Judiciary touts 'virtual' accomplishments, seeks more fund to recalibrate system

Jauhn Etienne Villaruel, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 24 2020 06:41 PM

MANILA — The disposition of justice in the Philippines must not stop despite the pandemic, members of the judiciary told senators Wednesday, as the institution sought to augment its budget to recalibrate its system amid restrictions driven by the new coronavirus. 

The judiciary went full force with no less than Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta appearing before the virtual hearing of the Senate Committee on Finance to defend their proposed 2021 budget. 

"In my 20 years in the Senate this is the first time that a Chief Justice is appearing to defend the budget of the judiciary... It is a manifestation of the respect he has for our institution for which we should be grateful and should approve his budget immediately," Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon laughingly said. 

Peralta led the roster of justices also present in the deliberations, among them Sandiganbayan presiding justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang and Court of Appeals Acting Presiding Justice Remedios Salazar-Fernando. 

In his presentation, Court Administrator Midas Marquez explained that the judiciary initially proposed a P55.88-billion budget for 2021.

However, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) only approved a P41.23-billion allocation, or P12.34-billion less than the judiciary's desired fund. 

Marquez said they want at least P6.58 billion from that restored as he touted the accomplishments of courts, which had to accelerate its digitization initiatives to adapt to pandemic restrictions on physical gatherings. 

"At the height of the COVID-19 we distributed platforms to many of our courts nationwide... We are very pleased that as of Sept. 22, we have around 93,467 online or videoconferencing hearings conducted by our courts nationwide with the success rate of 87 percent so we want to continue with this one up to 2021 onwards," Marquez said. 

Marquez told senators they would use the additional budget to address connectivity problems in courts amid Filipinos' collective complaint over slow internet speed in the country. 

"We want to upgrade our bandwidth so we can have better connectivity in our courts... Doing away with manual reports, lahat po dapat electronic filings (all filings must be electronic)," Marquez said. 

Lawmakers said they fully support any move to improve the country's justice system. The judiciary has been long plagued with overwhelmed court dockets, slowing down proceedings on cases, thus keeping detention prisoners locked up, especially the poor who cannot afford bail.

"We will always be supportive of the budget of the judiciary... Full support means even adding if necessary because we know the critical nature of the justice system, not only for the economic development of the country, but maybe even for the survival of the state," Sen. Koko Pimentel said. 

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in May published a study warning of ramifications in the justice system brought about by the pandemic.

"As states enact emergency regulations to counter the spread of COVID-19, judicial oversight of the implementation of emergency measures is critical to avoid the excessive use of emergency powers. The socio-economic impact of the crisis will also have significant justice-related implications as inequalities are exacerbated," it said.