ABU DHABI // Filipinos facing problems at work, mountains of debt or who are on the wrong side of the law can turn to a group of compatriots for guidance.
“The majority of Filipinos usually wait until the last minute before contacting a lawyer,” said Michael Barney Almazar, 32, a Dubai-based Filipino lawyer who holds a UAE legal consultancy licence.
“Most of them ignore the problem until it’s too late, and it becomes complicated. A simple situation gets worse because they procrastinate.”
Mr Almazar, who serves as the director of the commercial department of Gulf Law in the Middle East, the UK and the Philippines, started reaching out to the Filipino community when he joined the firm as a partner in 2012.
“I realised that Filipinos needed a law firm dedicated for them,” he said. “I started my practice in Dubai as a corporate lawyer. Every time I meet my compatriots, they feel relieved knowing they can turn to me for help on UAE laws.”
He has found there are many misconceptions, such as Filipinos with loans and credit-card debt who believe they did not issue a blank cheque when they applied for a loan.
“This is wrong because bank will make them sign a cheque made for the purpose of the loan, and it does not come from the applicant’s cheque book,” Mr Almazar said.
Many also think their debts will be cleared by serving a prison term.
“Jail time will not erase one’s debts,” he said. “Sadly, they are not aware of the whole debt collection process.”
This normally starts with a bank’s agent persuading the debtor to pay. If no payment is made, a police case for the bounced security cheque is filed against the debtor.
If they do not settle, the matter is referred to the prosecutor, and a criminal case is opened.
The debtor serves a jail term or pays a fine, or both, for the criminal act of issuing a bounced cheque. Once the sentence is served, he or she will be cleared from his criminal case.
“However, the bank has not been paid for the money owed,” Mr Almazar said. “The bank normally allows the debtor to earn and then file a civil case to collect the money.
“If one is unable to pay, the bank can request a travel ban. In other cases, the bank will initiate the civil case as soon as the criminal case is over.”
But there are instances when banks are at fault.
“We handled an interesting case of a bank which erroneously filed a police case against a Filipina who did not even take a loan,” he said. “She was apprehended by the police and we claimed damages from the bank due to its negligence.”
The firm helps indebted Filipinos by negotiating with banks and working on repayment schemes with lower monthly payments and longer terms.
“We also get calls from Filipinos held at the airport when they are about to leave the UAE,” he said. “Their cases range from non-payment of fines to a pending criminal case of something labour-related.”
Gulf Law, which is working with the Philippine consulate and embassy, hopes to get more volunteers to provide legal aid to the community.
A series of seminars covering personal finance, entrepreneurship, employment, immigration and family laws is being planned this year.
He and two other Filipino lawyers held a seminar on UAE laws, credit cards and bank loans at the consulate in Dubai at the weekend.
“Our aim is to encourage more Filipinos to become entrepreneurs,” Mr Almazar said. “They will be taught how to handle their finances and avoid being in any legal trouble.”
For information about free legal aid and counselling, email firstname.lastname@example.org.