights, Persida Rueda Acosta, chief of the Philippines’ Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), told delegates to the 2014 International Forum on Legal Aid here.

During the forum. which marks the 10th anniversary of the creation of the Legal Aid Foundation, PAO vowed to enter into a comity and cooperation with the LAF in providing legal assistance even to Filipinos abroad.

Acosta over the weekend argued that nationality or geography should not be a barrier to giving legal aid particularly to compatriots overseas.

Also, foreigners who are in the Philippines must be given legal assistance if needed.

Currently, Free Legal Aid in the Philippines, Integrated Bar of the Philippines and other legal aid offices render free legal services to Filipinos.

“The free legal aid and assistance offered by the above-mentioned institutions and professionals are available to all persons needing legal advice, assistance or representation, whether a Filipino national or non-national,” Acosta said.

Republic Act 9999 or the Free Legal Assistance Act of 2010 mandates that all Filipino lawyers must provide free legal services for a minimum of 60 hours per year to indigent litigants in conjunction with Supreme Court Bar Matter No. 2012.

The Philippine government, however, is yet to forcefully effect this law to further help the poor litigants.

Acosta pointed out that while the requirement of indigency is needed in order to avail of free legal services, emergency and urgency demand an exception.

“While it may be a requirement that for persons to avail of free legal aid services in this law is that they should be an indigent according to the parameters of the relevant Philippine law defining what is an indigent or a pauper litigant, instances when immediate need for legal services based on emergent and exigent situations become an exception.” she said.

The Bureau of Immigration said one difficulty encountered in attempts to provide legal assistance to foreigners is the visitors’ outright refusal of assistance because of language barriers and trust issues.

To break such barriers, , Acosta suggested to the forum a multi-lingual training among countries.

PAO provided legal assistance to Angelica, 13, from Sabah, Malaysia, who was raped while under detention in 2002.

In 2006, it helped downgrade Filipino domestic helper Gwen Aguilar’s case from murder to homicide.

Recently, the 12 Chinese fishermen in Palawan who were arrested for poaching and the 11 Vietnamese fishermen in Palawan who were also caught for poaching were helped by PAO.

Since its creation on October 23, 1972, PAO has rendered judicial (court litigations) and non-judicial services--including legal counseling and documentation.

Its outreach activities include jail visitations, during which legal aid and medical assistance are also offered.

The 1,522 public defenders in the Philippines, according to Acosta, are outnumbered by around 3,000 judicial courts in the Philippines.

With its P1.8-billion budget for 2013, PAO served 7,126,565 clients (746,161 cases).

During the forum, Dunstan Mlambo, a judge from South Africa, cited the Roman tradition of free legal aid or “pro bono.”

“The legal profession is not a business, [being part of] it is a duty, not [an exercise in] generosity,” Mlambo said.