I ATTENDED a court hearing last Wednesday to represent a client in a contentious family dispute in the outskirts of Metro Manila. I left home at 6:30 a.m. in order to be on time for the 8:30 a.m. start of the hearings. There were 39 cases scheduled that morning—five civil cases and 34 criminal cases.
For three hours I listened as three accused were sentenced to life imprisonment in two murder cases and one rape case. I listened to a wife sobbing while testifying on how her husband repeatedly punched her. There was also a mother who had sued a teacher for alleged abuse committed against her child. There was another wife who withdrew the criminal abuse charges she had filed against her husband. I listened to a psychologist testify that a marriage should be declared void because the husband is gay. I listened to bits and pieces of 38 life stories that morning.
When my case was called, there was simply not enough time to do my cross-examination of the rival party’s star witness. My case was postponed to a date more than one month later. It was not the fault of the judge because she is one of the most efficient judges I have encountered. The prosecutor and the public attorney are also some of the most dedicated court officers I have observed. The court was simply overloaded with cases.
I have reduced my court appearances in the last few years because the traffic and the long wait in court to just engage in 30 minutes of oral argumentation are simply unproductive ways to spend precious time. Every now and then, however, I succumb to the lure of the adrenalin rush one enjoys while locking horns with seasoned trial lawyers in court.
Any person who has experienced going to court complains of the long delay and the expenses involved. To be fair, our courts are really undermanned and overloaded with cases. The Supreme Court has adopted measures to lessen the frustration of litigants. By requiring a witness’ testimony to be contained in a written affidavit, the high court has cut in half the time required to present a witness because only the cross-examination now needs to be done during a hearing. The high court is also pilot-testing “face-to-face” trial, where the judge proactively poses questions to all the witnesses in a roundtable-type discussion. It has likewise encouraged arbitration where the parties hire a private judge to decide their dispute.
The Supreme Court should consider other measures to address frustrations in pending cases. Of the 30-50 cases scheduled per day, only about five cases get heard; the others are postponed or the lawyers merely ask for time to submit written arguments. In each of the five cases that are heard, only the partial or full testimony of one witness gets completed. The other witnesses get rescheduled in soap-opera-like monthly installments that run for four or more years.
The high court should seriously review this practice of piecemeal presentation of witnesses that takes place on monthly installments in a span of many years. The monthly rituals for each case—the court calling the case, the lawyers introducing themselves, the lawyers orally repeating their gobbledygook arguments already written in their pleadings, and most of all the travel time spent by the lawyers and parties (for every hearing day that takes place multiple times for many years)—are just a humongous waste of everybody’s time. It is especially a waste of the judges’ precious time. The retentive capacity of the judges to weave together the chain of testimonies is weakened if testimonies are given one morsel at a time for years.
These court appearances on installment require so much expense for the parties who have to pay for the lawyer’s travel time and expenses (worse if the case is out of town), and repeatedly for each of the multiple hearing days.
The most ludicrous practice that the Supreme Court should immediately stop is the requirement even for non-urgent written motions to be set for hearing. About 99 percent of the time, the judge merely requires the rival party to file a written comment. I have seen clients in mouth-agape shock after attending a motion hearing and paying for their lawyer’s court appearance, only to hear the judge routinely order the rival lawyer to file a written response. The shocked client’s jaw drops even lower if the court hearing is out of town.
Instead of the lawyers setting their motions for hearing, it is the judge who should call for a hearing, but only after he or she has read all the written arguments, and only if the judge either desires oral clarification or requires supporting evidence. I once heard one exasperated litigant comment sarcastically that 99 percent of the increase in Friday traffic is due to lawyers going to their useless motion hearings, and that 99 percent of the increase in girlie bar customers on Fridays is made up of lawyers spending their court-appearance fees.
The Supreme Court should consider adopting the practice in private arbitration and in foreign courts where all the parties’ witnesses are heard continuously in one, two, or three days. To achieve this, the hearing of testimonies will have to be scheduled two or three years after the exchange of written arguments and identification of evidence. There can be exceptions for complicated cases, but the majority of cases can be completed in one to three days of continuous trial.
In the long run, continuous trial should be better compared to the monthly court pilgrimage to present installment testimonies that overburden both the clients and the courts.
It should be better than our present system of teleserye justice.
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