The Supreme Court in focus: Towards a technology-driven Judiciary

Published June 13, 2021, 12:12 AM

by Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo

(Speech of Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo before the members of the Justice and Court Reporters Association, Justice Reporters Organization; officials and employees of the Judiciary on June 11, 2021.)

I am pleased to speak before you today—my first chance to do so since my appointment as Chief Justice. This allows me the opportunity to meet you, the partners of the Judiciary from the media, to personally thank you for your hard work in covering the justice beat. I hope that this initial interaction of ours bodes well for our future communications.

I find this occasion providential, for today marks the 120th year since the Philippine Commission, through Act No. 136, established the Supreme Court of the Philippines. The theme for this year’s anniversary is “Korte Suprema: Naglilingkod nang may Kakayahan, Integridad, Katapatan, at Kalayaan.” Although the words “competence,” “integrity,” “probity,” and “independence” are used in our Constitution  to describe the traits of a member of the Judiciary, I believe that those are traits which should equally apply to the Judiciary as a whole— Justices, judges, court officials, and court personnel.

The most valuable resource of any organization is its human resources, as its success is largely dependent on the people who compose it. The Judiciary is no exception; the value of the courts’ workforce cannot be underemphasized. Given the standard of training, expertise, and years of experience of our judges, court lawyers, and court personnel, it is imperative for the Supreme Court to exert every effort to secure the collective wellbeing of its personnel, especially during this global health crisis.

I mention this now following concerns raised by members of the legal profession of a “looming judicial crisis”—pertaining to the fears raised by many that the Judiciary would soon be hounded by the rising number of judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and court employees contracting the virus that causes COVID-19.

Data from the Supreme Court’s COVID-19 Response Team show that as of June 3, 2021, a total of 1,994 employees of the Supreme Court, the  Court of Appeals, the Sandiganbayan, the Court of Tax Appeals, and the trial courts have been afflicted with COVID-19 since the pandemic  began. Of these 1,994 cases, there have been 1,846 recoveries, 33 deaths, and 115 active cases.

The said data also reveal that of the 1,584 court workers who underwent quarantine after contracting the disease, 213 were hospitalized, 33 were quarantined in COVID-19 facilities, and 972 underwent home quarantine or isolation.

That is why since my appointment as Chief Justice on April 5, 2021, the Court has issued a number of administrative orders that were mostly related to health and safety concerns of employees, court users and lawyers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Supreme Court wanted to ensure that the Judiciary will continue to administer justice without sacrificing the health and safety of its personnel. Foremost of these issuances is the inclusion of court workers in priority population group A4 of the Philippine National Deployment and Vaccination Plan for COVID-19 Vaccines by the National Task Force COVID-19, which was made possible by through the tireless efforts of Senior Associate Justice Estela M. Perlas-Bernabe, then Acting Chief Justice.

In addition, the Court has issued guidelines for the extension of financial assistance to judges and court employees who, unfortunately, required hospitalization due to COVID-19 infection.

The Court has also established an Emergency Care Unit at its compound here in Manila and at the De La Salle College of St. Benilde that serves as isolation and quarantine facilities for employees of the High Court and lower courts afflicted with COVID-19.

The Supreme Court likewise did its best to lessen the physical exposure of our court employees and court users by adopting different work schemes and laying down the parameters for alternative work arrangements in our courthouses which significantly reduced the risk of transmitting and acquiring the dreaded disease.

We also granted the requests of our judges and court personnel to allow the conduct of fully-remote videoconferencing hearings, regardless of physical location in the country. As of June 4, 2021, there have been a total of 327,991 videoconferencing hearings successfully conducted in our courts nationwide, or a success rate of 87.57 percent. 303,189 of which are criminal cases, 20,846 of which are civil cases, and  the remaining 3,777 cases being of an unspecified nature. We have also released 90,040 qualified Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs), and 1,217 of which are Children in Conflict with the Law (CICL).

It goes without saying that as Chief Justice, one of my short-term goals not just for the High Court but for the entire Judiciary is the immediate vaccination against COVID-19 of all court officials and personnel. This pandemic has lingered long enough and has had drastic effects not just on the conduct of court processes but more importantly, on the health and wellbeing of judiciary workers. With the High Court taking an active part in supporting the vaccination of its employees, the Judiciary can play a crucial role in coping with, and ultimately ending, this pandemic.

I am hopeful that with the inclusion of court workers in the A4 priority group category for essential workers, the majority of our court personnel will be vaccinated at the soonest possible time.

With respect to adjudication, it cannot be denied that one challenge that has perennially confronted the Judiciary is the problem of delay in the disposition of cases, and in finding creative solutions to address the public’s lack of access to responsive justice. These extensive delays in resolving cases have always had an adverse effect on the public’s perception on our courts and court processes.

This is precisely the reason why among my short-term goals for the Philippine courts, like the other Chief Justices before me, is the speedy disposition of cases.

Favorably, my predecessors, the Honorable retired Chief Justices, have spearheaded various procedural reforms that were crafted to ultimately improve the adjudicative processes of our courts. I do intend, with the support of my colleagues, to continue and move forward building on these reforms.

Just last month, the Supreme Court issued four more procedural rules formulated to address gaps in procedure relating to recognition of foreign judgments on support, on procedures relating to anti-money laundering cases, and as regards the increase of fines to be imposed on erring judges.

As far as the Supreme Court is concerned, what else can be done, apart from implementing these procedural rules?

During my term, I intend to focus on two things: case decongestion—that is, the substantial reduction of the dockets of the Supreme Court—and a technology-driven Judiciary.

We in the Supreme Court have taken it upon ourselves to amend our rules and commit ourselves to make our processes and practices more responsive, more efficient, and more attuned to the needs of the Court users.

In line with this, the High Court has issued a resolution approving a number of amendments to Internal Rules of the Supreme Court that are specifically meant to address the concerns of docket congestion.

Foremost of these revisions are the following: 1) Changing the total period of continuances in the deliberation of cases in the Supreme Court; 2) Prescribing a period of one month within which the members of the Court shall submit reflections, comments, or suggestions, and a period of two weeks to resolve the case thereafter; 3) Shortening the period for distribution to the other Members of the Court of the Member-in-Charge’s report on a case prior to its scheduled agenda date to “at least three working days prior to the scheduled agenda date;” 4) Imposing a limit on the nature of administrative cases that can be elevated to the Court En Banc. (i) Only cases where the imposable penalty is suspension for more than two years, or a fine in the total amount exceeding P100,000.00; (ii) cases involving the lifting of judges’ or lawyers’ suspension only to those cases where the imposed periods of suspension are more than two years.

Moreover, there has already been an effort among the adjudicative offices of the Supreme Court to hire more law clerks for the Offices of the Justices, to help eliminate the substantial number of aging cases, or those that are already beyond the 24-month Constitutional period for deciding cases.

Likewise, my fellow Justices and I have resolved to decide all petitions, cases, or matters that have been filed before the Supreme Court after April 5, 2021 strictly within the said 24-month period from date of submission pursuant to Section 15(1), Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution, and to strictly observe requirements for the proper exercise of its power of judicial review.

Additional proposals to increase the efficiency of courts are likewise being considered. In coordination with the Rules Committee of the Court, there are plans to complete the revisions of the entire Rules of Court by amending the Rules of Criminal Procedure, which have been last amended in 2000, and the Rules on Special Proceedings.

Additionally, as Chief Justice, again with the support of my colleagues, I intend to take advantage of the best technology available to make case disposition faster and continuous.

The initial steps in improving and innovating our courts are the expeditious creation and strengthening of the ICT infrastructure of the entire Judiciary, and the conduct of a comprehensive review of court operations and processes. This immediate review will give the Supreme Court a proper view of the administrative issues that it needs to address, particularly those that affect the operations of the trial courts.

Times are quickly changing and the Judiciary must likewise adapt to these changes and transform its ways to be more responsive and effective in addressing the changing demands of our society. For this year’s Bar exam, aside from it being automated, the Court will likewise allow the online submission of Bar exam applications and the electronic payment of Bar exam fees. The Judiciary ePayment Solution will soon allow litigants to directly pay court fees online using various modes and  channels of payment, such as credit card, online banking, digital wallet, among others.

There are also immediate plans to have a dialogue with the members of the Bench and the Bar to address specific issues that currently affect the legal profession, and to coordinate with the Legal Education Board and the Philippine Association of Law Schools, through the Philippine Judicial Academy, to develop training programs related to judicial track and court management.

This, in line with my view that the administration of justice will be better met if we have the support of all the stakeholders of the justice system. Every stakeholder—Justices and judges, court officials, the prosecution, private practitioners and public defenders—should be made partners of the Court to ensure competence and efficiency in our judicial system.

On the other hand, the long-term goals under my term will focus on the eventual establishment of the aforementioned ICT infrastructure that would have the following outputs:

  1. The establishment of an eCourt System, which will provide a unified, comprehensive, and intelligent case management system for the entire Judiciary. An eCourt System is envisioned to cover the functions of online payment or ePayment; online filing or eFiling; online raffling of cases, or eRaffle, and the maintenance of digitalized rollo or records of cases, to name a few.
  1. The utilization of Artificial Intelligence, or AI, to strengthen legal research, performance evaluation, anti-corruption programs, public assistance, and speed up the preparation of transcript of stenographic notes. .
  1. The organizational restructuring, reclassification of positions, and re-tooling of skill sets that are in line with the Judiciary’s technological thrust. In view of the Judiciary’s digital transformation, there must be a parallel transformation of its human resources. This will be done through the assistance of Philja.
  1. The establishment of a centralized Planning and Management Unit to address the issues and challenges regarding limited access to courts, inefficient data management and other administrative-related concerns.

Insofar as strengthening the capacity, ability, and skill sets of the members of the Bench is concerned, the successful completion of a  Pre-Judicature Program has been made mandatory for first- and second level trial court aspirants. Likewise, an Advanced Pre-Judicature Program shall also be made a requirement for aspirants to the appellate courts, to ensure that applicants to judicial posts will possess the competence, integrity, probity, and independence that the Constitution requires of members of the Judiciary.

These are but a number of the plans and programs that the Supreme Court is undertaking and will undertake for the improvement of the entire Philippine Judiciary.

With the support and help of every stakeholder—especially you, the members of the media—I have no doubts that these plans for a more effective and responsive Judiciary will come into fruition.

Thank you for your time.