Increase the judicial budget

MANILA, Philippines—I am glad that President Benigno Aquino is open to the Supreme Court’s proposal to increase the judiciary’s budget. Indeed, he could kick off his campaign promise of judicial reforms with an increase in the judiciary’s appropriation. At the very least, he could give the judiciary a proportionate share in the overall budget increases for the year 2011.

Fiscal autonomy. To assure its independence and integrity, the courts—says the Constitution—“shall enjoy fiscal autonomy. Appropriations for the Judiciary may not be reduced by the legislature below the amount appropriated for the previous year…” Similarly, the “salary” of magistrates—the Constitution adds—“shall be fixed by law. During their continuance in office, their salary shall not be decreased.”

Note that the “fiscal autonomy” enshrined in the Constitution merely bars a future reduction of the judicial budget and a decrease of salaries. Unfortunately, it does not guarantee any salary increase, retirement benefits or other perks. Neither does it mention allowances and other compensation. Our fundamental law left these items (salary increases, judicial allowances and other perks) to the sound discretion of Congress.

A long time ago, the legislature passed the Salary Standardization Law (SSL) to rationalize the compensation of all government personnel, including those in the judiciary. Supposedly, the SSL aims for equal pay for equal work.

Enticing the best. Realizing the need to entice the best and the brightest legal minds to join the judiciary by increasing judicial compensation without irritating the millions who labor under the SSL (then known as the Wage and Position Classification Law), President Ferdinand Marcos—exercising his martial law powers—issued Presidential Decree (PD) 1949.

This law created the “Judiciary Development Fund” (JDF) to be sourced from an increase in docket fees of all courts. The chief justice was authorized to dispense “at least 80 percent” of the JDF to “augment the allowances of the members and personnel of the Judiciary.”

Averaging only about P2,500 per month, the JDF, which was based on docket fees set some 40 years ago, has become too miniscule in the context of present-day cost of living. So the judiciary clamored for more. In response, Congress enacted Republic Act 9227 authorizing a further increase in filing fees to be used as “Special Allowance for Justices and Judges” (SAJ). As of November 2006, SAJ effectively doubled the judicial salaries.

Recently, Congress approved RA 9946 that granted “additional retirement, survivorship and other benefits to members of the judiciary,” to discourage judges from improperly “providing for their future” since they could retire in relative comfort with a lifetime pension not only for themselves but also for their spouses whom they may predecease. However, the increase in docket fees and the savings from unspent allocations had been insufficient to fund the mandated retirement benefits.

Unless compensation is rationalized, it would be difficult to fill up the 600 trial court vacancies with competent and honest judges, given that at least 10 years of practice is required for appointment to regional trial courts. After 10 years of practice, bright lawyers already receive from big law firms about P150,000 monthly plus bonuses, allowances, transportation, housing and other perks. To attract them to the judiciary and to keep them honest and productive, they must be given comparable—not to say equal—pay and benefits.

Indeed, it would be pointless to talk of speeding-up quality justice (which I wrote about last Sunday in this space) and other judicial reforms without tackling the most basic of all reforms—the hiring of judges imbued with “proven competence, integrity, probity and independence.”

Inadequacy of present sources. The judicial allowances and other benefits provided imaginative sources like the JDF, SAJ and savings from budget allocations. However, the statutes authorizing them clearly anticipated the inadequacy of these sources. For instance, RA 9946 states that “(t)he amount necessary for the initial implementation of this Act shall be charged against the current year’s savings of the Judiciary. Thereafter, such sums as may be necessary for the continued implementation of this Act shall be included in the General Appropriations Act.” Once all the judicial vacancies are filled up as part of the effort to hasten the dispensation of quality justice, there would be no more savings to speak about.

True, there are other public services (education, health, social welfare) that cry for more money. But what the Supreme Court is asking for is the implementation of commitments already provided in laws. In a crunch, it could even formally order the government to fulfill these legally-enforceable commitments by means of decisions or resolutions, as has been done by the highest courts of other countries like Canada.

At the same time, I also understand the request of Budget Secretary Butch Abad and some lawmakers for an accounting of the JDF, SAJ and other outside sources, so they could intelligently calculate the deficits that need to be funded in the budget.

Finally, I hope the judges will cease their media hype of a “judicial revolt” or “mass leave.” Such provocations could precipitate nasty and unnecessary confrontations with Congress similar to what happened in 2003 when some solons attempted to impeach the then chief justice.

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