By Kier Edison Belleza
Cebu City – “Change is happening in the judiciary. There is now greater access to justice.”
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno made the pronouncement on Friday in front of mall-goers, law students, and representatives from the business community during the Judicial Reform Roadshow (JRS) held at Ayala Center Cebu.
This was the second time that a Chief Justice conducted the JRS in a shopping mall. She said there was a need to conduct it that way she seriously considers local sensibilities.
“If we just keep on talking to ourselves in Manila, maybe we are not listening enough. So, we want to listen to you now. Those in the South, in Cebu, in Central Visayas, those in Mindanao,” she said.
Sereno said the thrust of the judiciary is to bring reforms nationwide, making tools of justice more accessible to people real-time.
“We have recognized that justice doesn’t happen overnight. We have a crisis of faith in the justice system,” continued Sereno.
Claims made easier
To do this, the Supreme Court has pushed for the creation of “template forms,” under the small claims procedure (SCP), wherein those who claim of no more than P200,000 will only need to fill out the forms prior to filing a case to those who owe them money.
It can be done without consulting a lawyer, saving a litigant from spending too much in the pursuance of small claims.
Sereno explained that those who have accountabilities will only pay an amount of around P500 after filling out the forms and the case will be heard.
The judge, she said, is then given a day to hear the case and that the whole process should not last more than six months as some of the judges will be able to turn around and come up with a decision within 24 hours.
The SCP will fast-track the processing of claims and makes it more accessible to litigants
“You will see how we will stop makakapal na mukha ng mga balasubas,” the Chief Justice said in a jest.
Another move that the SC had been pushing and will be put in place on September 1 are the Continuous Trial Guidelines (CTG), of which SC has piloted it two years ago.
By the establishment of the CTG, motions for postponement will no longer be allowed as it requires hearings to be scheduled one day apart – very much different from the usual six months apart for every hearing.
Non-adherence to the trial guidelines would translate to “stiff” penalties.
Sereno also said that with the Speedy Trial Act, the five-year average period before a case gets decided on will be shortened to 12 months and the promulgation date shall be set not more than 90 days from case submission.
“No more excuse slips are allowed,” she stressed.
The Chief Justice said they are now discussing the mandatory legal aid service for new lawyers. “In the end, we hope to have more and more people assisting those who do not have enough money to pay for a commercial-rate lawyer. Yung mga maliliit po ang sweldo baka mas marami na po tayong ibibigay sa kanila na abogado na libre.”
In line with the primary objective of strengthening the availability of legal aid services, especially the poor and underprivileged, the SC received a proposal from the Philippine Association of Law Schools to streamline the accreditation process of clinical legal aid programs in law schools nationwide.
635 decongestion officers
On the other hand, a total of 635 court decongestion officers have been deployed countrywide to ensure that judges are fully assisted with crowd dockets as most of the country’s judges are attending to as many as 3,000 cases.
This is under the SC’s Hustisyeah! Program wherein they have been conducting a one-time case decongestion program concentrated on 175 heavily congested courts countrywide. It involves an inventory of court dockets, the formulation of case decongestion plans and its implementation.
The record reflects a 30 percent reduction of caseload for Quezon City, where it was piloted.
She added that from 2013 up to present, 62 percent of targeted cases that were put under the program had already been disposed.
“Ang bibilis na po because we have really been pushing our people out to go to the courts to help those that are overly in need,” Sereno said.
She challenged representatives from the business community to inquire from their lawyers if all of the cited projects have been realized.
Judiciary going hi-tech
The judiciary is also eyeing the development of at least 21 mobile applications to support the front-end and back-end process for the entire adjudicatory system.
She also presented the e-Courts, which is an automated case management system developed for trial courts to increase court efficiency and transparency. The e-Courts will be deployment to 10 cities with some of the biggest caseloads in the country.
As of August, 2017, e-Courts have been deployed to 274 courts while 24 courts are undergoing training ahead of deployment.
She added that 159 are already conducting hearings, with orders immediately issued after the session. Before, it takes at least a month for the order to reach litigants as they go through the the postal system.
An Integrated Judiciary Complex that will house regional trial courts, Sandiganbayan, and the Court of Appeals will rise in Cebu as soon as the SC allocates the more than P1 billion needed for the construction.
Mandaue City Hall of Justice will also be expanded with SC’s budget allocation of P368 million.