HOTLINES and toll-free numbers are making a comeback.

In Brazil, Linea Verde (“Green Line”), originally meant for environment-related complaints, used to get just three calls a month. 

 With the pandemic, the number has gone up to 30 calls per week, with cases no longer limited to environmental justice issues as demand for legal services continued amid lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.

During the third session of the “Eyes on the Court” webinar series last June 17, experts called for the strategic use of technology to make sure people continue to get access to justice despite the Covid-19 outbreak.

For University of the Philippines (UP) law professor Theodore Te, the pandemic should be an opportunity to do “big things” and “transform” the judicial system.

The objective is to make the courts resilient to emergencies and other shocks, using technology as a means, Te said during the webinar organized by the watchdog group Court Appointments Watch (CAW) PH.

Discussing a paper submitted by the UP College of Law to the Supreme Court, Te urged Philippine courts to strike a balance between people’s access to justice and efforts to prevent the further spread of coronavirus.

“We should not be contented to do things by the way it’s being done and wait for the next pandemic to jar us into action,” Te said.

“It’s a good time right now that things are not yet back to what we know as normal, to explore the things that worked and explore the things that don’t work,” he said.

‘Changed normal’
Te cited the book “Online Courts and the Future of Justice” by British expert Richard Susskind, who discussed technology as a solution to the problem of access to the justice system.

Susskind gave a preview of what an online court would look like. Online judges, for instance, decide cases after accepting evidence and arguments by parties online. In an extended court, the judiciary provides a range of tools that can help clients with rules and proceedings and prescribe ways for parties to resolve disputes. 

Te urged stakeholders to recognize the “changed normal” as the country faces prolonged quarantine measures and as the government continues to grapple with how to “flatten the curve” of Covid-19 cases.

Te, a former Supreme Court spokesman, said the high tribunal  Administrative Circular No. 41-2020 on the eve of the shift to the general community quarantine in most of the country.

The May 29 circular allowed courts to operate but with plastic and glass covers to shield people from infection.

But physical courts will take longer to resolve cases as judges hear fewer cases in a day, he warned.

Te noted that on June 15, at Branch 46 of Manila Regional Trial Court, the promulgation of the cyber libel case against his clients Maria Ressa, Reynaldo Santos Jr. and Rappler was the only item on the day’s calendar.

“If this is the reality for all the courts nationwide, then it will be a big drag on the system,” Te said. 

“So, they will have to resolve in practical means such as calendaring fewer cases in order to avoid or minimize the possibility of infection. And that’s the changed normal right now,” he added. 

Transformation vs automation

Te however cautioned against simply adopting technology to automate and streamline old, inefficient processes. Technology should be used for transformation, which is the use of technology to do things that previously weren’t possible, he said.

“Simply saying ‘let’s throw technology into the process’ when the process is not built for it may result in a more efficient way but maybe also an equally less responsive way,” Te said. 

Marlon J. Manuel of Namati, an international network for grassroots legal empowerment, likewise said technology should not become a one-size-fits-all solution. 

Modernization, automation, and use of technology-enabled processes present a new set of obstacles to the problem of access to justice, especially to those marginalized even before the pandemic, he said.

“We need to adopt a holistic approach that will work for everybody. We have to be very careful because we cannot leave others behind. We need to build back better and we need to build back better, together,” Manuel said during the CAW PH webinar.

The UP Law paper presented by Te recommended procedures to facilitate the prompt resumption of court proceedings amid the pandemic, citing gaps that could be remedied by new technologies and practices to enhance efficiency and transparency. 

It proposed a three-phase timeline. For the short term, the paper recommended a mixed approach to accommodate the existing paper-based system and introduce technology-based measures to prevent the spread of the virus. 

A hybrid approach should be adopted for the medium term, involving a transition from the paper-based system with the use of technology. 

For the long term, the UP paper called for a “smart court” approach, which means overhauling the trial court system to make it more electronic, cloud-based and accessible from remote locations. This will require a review of laws and administrative issuances.

Te urged the Supreme Court to craft an overall strategy to make processes more responsive, relevant and resilient; coordinate with stakeholders to jumpstart a change in perspective and mindset; practice oversight to provide strategic directions; draft new rules to facilitate changes; and generate resources to implement the changes. 

“This crisis should make us confront many of the things that we see are no longer responsive and they should be opportunities to do big things. That’s how we make the justice system resilient,” Te said. 

Read related PCIJ story: Pandemic Forces Judiciary to Hasten Digitalization

Global shock

Access to justice has been a global issue even before the pandemic, said Namati’s Manuel.

“There is a justice gap – where many people face justice problems and very few get justice that they need,” Manuel said during the CAW PH webinar. 

The World Justice Project has estimated that 1.5 billion people cannot obtain justice for civil, criminal, and administrative complaints, and another 4.5 billion people are excluded from opportunities provided by the law. An estimated 253 million people live in extreme conditions of injustice. The total, 5.1 billion people, is equivalent to two-thirds of the world’s population.

“The pandemic has widened further the justice gap,” Manuel said. 

Manuel pointed to the rise of reported cases of violence against women and sexual abuse, with the lockdown preventing women and children from leaving home and trapping them with their abusers. 

“There is a huge jump in demand for gender justice services but the lockdowns made it less available or not available at all,” he said.

Manuel also said lawyers in the province had found it difficult to find alternatives to face-to-face contact.

Internet connections are not reliable in many areas, and phone services are not available to all. In some countries, electricity supply is a problem, he said.

Read related PCIJ story: Access to PH Justice System Suffers Amid the Lockdown

Fines, not penalties

Legal groups are stepping up, however. In a survey of Namati’s legal service providers, 90 percent said they were still able to give legal services and were looking at ways to provide services online. 

Examples are the use of radios as well Ecuador’s Linea Verde hotline.

Community organizing and discussions are also happening in small groups, which is being done by the Environmental Legal Assistance Center in Palawan, Manuel said.

“Grassroots paralegals are stepping up in providing legal services to communities,” he said.

For Te, more should be done to overcome problems confronting the legal system even before the pandemic, such as jail congestion.

“In order to help us address congestion issues in detention centers, there has to be a change in mindset in terms of penology and legislation. We have many laws that prescribe imprisonment for minor offenses that can be addressed by a regime of pecuniary penalties like fines,” Te said. 

“Like quarantine violations, we could have put a measure of fines. We need to look for collaboration with Congress to look at alternative measures,” he added. 

Te urged that the judiciary heed the continuing lessons of the pandemic, and warned against automating an “irrelevant, unresponsive and inefficient process.”
“What we want to do is to allow this to be an opportunity for transformation, to use technology strategically and wisely, apply it to processes that will work and come up with new processes that maybe we never thought possible and allow them to work,” he said.