As the Supreme Court of the Philippines marks its 121st anniversary today, June 11, it goes into high gear in implementing its strategic plan for judiciary innovations from 2022 to 2026. Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo has vowed to “remold and transform the courts into consistently efficient and accountable havens for the disadvantaged, the wronged, and the injured.” Assuring the people of “equal access to justice in real time” is the primary objective; digital transformation is the key driver.
The big push toward digital transformation began in 2020 when the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the courts and threatened to immobilize the criminal justice system. One of the first steps taken by the Supreme Court was the pilot testing of hearings of criminal cases through videoconferencing in selected courts. According to the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA), “27,000 courts throughout the country have carried out 170,000 videoconference hearings from May 4, 2020 to January 8, 2021.” Within the first five months, more than 81,000 persons deprived of liberty — mostly detainees with pending court cases who could not afford to post bail — and children in conflict with the law were released through virtual court hearings.
What began as a response to the quarantine restrictions imposed due to the Covid-19 contagion has triggered a purposive program to reform a system that once seemed too formidable to tackle. E-filing of complaints, petition for bail, and online submission of requirements for bail facilitated the resolution of pending cases. An e-payment solution for the judiciary has also been developed to facilitate payment of fees from litigants, their counsels and representatives.
The framers of the 1987 Constitution recognized the Supreme Court’s central role in the Philippine justice system through the grant to the judiciary of fiscal autonomy. The removal from the Commission of Appointments of the power to confirm appointments of justices has enhanced the judiciary’s independence as a co-equal branch of the government with the executive and the legislative branches.
The Supreme Court is also known as “the court of last resort” for those seeking to obtain justice, as it is the highest court in the country. In our constitutional system, it is essential that each branch of government recognizes the limits of its own power — and this is the vital role that the Supreme Court performs. The Constitution stipulates that “judicial power” involves not only the “duty of the courts of justice to settle actual controversies involving rights which are legally demandable and enforceable” but also “to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the government.” (Article VIII, Section 1).
As the vitality of our democracy depends importantly on the independence of the Supreme Court, we stand in solidarity with the citizenry’s hope and aspiration that the men and women who comprise it shall perform their mandate with wisdom and probity.