Beyond rehab: Tacloban courts go high-tech
As Tacloban City slowly rebuilds and heals, one casualty of the Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan) disaster is emerging as a “build back better” dream come true.
Nearly two years since the unprecedented devastation, the Tacloban Regional Trial Court (RTC) has taken a step beyond mere rehabilitation, joining nine other major Philippine cities in a program designed to take the country’s judicial system to the digital age.
“Yolanda was a blessing in disguise. Now, our courts are high-tech,” said RTC Executive Judge Alphinor Serrano.
“We were demoralized after Yolanda because everything was destroyed. We had no hope before. But now, we can see that there’s really hope,” the judge said in a phone interview.
The Tacloban RTC is one of the pilot areas of the e-court program, an automated case management system at the core of the judiciary’s ambitious P3.9-billion information technology master plan.
Funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the program is setting its sights at delivering a fast, efficient, technology-driven, interconnected and easily accessible justice system to Filipinos, said Michael Ocampo, who is one of those overseeing the automation program.
“Imagine a future where a lawyer can log on his computer and file a case online. Or you can follow up the status of your case on your phone … . It’s like electronic banking. The goal is to build an integrated system so information anywhere in the country can be accessed from a single point,” said Ocampo, a court attorney at the office of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
According to Sereno, the automation project aims to take advantage of Filipinos’ innate aptitude for technology use.
“One thing we know is that Filipinos are quite tech-savvy. Given the chance to be on a computer system and be able to get information and give feedback, they will really adapt to the system,” she said.
10 pilot cities
“If this is something that is compatible with the Filipino psyche, then let’s adopt it. By all means, let’s put people online to the extent that we can,” the Chief Justice said.
Still in its infancy, the e-court program has begun in 10 pilot cities, including court stations with the most congested dockets: the cities of Quezon, Makati, Pasig, Manila and Mandaluyong in Metro Manila; Angeles City in Pampanga province; and the cities of Lapu-Lapu, Cebu City, Davao and Tacloban in the Visayas and Mindanao.
Together, the courts account for 30 percent of the country’s case load, Ocampo said.
Tacloban was not initially on the list of pilot areas for the e-court program, according to Ocampo. However, Sereno decided that the severely damaged city should be included in order to support rebuilding efforts there.
“The judiciary wanted to contribute to the rebuilding and in rebuilding better,” Ocampo said.
Once enlisted in the project, the Tacloban City RTC, which lost equipment and thousands of case files in the Nov. 8, 2013, monster typhoon, began the migration of court processes from manual to digital last June.
Initially, the Tacloban RTC’s seven courtrooms were outfitted with 10 computers, heavy-duty printers, scanners and other computer equipment from the USAID’s implementing partner, the American Bar Association.
Reconstituting case files
The equipment came just as the court was struggling to reconstitute volumes upon volumes of lost case files, with an estimated 800 pending cases in each branch, or a total of 5,600.
“All our records were drenched. We retrieved some of it, but it was very devastating,” Serrano recalled.
“To this day, there are missing case files,” said the judge, estimating that each court branch lost about 30 percent of its records.
To recover the files, the court has issued a public call for litigants with pending cases to provide the court with copies of case records they still have. In some instances, the court had to schedule new hearings in order to take down witness’ testimonies again.
“We are still back-encoding, and a lot of the files are dirty, which could be hazardous to health. But our target is to be able to encode all the old case files into the system,” Serrano said.
Computerization has not only digitized court records, it has sped up other court processes.
Now, cases are raffled off to the handling court branch digitally instead of the old-school tambiolo (raffle drum). A case status may be checked through a few clicks on the court’s computer.
Under the automated hearing system, court resolutions are readily issued in open court, doing away with the use of snail mail, which could take weeks to reach the litigants.
“Our personnel like it, even the judges who are not really into using computers. Their morale is high because work is lighter. And the people appreciate it because it’s fast. The parties, the lawyers immediately get court orders,” Serrano said.
“At least the wheels of justice are now moving. The processes are becoming more efficient,” said the judge, who has been head of the Tacloban RTC for four years.
As court branches across the country undertake the digital switch, the Supreme Court is already laying the groundwork for the eventual integration of courts at all levels into one integrated system.
Infrastructure is already being built for this plan, including the construction of a main data center at the Supreme Court in Manila and a mirror data center in Angeles City.
Regional data centers will also be built to collate all data from trial courts in 700 locations around the country, and connect these to the main server farm.
“We’ve had so many case management systems that had pilots under different administrations, but none were sustained. We found that the key gap was the lack of preparation for a nationwide roll-out,” Ocampo said.
“Can you imagine if the system is not integrated? It’s like having to install the same software for each of the 700 computers you have, and the data in each computer is just within that computer,” he said.
Ocampo said the data centers, a P95-million undertaking, “will be ready by the end of the year.”
The high court is also in the process of bidding out the contract for the provision of Internet connectivity in the country’s courts.
Sereno, who has been pushing for comprehensive judicial reform since her appointment in 2012, hopes the e-court project will change the ningas kugon (tendency to lose interest or enthusiasm) seen in the implementation of previous case management programs.
“The important thing is we must have a lot of good stories about continuity in our country. A lot of us just start [something then fall into] what they say ningas kugon. What if we change that paradigm and succeed this time?” she said.
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