MANILA (UPDATE) - Courts nationwide will be back to full operations Monday after more than 2 months of being physically closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The announcement from the Supreme Court came late Friday afternoon which caught some lawyers and court personnel by surprise, some expressing concern over the readiness of the courts to resume operations despite the still growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta assured the public that everything was all set.
"Yes, our courts and judges are ready," SC spokesperson Brian Keith Hosaka told reporters Sunday.
"As emphasized by Chief Justice Peralta, access to Justice should not be hampered even in times of crisis. This means that our courts must continue to be open and always ready to act on the cases brought before them," he added.
As a precautionary measure, the SC installed 2 disinfection units in its offices in Padre Faura, Manila and initiated rapid testing of its personnel for the coronavirus last week, with some 1,698 personnel, including 5 justices, going through the screening. No results nor names of those who took the test were released.
No additional information was given if disinfection units will also be provided and rapid testing will also be done for personnel in all 2,630 courts nationwide.
In the administrative circular released Friday, Peralta said all courts will be open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Metro Manila, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in other regions.
Night courts and Saturday courts will still be suspended.
According to the circular, all hearings will be conducted in-court except for persons deprived of liberty who will stay in their detention facilities and attend via videoconferencing.
The top magistrate clarified that "videoconferencing hearings may continue to be availed of by litigants in authorized courts."
According to Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez, those who wish their cases to be heard via videoconferencing would have to file the proper motion, and the court can either grant or deny the motion.
The circular however made clear: justices and judges must preside from their courtrooms or chambers at all times in videoconferencing hearings, unless when the justice or judge may work from home, with prior permission from the Office of the Court Administrator for the metropolitan, municipal and regional trial courts.
Hosaka said there are enough computers and laptops in detention facilities and courts to accommodate full-blown hearings through videoconferencing.
But if courts will deploy only a skeleton staff with other personnel working from home, will they be able to cater to the deluge of cases that the courts need to hear?
"Skeleton staffing means the minimum number of court personnel which will ensure that all court services and functions are fully operating. That is what is contemplated in the circular of CJ Peralta," Hosaka said.
Peralta's circular reminded courts to observe health hygiene protocols and other public medical standards such as wearing of face masks and face shields, subjecting everyone to no-contact thermal scanning, and strictly implementing physical distancing.
Thousands of court personnel nationwide are expected to comply with the SC's return-to-work order, although the total number of skeleton staff who will have to report to courts is not readily available.