The Covid-19 pandemic has shifted the tradition-bound Philippine judiciary into a new direction, bringing an unprecedented change by pushing the Supreme Court (SC) to introduce hearings through videoconferencing.
Seeing the need for the courts to continue operating without exposing its personnel and litigants to health risks, the high tribunal has authorized courts across the country to conduct online remote hearings.
Initially, however, the SC appeared unprepared when the country was put under lockdown. It ordered the physical closure of courts with only a skeleton workforce assigned to perform vital functions such as acting on urgent cases.
But on April 27, the Court issued Administrative Circular No. 37-2020 for the pilot-testing of hearings of criminal cases involving Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs) through videoconferencing. It was on May 4 when it issued the implementing guidelines of the circular, highlighting the rules on how to conduct videoconferencing hearings.
The resumption of raffle of cases through video conference was also ordered by SC. The ECQ (enhanced community quarantine) brought about the accumulation of unraffled cases and the Court saw the need to act on this to allow the expeditious termination of cases and consequent release of PDLs.
More than 7,000 remote trials were conducted in just a month and more than 22,000 PDLs were released during the lockdown, according to Office of the Court Administrator (OCA).
OCA chief Jose Midas Marquez there has also been three convictions promulgated online by the trial courts — a case for qualified human trafficking in Angeles City, and for large scale trafficking for prostitution, and rape both in Cebu City. In all three, the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment and reclusion perpetua.
Procedural confidentiality and fairness
Technology has been adopted for court hearings to continue with less exposure to health risks. However, how does the SC guarantee that fairness is considered in video conference trial hearings?
In its guidelines on the remote trials, SC specified a tech platform called “Platform Judiciary 365,” which has among others, an Outlook application for official email accounts and the Microosft Teams application to host the remote hearings. The circular emphasized that no court is allowed to use any other platform and email other than the said platform.
The “videoconferencing hearings will include all stages of the trial of newly-filed and pending criminal cases, including arraignment, pre-trial, bail hearings, trial proper and promulgation of judgment,” the high tribunal said.
The SC also stressed that all online trials are treated with utmost confidentiality of information. No one is allowed to record the proceedings except the judge, it added.
The details of the online hearing cannot be divulged to anyone. Unauthorized sharing of the confidential information will be considered contempt of court and will be dealt with accordingly, the SC warned. The stenographer is also bound to the same strict confidentiality and is still ordered to transcribe the proceedings and the records must be attached to the case.
In the videoconference trials, the rights of the PDLs are considered and protected, the Court said. They must be made to understand that their cases are being heard through a videoconference and should be allowed to testify and be cross-examined.
The online trials resemble in-court proceedings. The videoconference trial is treated as an extension of the courtroom where all rules still apply. The SC reiterated that “the dignity and solemnity of the court proceedings shall be observed at all times,” including proper decorum and attire.
Online proceedings as general rule
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the national organization of lawyers, has welcomed the tech-driven innovation that the SC has introduced and wants to make it a permanent fixture in court proceedings.
The IBP made its sentiments known in a letter to SC chief justice Diosdado Peralta after noting that Administrative Circular 41-2020 overturned AC 40-2020, which reverted to physical appearance in courts after the ECQ.
On May 31, the SC somehow relented and announced that the videoconferencing hearings will continue in GCQ areas. It also approved the addition of more courts nationwide for the pilot-test of the videoconferencing hearings.
“IBP has been consistently advocating for the harnessing of Information Technology (IT) to make court processes faster, efficient, accessible, and less costly,” IBP president Domingo Egon Cayosa said in the letter.
He said the submission of electronic pleadings and online proceedings would be advantageous for the legal profession. Most courts, he added, have access to the Internet while lawyers, judges, and court staff are already capable of conducting online proceedings.
Technology and future of the courts
Noel Tijam, a former SC justice who is now a member of the Judicial and Bar Council, said in a Facebook post that the IBP is correct in suggesting that online hearings should now be the new normal.
“For prompt filing and fast service, submissions and court processes should be emailed or transmitted electronically,” Tijam said in his post that is no longer available in his Facebook timeline.
The former magistrate said court appearances should now be limited to arraignment, pre-trial, and promulgation of judgment. Motions, he said, must be submitted online and should be heard and decided electronically as well.
Tijam said depositions and modes of discovery should also be used extensively. He said cases which cannot be heard online may be heard in court provided they are summarily heard by limiting the trial dates, number of witnesses, and number of relevant evidence to be accepted.
“Lawyers should now be ethically oriented to do away with time-billing and per appearance billing. Instead, lawyers should be trained to bill their clients based on efforts and results,” he said.