Revival of the courts | Inquirer Opinion
Like It Is

Revival of the courts

Everyone knows the Philippine court system has been failing us badly. It’s a litany of failings, the excessive delays being just one of them. On that I never understood how the Supreme Court could say that the constitutional requirement of deciding and resolving cases filed before the lower courts was mandatory that they be resolved in one year, but for the Court the two-year deadline was just “directory” and “not mandatory.”

Well, we’ve got a new chief justice who has recognized this and promised to fix it. And one of the first things he did on April 5 was to require the Supreme Court justices to resolve cases within 24 months. He also instituted a program to declog the courts.

Alexander Gesmundo, the new chief justice, met with a group of businessmen recently to discuss what he was going to do. And with five years before he turns 70 and retires, he’s got time to do it.

I don’t expect any miracles; the faults are so ingrained that correcting them is a herculean task. The first that can be easily corrected, though, is to give the judiciary more money. I know Congress has to allocate the very limited funds we have carefully. But the law is the bedrock of our society. It’s the foundation upon which a democracy is built, so it must be well-funded. And those funds must be under the independent control of the court as a constitutionally independent body. The constitution demands this when it says: “The Judiciary shall enjoy fiscal autonomy. Appropriations for the Judiciary may not be reduced by the legislature below the amount appropriated for the previous year and, after approval, shall be automatically and regularly released.” Fiscal autonomy means freedom from outside control.

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The CJ began his presentation to us with the words “Judicial delays are rooted in structural and systemic problems in both administrative and adjudicative operations of the court.” He has caught the foundational faults from which the court system must be remodeled.

One of the first things to be done is to bring the court system into the modern world. That world has gone digital, so the Philippine court system must follow. The CJ acknowledged this when he stressed the need for a complete shift to digital courts—from the operation of the courts (virtual hearings being one) to online case filing, e-notarization and recording of data, and everything in between. The millions of paper documents filling rooms have to be put on the cloud. The search for precedents has to be done in seconds, not days, weeks, or months of opening dusty old books.

AI will be brought into the Supreme Court by way of developing an ICT infrastructure in the court systems over the next couple of years, as well as instituting an ICT governance framework, for process mapping and systems improvements, and to gather data on court projects. To achieve this in a short time, and comprehensively, the CJ will look at the possibility of outside help from experts who’ve done it before. A first step has been taken by coordinating with Union Bank for e-payments.

An essential part of this shift into the IT world will be training everyone from the judges to the clerks on how to become IT-literate. That training will be part of the process.

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Another thing I liked was devolution of power. I’ve always opposed central control. Decisions should be made at the lowest possible level. CJ Gesmundo recognizes this and will be devolving administrative functions from the Supreme Court to judicial regional court administrators and managers.

He’ll also be creating a centralized planning and management unit to bring some order into where the courts are and should be going. Also, a special committee to study improvements to the administration of the court system. There are a number of reviews that will now be done in a professional manner that will cover the rules of court and performance of any projects being introduced, including the functions, duties, and compensation of lower courts. All of them with set time frames. This augurs well for some positive change.

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What wasn’t discussed was one of the biggest issues: corruption. The anecdotal stories are rife. It’s unfortunate that it wasn’t covered, because corruption and slowness are the two most frequently heard complaints against the courts. We had a land ownership case that went on for 20 years—and then was found against us on very questionable grounds.

Corruption is present throughout government and is a major hindrance to the Philippines’ development into a middle-income country. Although it wasn’t covered, the CJ recognizes the issue and has operationalized a Judicial Integrity Board and a Corruption Investigation and Prevention Office, but Congress needs to fund these initiatives. And they need teeth.

I know it’s easy to make promises. Heaven knows we get enough of those—that are then too rarely met. But there was an earnestness in this meeting that came through. Gesmundo may not fully succeed, but he’s going to try. We wish him all the best in that try. The Philippine courts certainly need it.

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TAGS: Alexander Gesmundo, courts, Like It Is, Peter Wallace, Supreme Court

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