‘Real-time justice’ moves litigants, lawyers to cry for joy
In a country where the delivery of justice is notoriously slow, surprised lawyers are taking selfies with orders instantly issued in court.
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on Thursday talked about how some lawyers pose for photos holding up orders printed out and signed by the judge within minutes of promulgation in open court, an indicator of reform slowly taking place in the Philippine justice system.
It is what the country’s chief magistrate described as “real-time justice,” the ideal kind of justice that she said she hoped would become the rule, instead of the exception, in the Philippines.
“It is as dramatic as saying justice can indeed be real-time,” Sereno told a panel of select journalists in her annual press conference.
“Just imagine the shock of lawyers receiving [copies of] orders minutes after [promulgation] in court. It is not a surprise that lawyers take selfies [with the court orders],” she said.
With such speed, lawyers can also quickly “collect their appearance fee,” Sereno said.
Goodbye, snail mail
Usually, it could take at least two months for a party to receive a copy of even the simplest court order, Sereno said, as it takes time for one to be drafted, approved then signed by the judge, and then delivered via snail mail.
Sharing another story, Sereno described an automated hearing held at Davao City Regional Trial Court, where a detainee was readily released upon the judge’s order.
“[A] longtime detainee was ordered released from detention and [freed] right there and then, the order dismissing his case being printed, signed and served in a matter of minutes,” Sereno said.
“It so shocked the family that within minutes that a judge pronounced the order, the order for release was given. The surprise was so deep that not only the accused [cried] in court [but also] his family. [T]he lawyers and the court employees [cried] as well,” she said.
For the Chief Justice, it was proof that speedy delivery of justice “can be done.”
Automation of processes
“I believe this is the kind of justice that our people deserve. I am appealing to all our [countrymen]: The fight for justice is a very long one, and it can be very detailed, it can go down to the nitty-gritty because high ideals and motherhood slogans are not enough to bring justice to our people,” she said.
Since her appointment in 2012, Sereno has been leading a reform program that involves automation of court processes, marathon trials and deployment of mobile courts to decongest the dockets, among other improvements.
“This means that during trial, every activity is captured electronically, right there and then, including orders issued by the judge, minutes of the hearing conducted, judges’ notes on testimony taken, markings of evidence, issuance of writs and other court processes,” Sereno said.
“This is done by linking together the computers of the judge, stenographer and interpreters to allow all individuals to view and edit [in real time] the documents being prepared,” she said.
Currently up to 100 courts in Quezon City, Angeles City, Tacloban City, Lapu-Lapu City and Davao City can instantly release orders.
In these courts, judges have not just their gavels on the bench, but also laptops for immediate encoding of court orders. Nearby are printers for the immediate printing of documents following proceedings, Sereno said.
The judiciary aims to introduce automated hearings, or the transformation of “the entire courtroom into an automated trial forum,” in all Metro Manila courts by 2016, she said.
“While we have only begun to scratch the surface in addressing all the concerns before us, I am heartened to hear stories from judges, lawyers and litigants [about] how our efforts have directly affected their lives,” Sereno said.
The conduct of automated hearings is an “offshoot” of the electronic court (e-court) project, a computer-based case management system under which case information is encoded upon filing, along with subsequent pleadings and court issuances (decisions and writs) throughout the proceedings.
Through e-courts, the assessment of court fees, docketing and case raffling are done electronically. The status of cases are also tracked.
As of this month, there are 82 e-courts across the country, including the courts in Quezon City, Angeles City, Lapu-Lapu City and Tacloban City, Sereno said.
Later this year, 85 more e-courts will be launched in Davao City, Cebu City and Makati City, she said.
By next year, 120 more will become operational in Manila, Pasig City and Mandaluyong City, bringing to 287 the number of trial courts implementing the system.
Sereno said this figure would account for 30 percent of the total case load of Philippine courts.
The judiciary’s Nationwide Connectivity Project, which aims to provide Internet connection to the country’s courts, is also under way.
Sereno said bidding has begun for the first phase of the project, which would cover the 10 above-mentioned cities targeted for e-court implementation by next year.
“For the first time, this would provide genuine reliable connectivity in our courts [so that there will be] no reason for any delay for any court process or reporting,” Sereno said.
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