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Commentary

Reforming our ineffectual justice system

12:32 AM July 05, 2016

“NO STATE can exist without justice,” the distinguished historian José Arcilla, SJ, correctly asserted in a forum years ago on culture and the state. He thus argued that the state’s role in developing culture must be to promote justice. That justice, according to him, must be understood not merely as “commutative justice” but as “the way things ought to be” (emphasis his). Obviously, we, as a society, are a great distance from where we ought to be.

The “Action Program for Judicial Reform”—initiated years ago by then Chief Justice Hilario Davide—already identified the critical issues that need to be addressed in our justice system: case congestion and delay, budget deficiencies, politicized system of judicial appointments, lack of judicial autonomy, human resource inadequacies, dysfunctional administrative structure and operating systems, insufficient public information and collaboration with society, perceived corruption in the judiciary, and limited access to justice by the poor. According to the action program, the goal to be realized is a judiciary that is “fair, accessible and efficient, independent and self-governed.” Nothing even remotely like this has yet to be achieved.

Delayed justice, miscarriages of justice, and no justice at all are root problems of our intrinsically unfair society. Everyone who has had any contact with our justice system knows this. The Philippine judicial system screams for reform. The problems are pervasive, deeply-rooted, and systemic. But where is the seriousness in addressing these? Currently the most budget-starved branch of the government, the judiciary urgently requires more funding support for more courts, more judges, more prosecutors, better training, and better systems.

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Among astute observers, it is commonly believed that the intra-elite competition that characterizes Philippine politics will never be allowed by its elite participants to spill over agreed boundaries in a way that will undermine the structure of “clientelism” (a patron-client system of politics based on mutual economic benefit) that has been built up to control and manipulate Philippine society. That would be disastrous for the entire elite class. After all, each particular elite group has six years—the term of a president—to milk the system of corruption woven into the fabric of the government. Those currently not in power will patiently wait their turn until the next election cycle so that they will not endanger their turn at political plunder.

A working justice system is crucial to reforming Philippine society. But we seem unable to strengthen the law enforcement and justice infrastructure because the patron-client networks built up by the ruling elite are too valuable a system of control for these to be readily given up. Unfortunately, our government is still run by a political elite class whose predatory instincts recall those of the “stationary bandits” (once called kings or emperors) in human society’s distant past. Government power is viewed mainly as a tool to appropriate a significant part of the community’s wealth for the exclusive and private benefit of the power holders.

Those who’ve had occasion to engage the justice system in this country inevitably become aware of how cases can be made to drag on interminably and how decisions can be bought and sold. Naturally, this effectively means that the so-called “rule of law” exempts the rich and the powerful. In the case of public officials in particular—because they are entrusted with an enormous amount of power that can be used to avoid prosecution and conviction—a working justice system must allow their removal from office with a lower standard of proof and simpler procedural requirements.

An effective justice system means that laws must be enforced and the administration of justice must be fair and quick. Unfortunately, those who administer the justice system in this lawyer-ridden society sometimes seem to think that a religious adherence to legal procedures constitutes justice. That is an inexcusably narrow view. Following procedures may be important, but it is hardly enough. Only the consistent production of just and timely outcomes characterizes a working justice system.

Our society’s inability to dispense justice fairly and quickly to all and sundry, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, is the principal reason a societal value system that claims that “crime does not pay” and urges compliance with rules is routinely mocked. Moreover, if some privileged people routinely prosper by violating rules while the unprivileged are punished for noncompliance, then there is no reason for the unprivileged to remain committed to the continuity of the society as a whole. An uneven application of rules is fatal to a society’s development and progress.

Introducing meaningful reform into our society requires institutions and systems that can constrain the agents wielding government power and make them accountable to the citizenry as a whole, and not to some patron. Without institutions and systems that will make public officials act in the public interest, and not for some private ones, we cannot even begin to aspire to good governance, much less promote public participation in community issues, or encourage economic investment, or develop a progressive and just society. It does not help that our community values have deteriorated to the point that wealth and power are now celebrated and publicly honored for their own sakes.

Dr. René B. Azurin is a management professor, strategy consultant, and author of several books on government and the economy. He has been a policy consultant for several important government departments.

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