By Rey Panaligan
Starting Friday, March 13, all hearings in all courts in the country, from the Supreme Court (SC) to the lowest trial court, are suspended until March 18.
Aside from the SC, covered by the suspension are the Court of Appeals (CA), Sandiganbayan, Court of Tax Appeals (CTA), regional trial courts (RTCs), metropolitan trial courts (MeTCs), metropolitan trial courts in cities (MTCCs), municipal trial court (MTCs), municipal circuit trial courts (MCTCs), and the Shari’a courts.
While court hearings are suspended, justices, judges, and court personnel are required to report to their offices and perform their mandated tasks as directed in an earlier circular issued by Chief Justice Diosdado M. Peralta.
Peralta ordered the suspension of hearings in the trial courts as a safeguard against the spread of COVID-19.
The suspension was ordered based on the recommendation of the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) which supervises all lower courts for the SC.
During the period of suspension of hearings, justices and judges are directed to reset the hearings and inform the parties of the new schedule, disinfect court premises, issue orders and decisions, and act on pending matters before their courts.
They were also ordered to continue with their report to OCA on “any development or circumstance regarding the spread of COVID-19.”
Earlier, Chief Justice Peralta directed trial court judges and personnel to limit access to the halls of justice and court rooms all over the country only to persons “with official business in the courts.”
In an administrative circular, Peralta said the directive was issued in response to the growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country.
Peralta said his office “is closely monitoring the situation nationwide and further advisories shall be issued as may be deemed fit.”
Judges were directed “to monitor the conditions of their personnel and workplaces to avert the spread or threat of COVID-19 in the halls of justice and court rooms” and to submit reports “for proper assessment, monitoring, and management.”
“While the health and welfare of everyone is primordial, we, as public servants, have a mandate to perform,” Peralta stressed in his circular.
Among the directives in the circular are:
- All those entering the halls of justice must be subjected to no-contact thermal scanning and those suffering from fever, flu, colds, and cough will be denied entry.
- All court users – including lawyers, parties, and witnesses in cases – are required to fill up a declaration form that contains, among other things, their identities, contact numbers, email address, home address, and declaration of illness for the past 14 days.
- After the hearings, persons deprived of liberty should be immediately brought back to their detention facilities.
- Unessential meetings and gatherings must be reset.
- Court premises and common areas, including frequently touched fixtures like bundy machines, door knobs and handles, switches, toilet bowls, and elevator buttons must be sanitized daily.
- Court rooms must be adequately and properly ventilated.
- Personnel who are required to go on mandatory quarantine and those availing themselves of voluntary quarantine are covered by existing guidelines for availment of leave privileges.
At the same time, Peralta directed judges and court personnel to “exercise caution and prudence in sharing, forwarding, or disseminating unverified or inaccurate news regarding the spread of COVID-19 which only tend to cause unnecessary fear and panic.”