By Vann Marlo M. Villegas
THE judiciary is still facing age-old problems that are creating some of the most insurmountable bottlenecks in government — the court caseload — and while brute-force methods like more judges and more courtrooms are playing a key role in solving the problem, the Supreme Court believes information technology will play an increasingly larger role.
The meticulous process required to decide cases presents unique challenges to automation, but various projects have been implemented to assist the courts in resolving cases more quickly.
Supreme Court (SC) Public Information Chief Brian Keith F. Hosaka said one of the biggest issues is funding for infrastructure and hiring of court employees.
While some efforts have been made by legislators to create more courts to address the issue of increasing caseloads, the judiciary needs adequate personnel and physical infrastructure for the courts to function “fully and efficiently.”
“Necessarily, you would need more judges together with a full complement of court personnel such as clerks of court, prosecutors, court attorneys, interpreters, stenographers, sheriffs, and additional courtrooms to house them,” he told BusinessWorld in an e-mail.
“It is only when you complete all these elements that a court can function fully and efficiently,” he added.
Mr. Hosaka also said that some local government units have recognized the need for infrastructure for the Judiciary to be able to meet their mandates and have taken the initiative to fund these facilities despite the Congress being slow to address the problems.
Under the 2019 National Budget, the Judiciary was allotted P39.51 billion.
In a report by the National Statistical Coordination Board in 2013, the lower courts had caseloads between 2005 and 2010, equivalent to an annual caseload average of 1,059,484 or 4,221 cases per working day.
Mr. Hosaka said as of May 2019, there are 2,360 trial courts of which 2,338 are Organized Courts those that have authorized positions and a presiding judge. There are 292 Unorganized Courts or newly created courts without presiding judges and physical courtrooms.
He added that 537 organized courts do not have a regular presiding judge but are still functioning thanks to acting judges. “So, basically the problem is on the Unorganized Courts. Until a presiding judge is appointed and a courtroom is constructed to house the new courts, then we cannot have a fully functioning and efficient trial courts to hear cases. “
The trial courts are composed of the Regional Trial Courts (RTC), Family Courts, Metropolitan Trial Courts (MeTC), Municipal Trial Courts in Cities, Municipal Circuit Trial Courts, Sharia District Courts, and Sharia Circuit Courts.
For the judiciary, technology has long been recognized as a possible means for addressing caseload and overcoming challenges such as insufficient infrastructure and manpower.
“(T)he Supreme Court has undertaken numerous reform initiatives to hasten the administration of justice without sacrificing due process and fairness,” Mr. Hosaka said.
Among these reforms is the Judicial Strengthening to Improve Court Effectiveness (JUSTICE) program, funded by the High Court’s development partner American Bar Association-Rule of Law Initiative.
“(T)he JUSTICE program is a reform initiative aimed at enhancing court efficiency, transparency, and accountability through an automated system which replaces manual court processes,” he said.
The JUSTICE program includes the Electronic Courts (e-Courts) System, an electronic management system which allows judges and court personnel to “easily monitor, manage, and process cases.”
According to the 2015-2016 annual judiciary report, the e-Courts system also aims to speed up the decision and resolution of cases and cut the court backlogs. Public access to information is also available in public kiosks at the entrance of the halls of justice.
The e-Courts System was first launched in Quezon City in 2012. The SC said the automated management system is being deployed or implemented in 249 second-level courts and 95 first-level courts. Among the operational locations are Quezon City, Angeles City, Lapu-Lapu City, Tacloban City, Davao City, Cebu City, Makati, Manila, Pasig, and Mandaluyong.
One of the key components is the e-Raffle or electronic raffling of cases to courts. The Mr. Hosaka also said the e-Court system includes an automated hearing system.
The High Court said in its 2015-2016 report that the automated hearing system allows every activity in the court to be “captured electronically… in real time.”
These activities include the orders issued by a judge, minutes of a hearing, the notes of the judge on testimony, marking of evidence, issuance of writs and other processes by linking the computers of the judge, stenographers and interpreters “to allow all individuals to view and edit real-time the documents being prepared.”
“An automated hearing also does away with the delay in the preparation of open court orders and the inevitable postponements due to our present reliance on snail mail systems. The orders and subpoenas are immediately released to the parties present in court, thereby saving at least one month in waiting time if service is done via snail mail,” the report read.
There are also Justice Zones which aim to address delays in the justice system aided by the Justice Sector Coordinating Council which members include the SC, Department of Justice and Department of the Interior Local Government.
“It involves developing an area into a zone where there is a minimum number of inter-agency coordinative reforms in the criminal justice system, such as the adoption of e-Courts, automated hearing systems for trial courts, e-Subpoenas for the police, e-Dalaw to facilitate jail visitations, and jail decongestion efforts,” Mr. Hosaka noted, citing a speech by Chief Justice Lucas P. Bersamin in May.
The Justice Zones are located in Quezon City, Cebu City, Davao City and Angeles City.
According to recent data on case disposals obtained from the SC, the courts are able to reach the target number of cases for resolution.
The SC achieved a 108% accomplishment rate in 2018, disposing of 6,487 cases, against the 6,000 target. In 2017, the High Court was able to dispose of 5,685 cases against the 5,840 target. There were 8,726 pending cases as of Dec. 31, 2017, based on the 2017 Judiciary report.
Second-level courts, which include RTCs and Shari’a District Courts, had a 111% accomplishment rate in 2017 after of disposing 229,759 cases out of its 207,850 target and achieved a higher accomplishment rate of 171% in 2018 after disposing 354,816 of the 207,806 target. A total of 642,598 cases were pending at the end of 2017.
A 100% accomplishment rate was attained in 2017 by first-level courts, composed of MeTCs, and Shari’a Circuit courts, among others, disposing 218,023 cases, a little over the 217,840 target. In 2018, the rate was 117%, disposing of 253,707 cases against the 217,616 target. Pending cases as of Dec. 31, 2017 totaled 64,681.
Before cases are lodged in courts, prosecutors need to determine if probable cause exists to warrant going befoe a judge. Justice Undersecretary Markk L. Perete said there are reforms and projects by the Department of Justice (DoJ) that make use of technology which help in resolution of complaints.
Mr. Perete said complaints and records in the DoJ and prosecutors’ office require the submission of digitized copies to prevent problems of lost documents when natural calamities strike.
“If it’s paperless it’s also easier to send copies of the documents to the other parties which should somehow address delays not only in notification but also in the filing of comment and other responsibilities from the other party,” he said.
He said, however, that the problem becomes data storage, and the DoJ is investing in IT infrastructure with the assistance of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).
Mr. Perete also said the department has projects for prosecutors called the National Justice Information System, the basis for compiling the crime index, which could possibly be launched by the end of the year or early next year.
With the system, crimes and their features will be mapped to aid prosecutors resolve their cases.
He added the DoJ is working on a program allowing prosecutors to log in and report on the progress of cases. “If nakita namin na yung kaso na ‘to (If we see the case) has not been moving for 60 days based on the app, then we would be able to send troubleshooters to assist our prosecutors.”
Mr. Perete said the DoJ is planning on a project which would benefit the prisoners called the Single Carpeta System to unify the documentation used by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology and in the Bureau of Corrections.
“Para automatically alam mo na agad kung ilang araw na syang nakakulong (It will be possible to automatically know how many days the person has been detained) and based on that computation alam mo na ‘Uy dapat pala papalayain na natin ’to’ (You would know that this person is approaching release),” he said, adding that the system will help reduce the number of days convicts spend in prison by deducting time spent in detention during trial.
“It also benefits the state kasi (because) you have to imagine how much resources ’yung kailangan mong gamitin (are needed) in keeping a person in a jail facility,” he said.
OTHER JUDICIAL REFORMS
Mr. Hosaka also noted that other judicial reforms are intended to “hasten the resolution of cases.”
The SC issued a resolution in February increasing the threshold jurisdiction of Metropolitan Trial Courts for money claims under the Revised Rules of Procedure for Small Claims Cases, taking the maximum amount for small claims to P400,000 from P300,000. Small money claims must be resolved within 30 days.
The SC also highlighted the importance of the “Hierarchy of Courts doctrine” which it said is a “constitutional imperative” and a “filtering mechanism.”
Mr. Hosaka also said the chief justice has ordered the revision of the Rules of Court — the body of procedures guiding the SC and all courts since 1940.
The JUSTICE program also implemented the Revised Guidelines on Continuous Trial of Criminal Cases on Sept. 1, 2017 in 54 trial courts in Metro Manila. The revised guidelines prohibit litigants from postponing proceedings except for “exceptional grounds.”
“Since its implementation, it has yielded improved compliance rates of cases for arraignment and pre-trial as well as trial and promulgation,” he said, adding the Guidelines included the two to two-and-a-half months resolution of drug cases in the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act, and six months for other criminal cases under the Speedy Trial Act.
While the SC addresses concerns about the faster resolution of cases, Mr. Hosaka noted that coming up with a fair decision requires a judge to consider many things, requiring time.
“Rendering true justice means dispensing fair decisions rooted in due process; and most often, ensuring due process to each litigant, such as the basic rights of being fully notified and heard, necessarily involves time,” he said.