There is another uphill battle the Supreme Court is fighting: its backlog of cases. If the high court has a caseload of nearly 15,000 cases and the en banc and its divisions are only able to dispose of 105 and 923 cases a year, respectively, based on the court’s own disclosures in 2016, how are they expected to attend to them all?
It’s the high court’s biggest administrative headache, and the pressure is growing on the justices to get a handle of it.
In a joint statement on March 29, 2021, the country’s business groups called on the high court to comply with a constitutional requirement to resolve cases within 24 months from the date of submission.
“The timely resolution of disputes inspires confidence among potential investors who can rely on the efficiency of judicial processes to uphold the laws, regulations, and contracts upon which businesses are built,” the statement said.
The Philippines has the second longest period to resolve cases among the 10 member-countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, according to the 2020 Ease of Doing Business Report by the World Bank and the International Finance Corp.
Imagine the injustice suffered by Filipinos detained without bail for crimes they did not commit: they rot in jail with trials lasting up to 15 years as cases move slowly from the lower courts to the Court Appeals and the Supreme Court.
What the high court needs to do is clear, according to court observers. It should filter the cases that reach the justices and digitize court records to fast-track proceedings.
Revising court rules
By the end of December 2019, the Supreme Court had a caseload of 14,790, based on the Judiciary Annual Report 2019. It translates to an average backlog of about 1,000 cases for each justice of the 15-member court.
Lawyer Antonio La Viña said the court should find a way to filter so they are not inundated with cases. This can be done, he said, by dismissing cases from the very beginning.
The US Supreme Court does this, he said. “Their deliberation is all about dismissing 90% of the cases. It’s really about choosing the right case to decide,” he said.
The high court should take only a hundred cases a year, or at most 200 cases a year, he added. “Ganoon ka-radical ang kailangang gawin (Something radical needs to be done),” he said.
The problem is the Supreme Court accepts all cases appealed from the lower courts, including disputes over land, court observers said. It accepts everything from tax law, to civil law, to commercial law, to criminal law, to constitutional law, and anti-terrorism law.
The 1987 Constitution allows cases to go all the way to the Supreme Court, but La Viña said there should be a way to dismiss cases when they don’t raise constitutional or novel issues.
“Sa atin kasi madaling pumunta sa court. Sabayan ka lang ng lawyer, P2,000-P5,000 [lang kailangan mo], makakapag-file ka na ng kaso (It’s too easy for us to go to court. You just need a lawyer and P2,000 to P5,000 to file a case),” La Viña said.
He said there should be a system to discourage people from going directly to the court. Alternative dispute resolution and mediation should be their first options.
Peralta had focused on discussions to amend court rules, an initiative that newly installed Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo promised to continue.
Amending court procedures will not be enough. Fast-tracking court proceedings will ultimately require better management of the calendar of cases, said lawyer Abdel Disangcopan, a lecturer the De La Salle University College of Law, who studied court digitization.
“If you go to a court now for a hearing, your next will be in three months or four months. The court is very busy for a number of reasons. There are many litigants or there are not enough judges,” he said in a mix of Filipino and English.
It takes time to set the date for the next hearing, to make sure that all parties are able to attend.
All this will be easier with digitization, Disangcopan said.
“Through digitization, all court personnel would be involved, including the lawyers,” he said. Pleadings may be e-mailed, too.
Other than speed, digitization ultimately also improves access to the justice system. “If maging online siya, lahat tayo mayroon nang access (We’d all have access if it becomes online), and even rural areas would have access,” he said.
The judiciary has been slow to embrace technology, however.
“Maraming older lawyers na ayaw nila ‘yun kasi ‘yung old skill nila hindi na relevant (Many old lawyers do not want it because their old skills become irrelevant," said La Viña.
“Sometimes I don’t understand. They are still requiring a hard copy, even if you submitted a soft copy. Maybe there are phases to becoming digital,” said Disangcopan.
Lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic have forced the courts to embrace technology.
The new chief justice, Alexander Gesmundo, has set his eyes on developing and establishing information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure for the judiciary.
Gesmundo is tech-savvy. He is considering the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to assist the courts in various functions such as evaluating performances and computing penalties.
He told the JBC he envied the legal system of South Korea, which he had a chance to observe. Using CCTVs, members of the Korean judiciary can see video footage of court proceedings at any given time.
“They can hear the witnesses, the proceedings, and everything, they can even see, what kind of evidence they are being presented,” he said during his JBC interview.
In April, amid renewed lockdowns as the country’s coronavirus infections rose again, Gesmundo presided over the Supreme Court’s first virtual oral arguments.
Backlog as impeachable offense?
The House of Representatives is closely watching how the justices will be able to dispose of its backlog.
An impeachment complaint was filed against Associate Justice Marvic Leonen accused him of negligence and incompetence for supposedly failing to dispose of dozens of cases within two years and act on election protests and quo warranto cases as chairman of the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal. He wasl also accused of failing to file his SALNs when he was professor at UP.
Leonen said the complaint raised false issues for personal or vindictive reasons. The complaint was endorsed by Ilocos Norte Rep. Angelo Marcos Barba, cousin of defeated presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
The complaint was filed while Marcos’s bid to overturn the 2016 vice-presidential election result was pending. The Supreme Court has since unanimously dismissed his protest.
If it’s any sign of how the lawmakers are taking the backlog seriously, JBC member Veloso raised the issue during the public interview of chief justice applicants in March.
“Fix your house and put it in order to shield very brilliant justices of the Supreme Court from this problem,” Veloso said.