THE Supreme Court (SC), through the electronic court or eCourt system, has been gradually enabling courts nationwide to adapt to the advances in modern technology, making information on judicial processes more accessible to Filipinos.
In implementing the eCourt system, the SC initially worked on enhancing the Internet connectivity of courts. The SC, Court of Appeals, Sandiganbayan, the Court of Tax Appeals, and regular courts in Metro Manila and in nearby provinces now have reliable Internet connections.
The high court is now in the process of improving the Internet connection of courts in remote provinces.
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno announced these developments during her Ulatsa Bayan forum held in Cebu City recently.
Aside from expanding several halls of justice in Visayas and Mindanao, she said the SC also procured Internet connection for courts in Region VII, which includes Cebu City.
“Many of our big court infrastructure projects are in Visayas and Mindanao, including the P1-billion Judiciary Complex in Cebu City, P368-million expansion of the Mandaue Hall of Justice, and the P779-million Cagayan de Oro Hall of Justice. Region VII, which includes Cebu, is also one of the first four regions where for the first time Internet connectivity is being deployed in all courts,” she said.
With improved Internet connectivity, about 300 courts nationwide will be able to adopt the eCourt system by the end of 2017.
“By 2017, eCourts will be deployed in 10 cities, including Cebu City, or a total of 298 courts. As of August 2017, eCourts have been deployed to 274 courts, while the remaining 24 courts are undergoing training,” the chief justice said.
Sereno pointed out that out of the 274 courts implementing the eCourt system, 159 are already conducting automated hearings, where court orders are rendered, issued, and printed within minutes after hearings.
This shortens the trial time by at least a month since courts will not be burdened by the slow pace of litigation, brought about partially by outmoded systems.
“In other words, when you begin your careers as lawyers, you can litigate your cases by just looking at your smartphones and laptops. It will be justice at the tip of your fingers,” Sereno said.
The eCourt system was pilot-tested in 2013 in Quezon City. It is a case management system that records all court incidents in an information system that shows the age of each case and highlights pending incidents that require the immediate action of courts.
The system also notifies judges of their deliverables and deadlines as it provides them with templates for orders and decisions to fasttrack the issuance and release of orders immediately after hearings.
It prioritizes the disposition of aging cases to ultimately reduce the case backlogs of courts.
In certain cases, in lieu of presenting witnesses physically in courts, witnesses are directed to execute and submit their affidavits. However, they are still required to be present in court for cross-examination.
Sereno noted that the eCourt system not only helps spur the quick resolution of cases, but also renders courts less prone to corruption as it provides for random electronic sampling and raffling of cases.
“Our I.T. Master Plan, the Enterprise Information Systems Plan or EISP is the Judiciary’s IT Master Plan, will also pave the way for a modern, efficient and transparent court system. Its key component, the eCourts system, is a path to a future when lawyers can file pleadings by uploading them online while in their offices; when litigants can check the status of their cases and view their online case records through their computers or smartphones; when electronic notices to parties are sent via email or SMS,” she pointed out.
“It is a future when halls of justice are not littered with piles of papers as all court documents are digitized; when judges automatically issue almost all court orders immediately after hearings using templates in an app; when judges access all their records and manage their court dockets with the click of a mouse.”
Meanwhile, the Enhanced Justice on Wheels (EJOW), according to Sereno, improved access to justice through its mobile court hearings since its launch in 2009, during the tenure of Chief Justice Reynato Puno.
“To further the reach of access to justice, especially to the underserved parts of the country, the EJOW Program was launched to enable makeshift court buses to reach far flung areas. While it has already facilitated the release of 9,000+ prisoners as of date, we expect it to further touch the lives of many more Filipinos whose life still rests in uncertainty inside detention cells/prisons,” Sereno said.
The reforms being implemented shall improve the justice system in the country by decongesting court dockets.
Part of these efforts is the deployment of 635 court decongestion officers, said the chief justice.
“As much as we can also, reforms are spread out to different parts of the country, in our goal of increasing access to justice. You will see that reforms are being implemented in regions outside the capital, where people often do not have sufficient access to lawyers and courts or even if they have access to courts, these courts do not have the complete resources to do their jobs,” said Sereno.
“The deployment of decongestion officers is an expansion of Hustisyeah, a one-time case decongestion program participated in by law students who assisted judges in legal research and formulation of case decongestion plans. Since its inception in 2013 to date, 62 percent or 32,060 out of 51,825 priority cases targeted for disposition have been removed from the dockets. Hustisyeah is another clear example of the youth’s potential in shaping the direction of our country.”
The SC has functioning eCourts in Quezon City, Angeles City, Lapu- Lapu City, Davao City, Cebu City and the system has been rolled out in the cities of Makati, Manila, Pasig, and Mandaluyong.
“The presiding judge, the executive judge, the Court Administrator, and eventually even the Chief Justice can monitor the developments of a case under an eCourts system on real-time basis,” Sereno said.
“So this is now the public face, and this is the message that we want the Filipino people to receive —that for the first time, a trial court will allow the public the convenience of updating themselves electronically by using [the]kiosk system, instead of the usual personal follow-up that they have to do with each particular branch and with each particular clerk of court. This will save people a lot of time.”
The SC has also put in place the Automated Hearing System, an offshoot of the eCourt system, which has transformed courtrooms into automated trial forums. Right after the hearing, the judge immediately prints out a court order, which is immediately furnished to the parties.
This is made possible because every activity in the court would have been captured electronically in real time: the minutes of the hearing, the testimony taken, the marking of the evidence, the issuance of writs or other court processes as well as all verbal orders issued by the judge.
“We save for every such process two months of delay for every incident as we do away with snail mail.And the public’s impressed with the transparency of the entire system. All these are part of the Electronic Information Systems Plan or EISP, in which more than 20 software application systems will be utilized to speed up adjudication to increase personal productivity and improve case management,” Sereno said.
The budget for EISP was pegged at P3.9 billion. It may be a lot of money, but in the context of the fight against corruption, it is a mere pittance to ensure that the rule of law is working well, according to Sereno.