Sunday, February 27, 2005

The plodding administration of justice

The plodding administration of justice

Posted 00:02am (Mla time) Feb 27, 2005
By Isagani Cruz
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the February 27, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

THERE is another disturbing report, again from Justice Artemio V. Panganiban of the Supreme Court, this time about delay in the administration of justice in this country. He says that there are some 800,000 cases now pending in the lower courts, for which he gives a number of reasons, some of them excuses. He adds that the problem applies as well to the high tribunal, which is itself no paragon of speedy justice. (The comments are mine.)

The Constitution of 1987 prescribes obligatory periods for decision of cases by the various levels of our judiciary, 24 months for the Supreme Court and, unless reduced by it, 12 months for all lower collegiate courts like the Court of Appeals and 3 months for all other lower courts like the regional trial courts and the city and municipal courts (plus the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court).

The Constitution of 1973 also laid down non-extendible periods for the decision of cases by the different courts then, but the Supreme Court practically rendered them useless by holding that they were merely directory, being only procedural in nature. That ruling has been nullified by the present charter, which describes such new periods as "mandatory."

Additionally, Sec. 16 of the Bill of Rights provides that "all persons shall have the right to the speedy disposition of their cases before judicial, quasi-judicial or administrative bodies." And Sec. 14 guarantees to all persons facing criminal prosecution the right to a speedy trial, which is defined as "one free from vexatious, capricious and oppressive delays."

Panganiban says that one-third of the trial courts are vacant, owing mostly to the lack of incentives to practicing lawyers to join the judiciary. The most effective deterrent is the small pay of the judges of such courts compared to the average earnings of most practitioners. One consequence is that some of these low-paid judges increase their income through corruption. Another is incompetence or, as they say in basketball, those who cannot play go to the bench.

It is noteworthy, though, that there still is a considerable number of applicants before the Judicial and Bar Council but not for the courts in the less peaceful areas. In some places, particularly in Mindanao, people prefer to settle their disputes by themselves rather than in the trial courts, which remain idle or vacant. Appointment to these courts is considered hazardous and even life-threatening.

In the Supreme Court itself, according to Panganiban, there are no less than 6,000 pending cases to be eventually decided by its 15 members. Eventually may be forever. There are many ways of delaying a case, as Joseph Estrada's lawyers are demonstrating and Lucio Tan too. The cases against the Marcoses are still slumbering comfortably in dreamland despite public agitation to awaken them.

Only recently, I received a plaintive appeal for my help from the International School Alliance of Educators, which was sustained by the Supreme Court in its petition for equal pay for equal work as the foreign-hire faculty. That landmark decision was rendered on June 1, 2000, and became final and executory on Dec. 12, 2000. To date, it has yet to be implemented because of various efforts of the respondent International School Manila to invalidate it.

ISAE president Raquel David-Ching complains not without reason:

"It has been 10 long years (1995-2005) since Filipino teachers at IS Manila took their case to the courts to achieve equal treatment of Filipinos in their own land. The Supreme Court made a landmark decision on June 2000 and this doctrinal ruling has long since been looked to by countless law students as 'the authoritative principle of law that exemplifies the Supreme Court's adherence to the ideals of social justice.' However, it remains merely an empty bag of words bereft of real meaning when we, the petitioners-teachers-victims continue to be denied real-life justice in accordance with the ruling."

The International School case is only one of the many other cases waiting to be definitely resolved by the Supreme Court. Perhaps it might adopt more effective ways of dealing with them, including a less permissive attitude toward the dilatory tactics of some lawyers, not excluding the big law firms.

As members of the reorganized Supreme Court after Edsa I, we were confronted by as many as 8,000 cases left undecided by our predecessors. We met en banc twice a week and worked overtime even on week-ends at home to reduce that number, which even increased with the restored faith of the people in the new judiciary. As his retirement approached, Chief Justice Claudio Teehankee suggested that the best birthday gift we could offer him was to increase our productivity. We delivered.

I hope the present Supreme Court will do likewise, and without waiting for Chief Justice Davide's retirement in December. It now meets en banc only once a week, presumably because its caseload is lighter than ours. With its improved emoluments and comparatively reduced work, it can redouble its output and make the speedy administration of justice in this country a more approachable goal.


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