'The digital court is not so far away'

The coronavirus pandemic has left the technology-averse Philippine court system with no choice but to adopt, and adopt quickly, with the Supreme Court and its "senior" justices learning Zoom for its all-important deliberations.

The High Court made digital history again on Friday, May 8, when the en banc met online for the retirement ceremony of Associate Justice Andres Reyes Jr. In normal times, retirement ceremonies are held in the session hall of the Supreme Court with a full program and a gallery of guests, but Reyes had to settle for virtual toasts.

"I find the symbolism of this e-retirement ceremony quite fascinating and an eye opener.  Now it is possible for appellate court justices to work from home and only come to office once or twice a week. The digital court is not so far away," Reyes said during the program.

Reyes, who served 18 years in the Court of Appeals (CA), the last 7 years as its Presiding Justice, prides himself to have blazed the digital trail for the appellate court. 

The CA has a data system called Dashboard that tracks a case from filing to promulgation. Reyes said that "it paved the way for an efficient system of tracking pending and aging cases, which in turn led to a significant reduction in the Court's dockets."

'I hope the public understands'

Impact, however, is hardly felt overall. Philippine courts still largely rely on postal mail deliveries, and the centralized database for the records of agencies in the justice sector has just been launched this year. Records have also not been digitized yet.

Then the coronavirus hit, forcing the Supreme Court to physically close all courts nationwide. It quickly had to activate electronic systems, but scarce preparation exposed gaps that left court staff, litigants, and lawyers scrambling for quick solutions, no matter how the lockdown limits the options. 

Rappler received reports of scheduled releases that were delayed because formality hearings were canceled. These include plea bargain hearings particularly for drug suspects whose jailtimes have now lapsed the prescribed periods. 

"I think the public has to understand that this is a new normal on the part of the court," said Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, also the chair of the computerization committee, during a forum hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).

On May 4, the Supreme Court, through the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA), expanded the pilot courts that may resort to a virtual hearing via videoconferencing. Under OCA Circular No. 93-2020, urgent matters involving liberties of prisoners may be heard using the portal Philippine Judiciary 365, which has video conference and email features.

Days later, the Supreme Court ordered judges to resume raffling cases using the same portal.

"There are of course some questions that pertain to fundamental rights that we wish to address them in the proper case, but the point there is this is also something new on the part of judges...so we are building on our own experience," Leonen said.

'The new normal'

The Supreme Court is now preparing for a new normal because for the 2019 Bar Examinations, it lowered the passing grade to 74% in order to have more young and tech savvy lawyers.

"The Court en banc decided to lower the passing rate in light of, among other considerations, the discerned need for more younger and technologically adept lawyers to help different fronts of society as we meet the peculiar challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and transition to the new normal," said Senior Associate Justice Estela Perlas Bernabe, the 2019 Bar Chairman.

The en banc, during a virtual session on Friday, decided a crucial case – to junk a petition to disclose President Rodrigo Duterte's state of health, a first-time test to the Section 12, Article VII of the Constitution.

This was done without a physical meeting, where the magistrates can engage in heated debates, and where draft decisions and opinions could be passed around among them to try and get the votes.

"We have exchanged digital information through secure, encrypted transmissions between each other, so I hope the public understands that that is a feat for the generation now in the court. It has not been easy for all of us, but we have adjusted in order to be able to provide more service," Leonen said.

Resilient court

The University of the Philippines (UP) College of Law released a paper recommending solutions for "building a resilient judicial system."

The paper called for the help of the private sector, through local chapters of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), to provide videoconferencing equipment for litigants and their lawyers.

"Perhaps it would be fair for the IBP to engage in price differentiation to allow more prosperous members of the bar to subsidize user costs to those starting out, with fewer resources, or those providing free legal services such as law student clinics, NGOs and human rights lawyers," the paper said, written by Jay Batongbacal, JJ Disini, Michelle Esquivias, Dan Gatmaytan, Oliver Xavier Reyes, and former Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te. (READ: In fractured justice system, a simple solution: Let's talk)

As for the government agencies, the paper suggested that IBP chapters be allowed to provide the equipment for free. 

"Operational expenses can then be defrayed by the legal community, or by litigants, through reasonable access fees for the use of technology-enabled processes such as online hearings facilitated by the IBP or donations coursed through the IBP," said the paper.

The paper recognizes that the court would still have to have hard copies of records, but noted that the novel coronavirus can survive for a long time on paper surfaces.

"Allow online submission of pleadings to cloud providers coupled with hard copy submissions at a central point designated by the court where it will be received, stored for a number of days, and then transmitted to the relevant branch for entry into the record," the paper suggested.

Halls of justice are potential hotbeds for the coronavirus, especially since it's an open courthouse where anyone could come and go.

Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta has convened senior officials "to discuss measures to be implemented post community quarantine to ensure the health and safety of court personnel and the public," said the Supreme Court Public Information Office (PIO).

An electronic and centralized court system has been a long time promise.

Reyes' pronouncement that "the digital court is not so far away" may just come true, but mainly because the pandemic leaves the Court no other choice.

It must leave behind its nasty history of infightings over the digitization projects – and forge ahead with the new, albeit uncertain, normal. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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