MANILA, Philippines – Philippine courts will have a more digitized system to ensure faster case resolutions, said Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno as she committed the addition of electronic courts or e-courts in various cities in the country this year.
The commitment was said during remarks made by Sereno at the 68th Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) meeting on Wednesday, January 25.
The e-court program, which started in Quezon City courts in 2013, files cases in an information system that highlights the oldest and those requring the most urgent action. It notifies judges of deadlines, and provides them templates of resolutions, decisions and orders so they can be issued more quickly.
There are currently 197 e-courts in 8 cities nationwide, but Sereno said there will be 297 e-courts spread across 10 cities by the end of 2017, using funding from the USAID and the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI).
According to Sereno, the European Union has also pledged its support to take the e-court program to the National Capital Region (NCR), Region III and Region IV-A possibly by 2018.
“These courts are able to adopt the Automated Hearing system, a game-changing initiative previously deemed impossible in the Philippines. Here, every activity in a hearing is captured in real time, enabling the court to serve the counsel the written copy of the order of the judge in as little time as 15 minutes after the order is given in open court, a previously unimaginable court experience,” Sereno said.
To reinforce the digitized system, the courts have also hired case decongestion officers specifically tasked to ensure the clearing of case backlogs. Decongestion officers were first deployed to Quezon City, Makati, Manila, Pasig, Angeles, Cebu, and Davao.
As a result, Sereno said the cities have recorded a 36% drop in docketed cases. (READ: Case delay worst barrier to justice in key PH cities)
Sereno is also aiming that from now on, subpoenas will be delivered electronically by email. Subpoenas are currently being served via courier or post.
Quezon City, Lapu-Lapu, and Angeles City have started using the e-subpoena system for police officers called upon by the court. Noting a time in the past where cases related to buy-bust operations are often dismissed because police witnesses do not show up, Sereno said the e-subpoena has resulted to a 77% attendance from police witnesses.
The Supreme Court has also implemented the Continuous Trial Guidelines which prohibits postponements unless on exceptional grounds, sets the trial dates every other day, and imposes a 90-day deadline on promulgation from the day the case was submitted for decision.
“The continuous trial system gained international recognition when the U.S. State Department commended the implementation of the system and considered it as a factor for elevating the status of the Philippines in the matter of fighting human trafficking,” Sereno said.
Release of inmates
To address the overcrowding of jails, Sereno said the Public Attorneys Office (PAO) are getting help from Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) paralegals in filing prisoners’ motion for release. PAO lawyers are also now able to consult with prisoners over the internet, which has given 3,568 prisoners legal aid since 2012.
2,517 inmates have also been released since that time.
The threshold for small claims court has also been increased from P100,000 to P200,000. Sereno has also earlier announced that 240 additional courts were assigned to handle drug-related cases as a response to the rise of drug-related incidents under the Duterte administration.
Sereno said that all these digital efforts are geared towards having courts where cases are accessible online, hearings are converted into written text through a specialized software, where lawyers and litigants are able to file cases online, and get official court notifications through text or email.
“Wa are aware that our reform initiatives will not take flight unless we address issues of corruption and other forms of misconduct,” Sereno said, noting the number of judges, court employees and lawyers who have been reprimanded and dismissed as part of a crackdown on corruption inside the courts.
One of the most controversial cases pending before the courts today is the Maguindanao Massacre, with over 100 people accused including members of the influential Ampatuan clan. Seven years have passed, but no one has been convicted for the deaths.
Sereno said that with the special expedited rules, hearings of Maguindanao massacre cases are now being conducted thrice weekly, which Sereno said was remarkable “for a criminal case of such magnitude.”
“I believe that we can have a future in which complex, multi-party cases will be finished in as little as two years, whether they be civil, criminal or both,” Sereno said. – Rappler.com