The Supreme Court launched recently in the Regional and Metropolitan Trial Courts of Quezon City a new pilot program, called “eCourt,” to automate the trial courts. The aim is to speed up the delivery of justice by reducing case processing time, eliminate sources of graft, and improve public access to performance information in the lower courts.
Brief backgrounder. In the 1990s, the Supreme Court began computerizing its administrative, personnel and financial processes via stand-alone programs. Later, during the term of Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide Jr., which started on Nov. 30, 1998, the Court embarked on the computerization of the entire judiciary through its Action Program for Judicial Reform or APJR. Among the many projects of the APJR is the electronic library which was conceived by Justice Antonio T. Carpio.
With the support of the US Agency for International Development, (USAid), the Court, under CJ Davide, pilot-tested in Pasay City the Case Management System or CAS, a computer program designed to expedite the resolution of cases through the effective monitoring and strict observance of time limits of case events from filing to disposition.
A second APJR computerization project, the Court Administrative Management Information System or Camis, supported by the Canadian International Development Agency (Cida), was simultaneously tested in Metro Manila. It aimed to build and strengthen the capability of the Office of the Court Administrator to evolve a system of tracking the more than 800,000 pending cases in the trial courts.
During my term as chief justice, the Court, with the help also of USAid, fully computerized the processes at the Sandiganbayan via an improved version of CAS called Case Management and Information System (CMIS). The antigraft court was then headed by Presiding Justice Teresita J. Leonardo-De Castro, now a member of the Supreme Court and chair of its committee on computerization.
Transparency and good governance. The eCourt was launched by Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno, Justices De Castro and Marvic M.V.F. Leonen, Court Administrator Midas P. Marquez and Executive Judge Fernando Sagun Jr. It is also supported by the USAid and the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative or ABA-ROLE headed by Robert C. La Mont. It incorporates the lessons learned in the APJR and improved the past systems in various ways:
First, the new program includes the payment of docket fees, which will be collected and accounted for more transparently and systematically, unlike in the manual system which was both slow and susceptible to corruption.
Second, new cases were automatically raffled, without the use of the old tambiolos (manually-operated roulettes) which could be manipulated to enable parties to select “friendly” judges.
Third, eCourt flagged detention prisoners to show their places and length of detention. At present, the accused who are too poor to post bail, or who are charged with capital offenses (and thus not bailable) are detained indefinitely in cramped and overloaded jails simply because there is no system to monitor them. Often, they are forgotten and indefinitely detained.
Fourth, the new system automatically produced periodic and easy-to-comprehend reports.
Indeed, technology is being harnessed to assist the judiciary to declog its dockets, open its processes to public scrutiny, and eliminate occasions for graft. In the words of Chief Justice Sereno, computerization “will put the seal of transparency and good governance on the courts.”
Suggested improvements. Once the pilot in the QC courts is freed of electronic bugs, it will be rolled out “in major economic centers” nationwide. This is, of course, most welcome and long overdue.
However, beyond these improvements, I believe that computerization should not be restricted to stand-alone systems. It should encompass the whole judiciary including the appellate courts and the Supreme Court. I know that under Presiding Justice Andres Reyes Jr., the Court of Appeals successfully installed its own computer program and reduced its backlog to a bare minimum.
However, I think the Court of Appeals system, as well as that of the Sandiganbayan, the Court of Tax Appeals, and the Supreme Court should be electronically standardized and interconnected seamlessly with the eCourt system of the trial courts.
Case numbering is an example of an item that needs to be standardized and integrated in judicial automation. Under the present system, the case number in the city and municipal courts (where most cases originate) is not carried through to the regional trial courts. When the case is elevated to the appellate courts, it is assigned a new number, and still another when it reaches the Supreme Court. Worse, trial courts in the various regions have different ways of numbering their cases.
As a result, it is difficult to identify the origin of appealed cases. This erratic case numbering requires the tedious and time-consuming elevation of the hard copies of lower court records before the appellate courts and the Supreme Court can review them, thereby causing long delays.
However, once computerization is standardized and interconnected, the appeal process will be simplified because the original case records, often quite voluminous, can be electronically elevated with a click on a computer keyboard.
Finally, the entire system should be connected to the Internet for easy access by the public.
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