To quote Former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban: “Trial courts are the dispensers of justice closest to the poor.” But when the demand for justice is clearly disproportionate to that of the number of our judges in the lower courts, how can justice even be dispensed?
As of December 2018, the Judiciary Annual Report shows that there are 546,182 pending cases with the Regional Trial Courts (RTC) and 160,153 with the Municipal Trial Courts (MTC). These statistics are highly suggestive of possible violations to litigants’ constitutional right to the speedy disposition of cases. Yet, the opposite side of that coin is that these numbers may illustrate the problem of having a limited number of judges who are overworked and overloaded with cases pending before their salas.
In the hope of resolving the perennial problem of court congestion, and consequently, assist our judges, Senators Juan Edgardo M. Angara, Sherwin T. Gatchalian, Richard J. Gordon, and Loren B. Legarda authored Senate Bill No. 2065, under Committee Report No. 496, or the “Judges at-Large Act of 2018.”
On Aug. 30, 2019, President Rodrigo Duterte approved the said measure as Republic Act No. 11459, otherwise known as the Judges-at-Large Act of 2019, which effectively amends the Judiciary Reorganization Act of 1980. This was published in a newspaper of general circulation on Oct. 1, 2019.
The law creates 100 positions for RTC judges-at-large, and 50 positions for MTC judges-at-large, who shall have no permanent salas and may be “assigned by the Supreme Court as acting or assisting judges to any RTC (or MTC), respectively, in the Philippines as interest may require.” The Supreme Court shall have discretion as to the length of their temporary assignments, and after the period of their temporary assignments, the Judicial Bar Council shall recommend to the President the permanent sala to which the judge-at-large shall be appointed.
For the RTC judges-at-large, the law requires that the applicants be natural-born Filipinos, at least 35 years old, and with at least 10 years of legal practice or having held a public office requiring admission to the practice of law as an indispensable requisite. For the MTC judges-at-large, the qualifications are that applicants must be natural-born Filipinos, at least 30 years old, and with at least five years of legal practice or have held a public office requiring admission to the practice of law as an indispensable requisite.
Judges-at-large shall be entitled to salaries, privileges, allowances, emoluments, benefits, rank and title of an RTC or MTC judge. Further, they shall also be entitled to a monthly longevity pay equivalent to 5% of their monthly basic pay which shall be paid for each five years of continuous, efficient, and meritorious service rendered in the Judiciary.
While we can be certain that this legislative measure would not solve the issue of court congestion once and for all, the measure undoubtedly aids incumbent judges who carry the burden of upholding our constitutional right to the speedy disposition of cases. In effect, the law gives justice not only to those who seek it, but to those conferred with the responsibility to dispense it.
Shiela Vae A. Hoylar, is an Associate of the Angara Abello Concepcion Regala & Cruz Law Offices, Cebu Branch.