The year 2020 was very challenging for the Judiciary, particularly to Chief Justice Diosdado M. Peralta and the other members of the Supreme Court (SC).
All other justices, judges, court officials, and employees in the appellate courts and the trial courts also had to face and live up to those challenges brought about by the coronavirus-2019 pandemic.
Unlike in previous years when courts normally functioned five days a week, the onset of the pandemic last March forced most of the courts to shut down.
Court processes came to a halt. Strict health protocols stopped court personnel from reporting for work.
Immediately, the SC – through full court online deliberations and with the assistance of the Office of the Court Administrator – devised measures to have “the wheels of justice continue grinding.”
It allowed the online filing of court pleadings and documents needed in the resolution of cases.
And as if the SC had envisioned the need for the courts to continue hearing and resolving cases in times of extreme emergencies, it implemented the system of case adjudication via video conferencing which was pilot tested late last year or months before COVID-19 pandemic.
At first, video conferencing was adopted in the resolution of criminal cases. Later, it was expanded to cover even civil cases in the trial courts.
Starting Jan. 16, 2021, video conferencing can also be utilized by the courts to hear testimonies of Filipinos abroad, particularly the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), and even foreigners.
Thousands of Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs) had been released either through the grant of bail or in the handing down of decisions on their cases through video conferencing.
As of last October, more than 110,000 hearings had been conducted through video conferencing with a success rate of 88 percent, Peralta said.
Also, the SC, at the start of the pandemic, adopted the maintenance of skeletal force to have the courts operational.
This was expanded with the adoption of a four-day work week that enabled the courts to be accessible to the public and other court users five-days a week, except holidays.
With the four-day workweek, 80 percent of all court personnel report for work Mondays to Fridays from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and the remaining 20 percent take a one-day leave.
The one-day leave during weekdays has been implemented alternately among court officials and employees so that each of them would be able to render the required 40 hours of work weekly.
The traditional practice of flexible time and overtime work for employees had been cancelled.
In his message to trial court judges, Peralta said: “The courts are not shutting down in times of emergencies.”
“Our present circumstances call for everyone in the Judiciary to be resilient, and to rise to the occasion. We have to, because it is our firm commitment, now more than ever, to bring the courts closer to the people,” he said.
When Peralta assumed as head of the country’s Judiciary in October last year, he immediately bared his 10-point program with the de-clogging of courts’ dockets as his priority.
This was because statistics showed that as of December 2018, there were 8,852 pending cases with the SC; 19,732 with the Court of Appeals (CA); 5,237 with the Sandiganbayan; 1,353 with the Court of Tax Appeal (CTA); 546,182 with the Regional Trial Courts (RTCs), and 160,153 with the first level courts like municipal courts and metropolitan trial courts.
To achieve the de-clogging of court dockets, Peralta said clerks of court in the SC “will be required to conduct periodic inventory of all the cases pending in their divisions and consult with the court en banc (full court) as to how to solve the issue of backlog and other concerns.”
Second in Peralta’s agenda is the implementation of the duly-revised rules of court “and the continuous revision of the rules of court and other rules of procedure so as to be more responsive to the needs of court users.”
This has been achieved by the SC with the adoption, among others, of the rules on search and inspection under the Philippine Competitive Commission Law, the special rules on admiralty cases, the amendments on the rules of procedure and rules of evidence, rules on criminal procedures, and rules in intellectual property rights.
Third in his agenda is the “automation of court processes and incorporation of court technology in hearing and trial.” Video conferencing, with its success in the resolution of cases despite the pandemic, is part of this program.
Fourth in the agenda is the “continuation of the weeding out of misfits from the Judiciary and adoption of a system where court may initiate on its own the investigation of cases being handled by members of the Judiciary even in the absence of complaints.”
Already, the SC has constituted the Judicial Integrity Board (JIB) and the Corruption Prevention and Investigation Office (CPIO) to run after the so-called misfits in the Judiciary.
The JIB will act on complaints against erring justices, judges, officials,
and employees of the Judiciary.
The CPIO, on the other hand, will conduct investigation on erring justices of the tertiary courts (Court of Appeals, Sandiganbayan, and Court of Tax Appeals), and judges and personnel of the lower courts, including the Shari’a courts; and the officials and employees of the Office of the Jurisconsult, Court Administrator, Deputy Court Administrator, Assistant Court Administrators and their personnel.
Data showed that as of Sept. 30, 2020, the SC had ordered the dismissal of two judges and 14 personnel for various grave administrative offenses, forfeited benefits of a judge and three personnel, and reprimanded and admonished seven judges and 29 court staff.
In disciplining members of the Bar, the SC had reprimanded 88 lawyers; disbarred eight; suspended 31 from practice of law and suspended the notarial commission of 10 lawyers.
Others in Peralta’s agenda are:
- Strengthening of OCA
- Strengthening of policies and guidelines on the security of justices, judges, and halls of justice nationwide.
- The setting up of a help desk in the Office of the Chief Justice and other offices to receive the concerns of court users.
- Monitoring of performance in all courts especially for the observance of the rules on hearing dates, including the observance of reglementary and prescribed periods to resolve pending incidents.
- Improvement of procurement and bidding processes for faster and timely implementation of projects.
- Creation of a strategic planning management unit “for the organized planning implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of court projects geared towards court specified goals that are aligned to the country’s national development plans.”
Rallying all court officials and employees, he stressed: “To achieve our goals and aspirations, each and everyone in the Judiciary must be guided by this motto: Let us be united and let us follow the rules.”
With his appointment as Chief Justice, Peralta is expected to head the Judiciary until March 27, 2022, his 70th birth anniversary and his mandatory retirement.
But last Dec. 1, Peralta told his colleagues during an online full court session of his intention to avail himself of early retirement on March 27, 2021 or one year ahead of his mandatory retirement.
There were no details given by the SC. But Peralta said he “will make a make a formal announcement in due time.”