The Supreme Court is at the apex of the judiciary, one of the three co-equal branches of a thriving democracy. The President as the Chief Executive is the highest official of the land. The leaders of the legislative branch — the Senate President and the House Speaker — are next in the hierarchy of succession after the Vice President. The Chief Justice, leader of the judiciary, follows. Among the three branches, the judiciary — by dint of the nature of its function — is least exposed to the public, unlike the leaders of the executive and the legislative branches who are elected through popular vote of the citizenry.
As the Supreme Court marked its 121st anniversary last week, Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo announced a five-year Strategic Plan for Judicial Innovations 2022-2027 that is anchored on four guiding principles, namely: timely and fair delivery of justice, transparency and accountability, equality and inclusion, and adaptability to technology. From these principles emanate three target outcomes: efficiency, innovation and access.
Efficiency shall be improved through organizational review and restructuring in the judiciary. Also to be pursued are programs on enhancing the physical and well-being of officials and employees and strengthening ethical responsibility.
Innovation involves the introduction of new paradigms and concepts exemplified by, among others: the path finding writs of amparo, kalikasan and habeas data; the first-ever regionalized and digitalized conduct of the bar examinations to overcome the restrictions arising from the coronavirus pandemic; and bench books on family courts and commercial courts.
Access pertains to continuing efforts to bring judicial services closer to the public. For example, justice zones have been established in Quezon City, Davao City, Bacolod City, Naga City, Angeles City, and Calamba City covering the National Capital Region, Davao Region, Western Visayas, Central Luzon and Calabarzon, respectively. In these zones, there is active coordination among the pillars of the justice system, including the prosecutorial arm, the courts and the corrections system in order to ensure a faster disposition of cases.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the judiciary responded to the crippling effects of successive community quarantine episodes by shifting to technology-based platforms. Videoconferencing of hearings of criminal cases was pilot-tested in several courts. Within a nine-month period from May 2020 to January 2021, some 27,000 courts throughout the country conducted an estimated 170,000 hearings via teleconferencing. The Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) reports that congestion of local jails was eased significantly — while complying with the norm of physical distancing — as these virtual hearings facilitated the release of around 81,000 persons deprived of liberty. Corollary improvement measures such as e-filing of complaints and petitions for bail and e-payment of fees facilitated the resolution of pending cases.
Digital transformation is the key driver of the strategic innovations as envisioned by Chief Justice Gesmundo.
The experience of South Korea provides a good model. Back in 1986, it launched a case management system on a digital platform that enabled judges and court clerks to conduct research on a computerized database. A master plan was then developed for creating e-courts. The case management system shifted from one based on a centralized server to a web-based system allowing external users to conduct research through a web browser. The system was further enhanced with electronic signatures and digital certificates for data safety. Significant savings were realized and e-courts also helped level the playing field between small and large law firms, as small firms have smaller staff and leaner budgets. Public information is also enhanced with the publication of cases in the e-court system.
The Korean case management system includes the following features: docket system, case allocation system, case filing system, calendaring system, service system, payment system, deposit system, case files archiving, and common service system. The Judge support system includes the case workflow system, groupware, decision support system, and law search. The e-courts system has two main components, electronic case filing (ECF) and the e-courtroom. The public information service includes: the court homepage, case information, certificate issuance, law search, and a self-help center.
Malaysia, a country whose gross national product and income per capita is half that of South Korea, also embarked on an ambitious court computerization program in 2008. Rwanda and Tanzania, countries whose per capita income are lower than that of the Philippines, have also embarked on similar initiatives.
Justice delayed is justice denied. Hence, the strategic objective of providing equal access to justice in real time is imperative in ensuring the attainment of Chief Justice Gesmundo’s goal to “remold and transform the courts into consistently efficient and accountable havens for the disadvantaged, the wronged, and the injured.”