Some courts to reopen May 4, but senior judges, lawyers can’t just return
MANILA, Philippines — After seven weeks on lockdown, courts will partially reopen next week in areas where restrictions to control COVID-19 have been eased from “enhanced” to “general” community quarantine.
The Supreme Court, however, limited the movement of courtroom judges, staff members and even lawyers who are at least 60 years old and have medical conditions as they are considered vulnerable to the coronavirus disease.
In a circular issued on Monday, Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta said courts in areas under general community quarantine (GCQ) would reopen starting May 4, with a skeleton staff to assist judges who would act only on “urgent matters” involving the release or temporary liberty of detainees.
The courts will be open only from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Night courts and Saturday courts will remain suspended until May 15.
Judges and court staff members, who are senior citizens and have medical conditions, may go to the courts only “in exceptional circumstances” to act on urgent matters, said Peralta, a senior citizen himself at 68 years old.
“Otherwise they shall work from their respective residences e.g., draft orders and decisions, do legal research, transcribe stenographic notes etc., but no court records may be taken out of the court,” the chief magistrate said in his order.
Lawyers who are at least 60 years old may appear in court on urgent matters, except “those suffering from any illness, or those who appear sickly and weak,” Peralta said.
He encouraged the elderly lawyers to ask junior colleagues to appear for them in court with their tasks “limited to urgent matters and not for the trial proper.”
Face masks, distancing
Only people with official business in the courts will be allowed entry.
On court premises, everyone has to observe health protocols, including the wearing of face masks, social distancing, temperature checks, and regular hand-washing and disinfection, according to Peralta.
Since court hearings even in the GCQ areas will remain suspended until May 15, Peralta said “judges in the GCQ areas, in the exercise of their sound discretion, may set for hearing other urgent matters or concerns to expedite the proceedings or the disposition of the cases pending before the courts.”
Email petitions, e-inquests
A previous circular directed the physical closure of courts in Metro Manila and surrounding provinces, as well as those in other provinces under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) until May 15, and the judges and skeleton court staffs to attend to “urgent” matters by appointment.
On March 31, the Supreme Court for the first time allowed courts to receive and resolve complaints for criminal charges and petitions for bail by email during the lockdown to further reduce the need for court staff to physically travel to their stations.
That week, government prosecutors were also allowed to hold “e-inquests” or electronic online inquests and to file criminal complaints and submit evidence to the courts by email.
The digital court procedure shall be in effect only during the public health emergency, the Supreme Court said. INQ
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