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Writing simply and concisely

opinion / Columnists
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With Due Respect

Writing simply and concisely

In my foreword to an issue of the Ateneo Law Journal some time ago, I wrote: “When I was still a law student over 50 years ago, courts were absolutely sacrosanct. Supreme Court justices were regarded as little deities on Mount Olympus, whose decisions and pronouncements were revered with biblical finality and obeyed dutifully by everyone living in the plains.”

Hermetic isolation. Truly, magistrates were thought to possess infinite wisdom and absolute fairness. Their word was sacred and infallible. Their internal processes were confidential and kept from the scrutiny of mere mortals.

In keeping with their immortal status, the justices lived in hermetic isolation. Untouched and unaffected by the hustle and bustle of ordinary life, they took a vow of silence amid the most hectic political and social crises besetting the nation. They spoke only via their decisions and orders.

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No one dared lampoon the Court and the justices. The sub judice rule was strictly observed. No one commented on a pending case without risking the ire of the gods.

Judicial decisions were often written in esoteric legalese. Law students had difficulty deciphering the ratio decidendi that is often buried in kilometric sentences.

Information Age. Nowadays, for better or for worse, media cameras and inquisitive reporters have invaded the judicial enclave. Investigative journalists have “humanized” the conduct of the justices. Public interest cases have lost their sub judice status and are freely discussed everywhere.

Indeed, we now live in a free society amplified by the information revolution and fortified by the constitutional prescriptions of accountability and transparency. While television, radio and newspapers still dominate the mass media, the internet, broadband and social media are supplementing, if not slowly replacing, these traditional one-way methods of communications.

Conscious of my difficulty as a student in reading and understanding decisions, I endeavored to simplify them after I joined the Supreme Court in 1995. I tried my best to write in unadorned English, with as little legalese as possible.

Simplifying decisions. I followed an identifiable pattern of writing decisions that has since been imbedded in “Velarde vs Social Justice Party” (April 28, 2004). In my ponencia in that case, I detailed how a decision should be written, pursuant to the constitutional mandate that “[n]o decision shall be rendered by any court without expressing therein clearly and distinctly the facts and the law on which it is based.”

As to form, I explained that the “essential parts of a good decision consists of 1) statement of the case; 2) statement of the facts; 3) issues or assignment of errors; 4) court ruling, in which each issue is, as a rule, separately considered and resolved; and finally, 5) dispositive portion.”  A prologue and an epilogue are added in high-profile cases.

Since then, most decisions followed the pattern initiated in the Velarde decision. Simpler language was used without losing the distinct flavor of words, the nuances of meanings and the shades of differences.

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Yearly, I wrote a book explaining the unknown internal processes of the Court, its major decisions for that year, and the reforms planned and undertaken to speed up the dispensation of quality justice.

After I retired from the Court, I continued my effort to simplify legal complexities in my columns so lay people can understand jurisprudence. I want them to appreciate and internalize judicial decisions so they can become more responsible and participative citizens.

As a column writer, my biggest challenge is still how to shorten my articles because space is severely limited. This limitation became more stringent after the Inquirer adopted its current format which allowed columnists only 4,100 characters, in lieu of 5,600 under the old format. I know that I must adjust more stringently to the Digital Age, forget long-winded legalese, simplify, and get to the point pronto.

Comments to chiefjusticepanganiban@hotmail.com

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