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The Philippines has the dubious reputation of having the slowest pace of criminal trial dispositions in the world. On average, criminal trials, where defendants languish in jail, last for three years, and in many documented cases, extend to 20 to 25 years, and the defendants are still unconvicted and presumed legally innocent. Despite the abundance of legal luminaries and the placement of the legal profession in the highest pedestals of Philippine society, this recognized problem has become increasingly intractable.
One of the major culprits to this problem is the delay in the appointments of judges, public prosecutors, and Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) by the Office of the President. The Office of the President must seriously consider this as a top priority and, in coordination with the Supreme Court and the Department of Justice, must devise mechanisms on how to recruit, select, appoint, and promote criminal justice actors efficiently and meritoriously.
As of January 10, 2024 data from Trial Court Locator of the Philippine Supreme Court, there are 2,741 courts nationwide. Of these, 2,033 are occupied by a sitting judge (74.17%), 526 are vacant (19.19%), 122 are unorganized (4.45%) and 60 are newly created (2.19%). This means that 1 in every 4 courts do not have assigned judges. On top of these, interview data shows that there could be a similar number of vacancies among public prosecutors and the Public Attorney’s Office. Thus, the number of court vacancies, where either a judge, a public prosecutor, or a PAO lawyer is not fully designated to a particular court branch could be as high as 50%. This is a major problem that affects the administration of justice and leads to tremendous negative outcomes such as the delay in hearings, jail and prison congestion and violence, high recidivism rates, and a huge cost of running the criminal system.
My ongoing research suggests that the delay in the appointments emanates squarely from the Office of the President. In the case of judges, after the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) nominates names for consideration in the Malacañang Palace, it should take the Office of the President only 90 days to make an appointment. Interviews with applicants, however, shows that it takes at least a year from when a court is vacant, either through retirement, promotion, resignation, or untimely death, until a new permanent judge will take over. In many anecdotal cases, judges’ positions are vacant for 4 to 6 years.
Similarly, Public Prosecutors and Public Attorneys, after being vetted by their respective agencies, experience a similar extremely slow process of appointments. In one interview, a Chief City Prosecutor position has been vacant for 6 years and counting. Thus, as a stop-gap remedy, judges are designated as “pairing judges” and prosecutors and PAO lawyers attend to multiple court salas, translating into conflict in schedules.
Interviews with court actors describe the difficulty in scheduling calendar hearings. When a public prosecutor or PAO lawyer is assigned to 2 to 3 courts, judges can only hear cases 1 or 2 days a week. This eventually leads to organizational inefficiencies that exacerbate court docket congestion. For example, to maximize the presence of a prosecutor, judges calendar as many as 30 or more hearings in a day, which practically results in postponements based on “lack of material time.”
The escorts from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), who bring the detained accused from jail to courts lament the fact that almost 70% of the hearings they bring daily to the courts are postponed, reset, or rescheduled, leading to the wastage of government resources and exposure to security problems on their part. Cumulatively, the absence of court actors and the hearing postponements incrementally accumulates, which leads to the inexplicable detention of accused, many for more than 10 years, which leads to forced pleading of guilt.
The President of the Republic of the Philippines has the sole authority to appoint judges, public prosecutors, and public defense lawyers. He must do this efficiently and meritoriously. In coordination with the Judicial Bar Council (JBC) of the Supreme Court, and the National Prosecutorial Services (NPS) and the Public Attorney’s Office of the Department of Justice, the following are suggested to improve the process. These recommendations were elicited through interviews and focus group discussions of court actors nationwide.
First, there must be a mechanism to anticipate the number of vacancies at least 12 months in advance. Using effective data management and analysis, the JBC, NPS, and PAO can scientifically anticipate how many judges, prosecutors, and PAO lawyers retire and get promoted within the next 12 months.
Second, given the anticipated number of vacancies, the JBC, NPS, and PAO can develop a merit list of qualified applicants. That is, once a court position is known to be vacant within 12 months, the process of recruitment, selection, and nomination should immediately start. The Civil Service Commission (CSC) should allow the declaration of anticipatory vacancy and the pre-selection process a year prior to the actual vacancy.
Third, once the applicants made it to this rigorous merit list, they should now be considered “judges in waiting,” “prosecutors in waiting,” and “defense lawyers in waiting.”
Fourth, while they are waiting for their appointments from the Office of the President, they can now undergo training in their respective agency training facilities, so that they will be able and ready to assume the responsibilities immediately on the day the office is functionally vacant.
Fifth, individuals who have been nominated in the merit list but were not appointed by Malacañang should be simply renominated by their respective vetting offices, and they do not need to undergo the same vetting process. Their names should be in the merit list for at least three years until their time of appointment.
This process will be more meritorious and less politicized. It will also be more efficient and effective. It will immediately place a judge, a public prosecutor, and a PAO lawyer on the day a position is functionally vacant. It will help address the problem of trial delays and solve the problem of court docket congestion. If all the courts are fully staffed, it will lead to the faster disposition of cases, less congestion and violence in jails and prisons, and less cost of running the system. It simply requires coordination between the Office of the President, the Supreme Court, and the Department of Justice. My ongoing research suggests that this proposal is feasible. – Rappler.com
Raymund E. Narag, PhD is an Associate Professor at the School of Justice and Public Safety, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.