Chief Justice Sereno talks of reform hopes amid uncertainty

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Ma. Lourdes P.A. Sereno
Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes P.A. Sereno discusses plans, the impeachment threat notwithstanding. -- PHOTO BY SANTIAGO JOSE J. ARNAIZ

By Ricky S. Torre
Associate Editor

A MODERNIZED, more efficient judiciary should result from reforms that Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes P.A. Sereno hopes will come to fruition in her time at the helm of the country’s highest court, her uncertain tenure notwithstanding in the face of congressional impeachment proceedings.

The impeachment committee at the House of Representatives that began hearings in October last year on establishing probable cause on the charges against Ms. Sereno is expected to submit its findings to the House plenary before Congress’ March 24-May 13 break. Ms. Sereno is facing a slew of complaints calling to question her transparency, her administration of the Supreme Court and her lifestyle.

With that backdrop, the Chief Justice, in a Feb. 15 interview with BusinessWorld, talked with enthusiasm about reforms but responded sparingly to questions on impeachment.

Asked on business groups’ call for the Supreme Court to designate courts focused on land dispute settlement as well as on infrastructure, cybercrime, environment and commercial cases, besides fewer temporary restraining orders that could stall major infrastructure projects, Ms. Sereno said moves have been under way to address these concerns.

“(W)ith respect to commercial courts, our commercial courts are especially trained to handle large-scale commercial disputes, and, of course, they understand — contrary to the misconception that they are unable to understand — economic issues… because of advanced training that are being given them,” she said.

She cited regional trial courts (RTCs) that have been “especially designated as commercial courts” like those in Quezon City and in Makati that are “the busiest” in this regard.

“The judiciary has commercial courts, environmental courts and we are finding a rational way of addressing land disputes,” Ms. Sereno said.

“Our environmental rules are already heralded worldwide as one of the best, and, in fact, several jurisdictions have copied from us. So our writ of kalikasan is unique. That’s the environmental protective writ.”

[VIDEO: Chief Justice Sereno on the future of the Philippine justice system]

Ms. Sereno also cited RTCs serving as cyber-crime courts and those focused on drug-related killings.

Asked on TROs on infrastructure projects, she said: “Let me correct everyone’s impression.”

“It’s like an urban legend that courts have been intruding on government infrastructure,” she said, citing “data” showing that “since I sat as Chief Justice, the court has issued only a few TROs on government infrastructure projects.”

“And in the Court of Appeals, none has been issued against a government infrastructure project.”

“Perhaps,” Ms. Sereno continued, “what had been happening is delay because of just compensation in the lower courts, and… we are already trying to formulate rules that will make it easy for every party in an eminent domain proceeding — eminent domain is when you try to expropriate private land for a public purpose — to try to rationalize it so that it doesn’t become unduly long.”

Efforts are also under way to make the judiciary more efficient.

“I actually have a fondness for management information systems and knowing how the process should flow and trying to look for the most efficient way,” Ms. Sereno said.

“And if we really have a stable judiciary, you know the economic benefit of a stable and independent judiciary can be significant. I was engaged in a… 1995 study… we estimated that there would be a significant increase in GDP if this function in the justice system is addressed.”

She added that the judiciary is “into quite heavy data analysis.”

“We are exposing ourselves to measurements… We have already the Strategic Performance Measurement System in the judiciary — the first nationwide measurement for every employee in the judiciary…” she explained.

“And every court’s output is already being measured, unlike before where you just have a general indication that more or less outputs are at this level.”

Among the programs of the Sereno court that have caught the attention of the House impeachment committee is the Enterprise Information Systems Program (EISP) which, Ms. Sereno said, is “a P50-million study funded by the World Bank for the Supreme Court” that seeks to improve the “front-end to the back-end range of services”.

“We even enhanced it to comply with the… Philippines (being) disaster-prone — earthquakes and tsunamis and floods and fires — so, we are also trying to disaster-proof the judiciary,” she explained, saying this effort will result in “an automated system, nationwide, for more than 2,500 courts… in 750 locations.”

The EISP — which has drawn the attention of the House because of its P250,000-a-month consultant — is “key to reform” and “will really modernize the justice system,” Ms. Sereno said.

“It’s not just an IT encoding software or app. It involves 22 software applications that are to be integrated, and… we have to have disaster recovery sites so that when the central server, for example, is shut down, if Manila becomes flooded, the backup site is in Angeles. And if Angeles is hit, we have other recovery sites spread across all regions.”

Ms. Sereno also cited a P4.2-billion project that puts in place “a very sophisticated system of adjudication” which speeds up the process by automating certain procedures.

Ms. Sereno said she anticipates a future when, on one’s “mobile phone, laptop, tablet, or desktop, you can already understand the status of your cases.”

“And… with security protocols installed, your lawyers can even file cases online and pleadings online. That’s your future,” she said.

“So the future is a world where the best of technology can allow… litigants… the assurance that their cases are being handled fairly and according to the correct process,” she added.

“And you can also be assured that your lawyers are attending to your cases. Wala nang taguan (They will no longer be able to hide from you).”