Quest for excellence

Views from the Ridge

Justice Arturo Brion, Chancellor, Philippine Judicial Academy

The Philippine Judicial Academy (PhilJA) has often been asked how it can contribute to the judiciary’s quest for excellence through the legal education and training it provides to justices, judges and other members of the judiciary. The question usually arises because other institutions also deliver legal education, leading to the follow up question: why not simply use law schools and institutions with advanced law programs to enhance judges’ judicial competence?

I usually meet questions of this kind by initially clarifying what PhilJA is not, and by showing how it differs from other training institutions in its adult-learning approach, aims and purposes.

To begin with, PhilJA is not a law school and does not teach first-time law students aspiring to enter the legal profession.  PhilJA almost wholly cater to those who are already lawyers - legal professionals who have gone through law schools; have passed the Bar exams; and the Court’s screening processes.  This significant distinction alone separates PhilJA from law schools.

One of PhilJA’s training purposes is to update the legal knowledge that adjudication specifically requires; law schools, on the other hand, impart basic legal knowledge to first time to law students and do not specifically focus on adjudication. PhilJA’s training therefore has a more advanced starting line and assumes a minimum level of knowledge that passing the Bar exams denotes; it seeks to update and enhance knowledge that should already be there.  It also has a fixed purpose – the application of legal knowledge, skills and values to adjudication. PhilJA acts on this purpose through an expanded training coverage while being more focused and intense on the included details.

PhilJA, additionally, has a scarcely hidden motive - to awaken, develop and enhance in the members of the judiciary the yearning for inquiry in facing daily challenges; the initiative to attain fresh perspectives and to respond through commensurate approaches; and the passion for excellence that results from these initiatives. For without these proactive traits, the judicial system could stagnate, mired in the thought that it is responding as well as it has done in the past; if it ain’t broke, why fix it, as some would say. For others, current favorable survey results are good enough.

People with these mindsets forget that favorable public perception is fickle and is usually based on the challenges, standards and achievements of the past.  These people gloss over the possibility that ill winds could always blow with new challenges impervious old effective responses.

Knowledge by itself could also become stale and useless if not applied and transformed into skills that are consistently honed through frequent use. On this thought, PhilJA has consciously gone beyond pure knowledge by additionally focusing on imparting skills, i.e., in applying knowledge rather than simply imparting it, and in teaching new and improved ways of undertaking judicial tasks. It now thus balances the knowledge portion of its sessions with skills training.

As has been an oft-repeated example, writing (a basic skill that every judge or justice should have) cannot simply be taught through good grammar and effective writing lectures. Except for the gifted few, writing is a developed skill; its elevation to the level of an arts depends on constant practice, practice and more practice.

This means less lectures on theoretical writing principles, and more focus on actual on-site writing exercises and take-home writing assignments. In concrete terms, more writing exercises during seminars, as well as the post-seminar submission of on-the-job written communications and decisions. Similarly, in developing trial handling skills, PhilJA would soon begin using actual or simulated trial videos, and mock trials approximating actual court realities.

PhilJA now also seeks to encourage good writing by motivating people to reach out beyond their workplace through outside reading.  Its current mantra is for people to read, read and read. Materials outside of judges’ usual court materials can be rich sources of new writing styles, approaches and information that a judge needs in adjudication and court administration.

Similarly, effective trials are not conducted based solely on mastery of procedures and the rules of evidence. While such mastery is critical, a judge must also know from experience, observation, and gathered outside information how people in the real world react to and interact with one another; beyond the rules of procedure, trials involve sensitivity to and awareness of the larger world outside.

Judges do not likewise resolve or simply dispose of their assigned court cases.  They dispense justice based on the evidence and the law, using their legal knowledge and skills.  Beyond these and often overlooked, judges need guiding ethical principles and values, deeply imbedded within each one, to enable them to be procedurally and substantively fair.

This sense of fairness is not solely derived from law school lectures on ethics and fairness, or from knowledge of fairness standards; fairness is a deep-seated sense based more on internal values that start to be implanted from early childhood, in the home. These are the values – a system of values, in fact - that PhilJA seeks to support, encourage, nourish, improve on and maintain through legal education and training, in cooperation with other judicial authorities, under the direction of the Court en banc.

In PhilJA’s view, this package of knowledge, skills, ethical values, delivered deliberately, consistently, and with excellence as the conscious aim, cannot but lead in time to the higher level of excellence the judiciary aspires for.