Towards a paperless judicial system

Amicus Curiae
Darren M. De Jesus

Posted on January 23, 2013

IN HER first speech as Chief Magistrate, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno emphasized the need of the Judiciary to cope with the developments in technology to hasten the delivery of justice. Consistent with her proposed reforms for the Judiciary, the Supreme Court issued A. M. No. 11-9-4-SC, otherwise known as the Efficient Use of Paper Rule (the “Rule”), on Nov. 13, 2012, which applies to all courts and quasi-judicial bodies under the administrative supervision of the Supreme Court. The Rule took effect on Jan. 1. 2013.

Lawyers and members of the Judiciary, therefore, had to adjust to the Rule upon the start of the year. The Rule specified a required format, style and margin that must be followed in all pleadings, motions and similar papers to be filed before the courts, as well as in the decisions, resolutions, and orders to be issued by the courts and quasi-judicial bodies. The Rule likewise reduced the number of copies to be filed before the courts.

From a technological aspect, what is most ground breaking about the Rule is the provision allowing parties to file their pleadings with the Supreme Court by the submission of soft copies, including its annexes in Portable Document Format (PDF), either by email or by compact disc (CD), in preparation for the eventual establishment of an “e-filing paperless system” in the Judiciary (e-filing). As such, parties could now file their pleadings before the Supreme Court by emailing their documents to efile@sc.judiciary.gov.ph.

This new method of filing may be done on a voluntary basis for the first six months following the effectivity of the Rule. After this six-month period, E-Filing (or the submission of pleadings by email or in a CD) with the Supreme Court will be compulsory, unless otherwise extended.

It is no secret in the legal profession that the printing of pleadings, compilation of knee-high annexes, and the reproduction of each set to meet the required number of copies to be filed, is a time-consuming and expensive exercise. In the process, several reams of bond paper are consumed for the initial printing and the photocopying of the documents. The subsequent hauling of these documents to the courts for filing, or the filing of these documents personally or even by registered mail translates to higher costs which are shouldered by the parties. The courts receiving these piles of documents then have to physically file these papers in their depleting storage rooms and cabinets. In that sense, the court dockets are literally congested.

By reason of technology, it is commonplace to send documents by the click of a button, and the recipient could store the electronic copy in their computer or any compatible device. As such, e-filing in the Philippines has its advantages. For example, a lawyer who holds office outside Manila could instantly file a pleading with the Supreme Court in Manila, just by emailing it to the designated email address. Costs of mailing the pleading and additional delay due to this traditional mode of filing are avoided.

In reality, the Philippines is lagging behind other countries in terms of the application of technology in the judicial system. E-filing is already the common practice in select jurisdictions in the United States, and in some countries in Europe. In Asia, Singapore applied its e-filing system as early as 1997, which was implemented in phases and became fully operational by 2006.

Is the Philippines ready for e-filing? There are still several aspects of e-filing that have to be addressed. At the onset, it cannot be emphasized enough that the legal profession is very traditional. In the Philippines, lawyers still have a tendency to strongly question the authenticity of electronic documents, despite the passage of the Rules on Electronic Evidence allowing for its admission.

It is likewise a question of whether the Supreme Court has the information technology (IT) infrastructure and security to handle large amounts of data that it will be receiving from litigants once e-filing is made compulsory. Valuable files could be lost and could no longer be retrieved by reason of a crash in the Supreme Court database. Worse, files could even be corrupted or stolen by an experienced hacker who may not even be physically located in the Philippines.

Although it is expected that traditional lawyers would resist the change in the method of filing their documents, it is known that Filipinos are slowly embracing, and realizing the benefits of, technology. In fact, it is a normal sight in courtrooms nowadays for lawyers to make use of their electronic devices in preparing and reading their notes, doing a quick research on relevant jurisprudence, and organizing their schedules.

The issuance of the Rule and the eventual establishment of an e-filing system are indeed commendable. However, there lies the need to ensure that our Supreme Court has the infrastructure and corresponding security measures and that our lawyers have the technological know-how. Thus, it is also essential to orient all practitioners in the country on the technical aspects of this system to ensure its successful implementation. Once successfully implemented, the e-filing system may then be applied in the lower appellate courts and first level courts, thereby allowing lawyers all over the Philippines to file and serve their court-bound documents electronically. The success of this system may pave the way to other IT innovations in the judicial system, such as a unified online case management system/database accessible to lawyers, the electronic sending of court orders and notices via e-mail, and the holding of a virtual courtroom attended by parties through video conferencing, among others.

What must be realized is that technology could serve as a useful tool to enhance and improve the delivery of justice. On this regard, the strong will of our Chief Justice could be indicative of the eventual successful implementation of these IT innovations in the judiciary. Perhaps, the achievement of a paperless judiciary is possible, after all.

(Darren M. De Jesus is an associate of Angara Abello Concepcion Regala & Cruz Law Offices (ACCRALAW). He can be contacted at Tel. No. 830-8000 or email address: dmdejesus@accralaw.com)