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Justice delayed is justice denied.

I was at the regional trial court of Manila recently for my court observation, and I attended a scheduled hearing for criminal cases. My attention was caught by the case of a Chinese man accused of the crime of acts of lasciviousness. The man was thin and appeared old and sickly, coughing intermittently as he waited for his turn for the information against him to be read. His health was obviously deteriorating, maybe because of the poor living conditions at the Manila City Jail.

Before the information was read, the judge called the man’s attention. Speaking off the record and in Filipino, the judge asked him how long he had been imprisoned, how old he was, and whether he was aware of the charge filed against him. The man obviously had difficulty understanding the question, perhaps due to poor hearing. But he eventually managed to reply to the judge’s questions, also in Filipino. He said that he was 65 years old and that he had been behind bars for six years for the alleged crime of “panghihipo.”

The judge, along with my classmates and myself, was shocked to hear this. The man had been held for six years, and he was just to be arraigned after six years. Assuming arguendo that he was guilty of the offense beyond reasonable doubt, he had served the maximum years of imprisonment for the crime. That is without the other consideration that the judge might impose a lesser number of years behind bars because the punishment for the crime of acts of lasciviousness is prision correccional, or imprisonment of from six months and one day to six years.

Turning to the public attorney, the judge asked what had happened to the man’s case and why he was to be arraigned only after six years. The lawyer said there had been no arraignment because there was no interpreter available to relay to the accused the court proceedings in Pangasinense. He also said the accused could not understand Filipino. As a result, the lawyer said, they had to send the man to a mental institution because he was also allegedly insane.

The judge was dismayed to hear the public attorney’s explanation. He reminded the counsel that what was required under the law was for the accused to understand the information being read to him, and not necessarily the trial per se. He even told the counsel jokingly that an interpreter was not needed anymore because the accused now understood Filipino, having been able to answer, in the language, the questions posed to him earlier.

This is the sad reality that is happening, and not a single page in our voluminous law books ever illustrates this truth. This is the truth we keep on shrugging off. We see illusions of perfection and euphoria. What we fail to see is the existence of these problems that we must resolve now.

Red tape in government transactions and clogged court dockets hamper the speedy disposition of cases. How many John Does do you think are there at Manila City Jail, in circumstances similar to that of the 65-year-old man? How long have they been imprisoned without even being arraigned? Will they just die without being heard? What if they were not guilty of the crime attributed to them? How can we restore the years they lost, suffering for a crime they did not commit? Are due process and the right to a speedy disposition of cases just mere concepts in our Bill of Rights? Are these in fact not available in reality?

Am I being naïve in believing that there is still a chance for change? Am I too ambitious to actually think that I can make a difference by wanting to be a lawyer? Should I just drop the idealism and instead allow myself to be eaten up by the system? Should I concur with the status quo and not be deviant?

This reality has shattered my heart, and I am being bombarded by questions. It’s quite disturbing. We continuously shout for justice, yet we never hear the cries of people like the 65-year-old man. We say justice means giving everyone what is due, yet have we given to this man what is rightfully his?

And yet his case is not all that new to us. We’ve seen so many documentaries about the state of our justice system, and heard so many heartbreaking stories about it. But have we actually made a move to somehow solve the problem? Maybe some have tried but were unsuccessful due to circumstances beyond their control. I guess the man, like the others before him, as well as this article, will just add up to the statistics. At first there will be condemnation from society, but after a few days, everything will be back to its normal pace.

And John Doe will be back behind bars, waiting for six more years.

Am I being a skeptic in thinking that this problem will never be solved? Maybe yes, but I am not losing my hope and faith that someone like Batman will rise up to save his city, or in our case, our country. I know there are Dark Knights out there, and they will rise to save the system. I hope it will be soon.

Hariette Supe, 25, is a third year law student at San Sebastian College-Recoletos Manila.

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