Speeding up quality justice

MANILA, Philippines–Sen. Joker Arroyo lamented that it may take “200 years” to finish the Ampatuan multiple murder case. Noting that there are “200 defendants and 300 witnesses,” Arroyo may have used a hyperbole but indeed reprised the recurring problem of delay in the delivery of quality justice.

Constitutional rights. Regardless of media’s gruesome reports, the accused can be convicted only on the basis of credible evidence proving their guilt beyond reasonable doubt and presented by diligent prosecutors, in accordance with the Rules of Court, before an unbiased judge. Due process is tedious but indispensable. It assures that the innocent are protected and that only the guilty are punished.

Sadly, due process is sometimes misused and abused. Delaying tactics are used to wear down prosecutors. Crucial pieces of evidence may be lost or corrupted. Witnesses could forget details, recant their testimony or be intimidated. Verily, there are thousands of excuses why a case could take forever.

The need for dedicated, tenacious and competent prosecutors cannot be overemphasized. Many times, cases are lost because of lackadaisical prosecution. But in the Ampatuan case, our people have the assurance that Presiding Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes has a track record of prudence, integrity and impartiality. She is given neither to flamboyance nor to grandstanding.

Days ago, leaders of the Coalition Against Corruption (Jose Cuisia Jr., David Balangue and Evelyn Singson) asked me how quality justice can be speeded up. To answer them fully will consume at least 10 columns. For now, let me discuss a few points.

Clogged dockets. Court dockets are clogged. The Supreme Court has about 7,000 pending cases that are divided among the 15 justices at an uneven rate. In addition, about 25 new cases are raffled monthly to each of them. Thus, to update their dockets, each justice must dispose of over 25 cases monthly, via minute and extended resolutions, or via signed ponencias.

To show how daunting the job of the justices is, let me cite one example. When I began my term in 1995, I was assigned about 1,200 cases. (I left less than 300, all of them less than two years old.) One of them was People v. Manambit, a murder case started in 1978. In 1985, the trial court acquitted three of the principals but convicted Jimmy Manambit and sentenced him to death. He was incarcerated while the case was pending.

The appeal “slept” in the Supreme Court from 1985 till my arrival there in 1995. My instant reaction was to ignore the case because of the dusty, three-foot-thick records I had to read to render judgment thereon. I calculated that for the same amount of time and effort needed to study the Manambit appeal, I could decide 10 less voluminous cases and thereby reduce my heavy caseload.

But the accused was languishing in jail for too long. So I worked overtime on the appeal without neglecting the 10 other cases. Finally, on April 18, 1997, I rendered a unanimous decision acquitting him because the prosecution failed to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Though finally acquitted, he was in jail for almost 20 years, from 1978 when the case started till 1997 when he was freed.

Knowing that the delay could not be attributed to me, “Compañero” Rene Cayetano (now deceased)-his pro-bono counsel-hailed the decision and used it as part of his campaign to win a Senate seat. He accompanied Manambit out of the National Bilibid Prisons without anyone else helping; the latter’s relatives and friends had apparently forgotten him.

During my term as chief justice, we launched “Operation Zero Backlog.” We centralized all cases that were more than two years old into a common pool. The justices decided them with a footnote that the ponente was not originally assigned to the case (and thus could not be faulted with the delay).

Trial court congestion. More than 800,000 cases pend in the trial courts, with more coming each day. About 30 percent of the courts are vacant; the remaining 1,600 have an average of 500 cases each. But the cases are not evenly distributed. Some courts have as many as 6,000. But even the average of 500 cases per court means that, to hear each of them once a month, judges will have to calendar 20 of them daily during the 25 working days in a month. A Herculean, if not impossible, task.

Our Constitution requires magistrates to decide cases within a limited period: three months for the trial courts, 12 months for appellate courts, and 24 months for the Supreme Court, to be counted “from the date of submission” for decision. Repeat: the deadline is counted from the date of submission, not from the filing of the case.

To speed up the delivery of justice, the Supreme Court during my time experimented with the “case flow management system,” a computer program to expedite the resolution of cases through the effective monitoring and strict observance of time limits in the conduct of identified case milestones, from filing to disposition.

Over the years to the present, the Supreme Court has struggled to speed up the delivery of quality justice by, among others, ordering continuous trials for certain cases, filling up the vacancies, encouraging the use of arbitration and mediation, increasing the compensation of judges, computerizing court processes, creating an electronic library, publishing “bench books,” building more dignified courthouses, etc. Each of these topics deserves a full column in the future.

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