‘Hustisyeah’ to decongest the judiciary

With the help of the US Agency for International Development, American Bar Association, The Asia Foundation and Asian Development Bank, the Supreme Court recently launched a new, system-wide but rifle-focused reform project, nicknamed “Hustisyeah.” The immediate aim is to reduce docket congestion and ultimately to speed up the dispensation of justice in the trial courts.

Causes of congestion. The dockets of our courts are congested. This is the sad fact. They are burdened with too many cases “regardless of the time lag between filing and disposition and irrespective of whether the cases hit a snag as they inch forward towards final disposition.” The accumulation of prior years’ cases aggravated by the increase in the number of new filings without a corresponding increase in case disposition simply results in a huge backlog.

There are four general causes of case congestion. The first is delay in the adjudication process, which in turn is due to (a) protracted or piecemeal trials, (b) dilatory tactics of lawyers, (c) lack of coordination between investigators and prosecutors in criminal cases (which constitute the bulk of the congestion), and  (d) inefficient case buildup.

The second cause is the lack of an efficient case management system compounded by insufficient management training for judges. This specific cause is being addressed separately by the “eCourt” program, which I took up in this space last June 23 (“Automating the judiciary”).

The third is the uneven distribution of caseloads. Some trial courts have the ideal load of 300 cases only, but most of them are burdened with thousands. The courts in the National Capital Region are notorious for their congestion. Extreme examples are the Metropolitan Trial Court (MeTC) Branch 80 in Muntinlupa and the Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 19 in Cavite which each have—believe it or not—over 3,500 cases. This number is simply impossible to handle.

Examples of MeTCs in the National Capital region with over 2,000 pending cases are Branch 79 in Las Piñas; Branch 63, Makati; Branches 32 and 34, Quezon City; and Branch 81, Valenzuela City. With over 1,500 cases are  MeTC Branches 68, 69, 71 and 72 in Pasig City and Branches 35 and 39 in Quezon City. And yet, the rule of thumb is that a trial court is deemed congested when its caseload exceeds 500.

Most provincial courts have lighter loads, but some have over 1,500 like: RTC Branch 16 in Bulacan; RTC Branches 89, 20, 22 and 23, Cavite; RTC Branches 24, 25 and 93, Laguna; RTC Branches 71, 73 and 74, Antipolo City; RTC Branches 66 and 68, Iloilo; RTC Branches 25, 26, 53, 55, 56, 60 and 61, Cebu;  RTC Branch 38, Saranggani; and the MeTC Branch in Lapu-Lapu City.

The fourth is the lack of accountability—that is, the lack of an effective monitoring system coupled with the lack of incentives for judges to reduce their caseloads.

Focused decongestion plan. Hustisyeah is not one of those “one-size-fits-all” programs. Rather, it required each of the 175 target courts to conduct individually an inventory of their pending cases and to identify those that can easily be removed from their dockets  moto  proprio  without the need to hear the parties.

These “dismissable” cases include those that are obviously outside the jurisdiction of the court, those that have prescribed (or filed out of time or beyond the allowable period), those where the parties failed to submit pretrial briefs or failed to appear at the pretrial, those where the parties failed to observe discovery procedures ordered by the judge, or those where the complainant has failed to prosecute the case over an unreasonable time.

Another easy and fast way of clearing criminal cases is to “archive” or deem inactive those with unserved warrants of arrest for six months, or those where proceedings were suspended because the accused was of unsound mind, or has jumped bail before arraignment and could not be arrested after due diligence by the police.

On the other hand, the following civil cases could also be archived: those being settled out of court, or stopped by temporary restraining orders issued by higher courts, or when the defendant, without the fault or negligence of the plaintiff, cannot be served with summons within six months.

Other ways of clearing dockets immediately would be to refer some cases for mediation or arbitration, or to encourage the parties to enter into plea bargaining agreements that are not contrary to law or public policy.

Systematize process. These mechanics for decongestion are not easy to implement, especially for courts that are really congested and where judges are busy hearing cases morning and afternoon, and writing decisions in between trials.

Paralegals and law students will have to be trained and deployed to help. They can assist in typologizing the cases and identify those for dismissal or archiving. They should be trained to prepare case briefs to make it easy for the judges to decide what cases can be dismissed  moto  proprio  or archived or mediated.

The Supreme Court, through the Office of the Court Administrator, needs to produce easy-to-comprehend manuals and modules that can be used in training the law students and paralegals.

All told, I think that, once properly and doggedly implemented, Hustisyeah and the “eCourt” program can decongest the dockets and speed up the delivery of justice in the trial courts.

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