Rebuild the legal system

Categories: Policy News and Updates

Date Posted: 06 Feb 2015

I’ve said this before but I must repeat it because it’s affecting all of society.

I think one can reasonably say this is a legal system that has failed, when it takes decades to reach a decision—or not. When people can be in jail on nonbailable offenses longer than the penalty if they were found guilty, as they’ve not yet been, as they are still presumed innocent. When convicts can live in luxury in jail. When a suspect in the worst election-related violence in post-Spanish occupation can be let free. When a Supreme Court can decide based on technicalities, not on what’s best for society, or make decisions on business without understanding business. When masterminds of murders never get caught, and only a very few of the hired assassins do. When the Philippines can be listed as the third worst country in the world when it comes to the safety of journalists, and only war-ravaged countries are worse. A country where 25 journalists have been killed just during the four years of this administration, or 145 since 1986.

When … The list goes on.

This legal system is in a country full of lawyers. What are they doing? Do they just accept this failed system?

As of the end of 2013, the Supreme Court had over 7,000 cases pending for three regular divisions (excluding the en banc) to handle. Section 15, Article VIII of the Constitution states: “All cases or matters filed after the effectivity of this Constitution must be decided or resolved within [24] months from date of submission for the Supreme Court, and, unless reduced by the Supreme Court, [12] months for all lower collegiate courts, and three months for all other lower courts.” Despite this, some cases were resolved only after 10, 20 years. That’s a violation of the Constitution.

To clear this backlog, I suggest that the first thing to do is throw out the nuisance and minor cases, or relegate them to where they belong. And here, I think, is a major reason for this impossible backlog: The high court has accepted too many decisions that belong in lower courts, and it’s become an appellate court despite the fact that there is one. The Court of Appeals is where appeals belong, and should end.

The Supreme Court should, as I’ve argued before, only accept cases that challenge the Constitution or can set important precedents. It should absolutely refuse to issue any TROs. That’s entirely a lower-court function.

As of end-2013, regional trial courts had 411,492 pending cases; metropolitan trial courts, 66,716; municipal trial courts in cities, 73,995; municipal trial courts, 35,967; and municipal circuit trial courts, 27,435. In the lower courts there are cases that have been there for 10 years (average) to around 20 years (extreme cases). “Justice delayed is justice denied” certainly applies here.

Some people are in jail on nonbailable offenses and have been there longer than the penalty if convicted. Human rights groups have asked the President to release some of them. He has yet to do so. If they’ve served more than the term, open the door.

That’s where the court system has failed. It has forgotten common sense, simple logic. It has gotten itself so tied down in legal “technicalities” that it can’t see where it’s going. It can’t even peek out from the leaves to see the tree; it doesn’t even know there’s a forest.

Here’s another problem: The Philippine judicial system is grossly underfunded. In my column “Time for a legal revolution” (7/24/14), I mentioned that the judiciary received P15 billion from the government in 2012, P17 billion in 2013, and P18.6 billion in 2014. The judiciary budget’s share in the total national budget hovers at a measly 0.8-0.9 percent per year. To expedite the resolution of cases, judges definitely need higher salaries and a bigger allocation for their staff, office supplies, transportation, and the operations and maintenance of a court house.

Fighting crime costs money, and the courts are just the end point of that fight. The Philippine National Police, the National Bureau of Investigation, the Office of the Ombudsman, the public prosecutors and whoever else are equally poorly treated financially. During Pope Francis’ Mass at Rizal Park, despite the pouring rain, the patient, efficient and friendly (of course) cops did a magnificent job of crowd control. They were given those cheap, one-time-use plastic raincoats. They did not have proper police wet-weather jackets in a city that experiences a minimum of 140 rainy days a year, and about 20 typhoons where they’re supposed to be at the frontlines, rescuing people. And their government can’t even provide them decent clothing. It’s shameful.

Now, before the lawyers and judges rise up in anger against me, or take their AK47s off the shelf, let me make it clear. It’s not the people at fault here; there are some very, very good ones. It’s a system, a corrupted (in both senses) one, that’s been allowed to develop over decades. It’s why a complete revamp, a revolution, is needed.

There has to be, I suggest, a very serious and fundamental review of the complete system, from finding, catching, effectively prosecuting to impartial, informed judgment, to humane imprisonment. Reform throughout is necessary—nay, essential—if this is a society that is to eventually join the developed world. Tweaking things won’t work; a total shakeup, a major rethink, is needed.

What is needed is a reform-minded Chief Justice, that she is, taking the bull by the horns. Establishing a completely independent group of people, both lawyers and nonlawyers, setting a timeframe, funding them, then letting them go. A commission of full inquiry able, if necessary, to design a whole new system from scratch. Let’s finish it during President Aquino’s term.

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