The Philippine Judiciary disclosed that 22,522 persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) have been released through videoconferencing hearings as it shared the spotlight with three other ASEAN neighbors on Thursday during a webinar on how courts continue to function and dispense justice during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aptly titled Justice in times of COVID-19, this was the first of webinars hosted by the Judicial Integrity Network in ASEAN which featured Hon. Sundaresh Menon, Chief Justice of Singapore; Hon. Judge Andriani Nurdin, Vice President of the High Court of Jakarta; Hon. Tan Sri Azahar Mohamed, Chief Judge of Malaya, Malaysia; and Hon. Jose Midas P. Marquez, Court Administrator of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, as speakers. The webinar was moderated by (Ret.) Acting Chief Justice and Justice of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka Shiranee Tilakawardane.
All four acknowledged how their respective judiciaries utilized technology so as not to disrupt judicial work and operations to ensure access to justice, transparency, and fair trials especially during this time when physical distancing is strictly being enforced.
In his presentation titled “Virtual Courts in Response to COVID-19: The New Normal for the Philippine Judiciary,” Court Administrator Marquez took pride sharing how our courts pilot-tested virtual hearings to combat the challenge of jail congestion even way before the lockdown in the country which began in March.
Approved in June last year, the Guidelines on the Use of Videoconferencing Technology for the Remote Appearance and Testimony of Certain Persons Deprived of Liberty, or PDLs, in Jails and National Penitentiaries were implemented and pilot-tested three months after, or in September 2019 in Davao City courts. The virtual hearings were limited to 22 courts until COVID happened.
In March this year, Chief Justice Diosdado M. Peralta, in response to the “exponential spread of Covid-19 cases in the country,” issued Administrative Circular 31-2020, and ordered that all 2,630 courts nationwide to drastically reduce operations and to maintain only the necessary skeleton-staff to immediately act on urgent matters brought before them. He however emphasized that the Constitution and the laws were not suspended, and that the “courts are not shutting down in times of emergencies.”
Taking off from the Davao experience, the Supreme Court, upon the order of Chief Justice Diosdado M. Peralta, immediately provided some 1,000 trial courts in key cities nationwide with official Philippine Judiciary 365 accounts each. The Philippine Judiciary 365 has enabled all court stations nationwide to receive pleadings electronically and select courts in key cities to conduct video conferencing hearings.
Court Administrator Marquez said that these 1,000 trial courts were initially authorized to pilot-test the conduct of videoconferencing hearings only on urgent matters in criminal cases involving PDLs. The Court, however, eventually expanded the coverage of videoconference hearings to “all matters pending before (the courts), in both criminal and civil cases, whether newly-filed or pending, and regardless of the stage of trial.”
Likewise, some 350 more courts were authorized to conduct videoconferencing hearings bringing the total number to 1,350 courts.
Court Administrator Marquez that while parts of the country were still on lockdown, 3,201 videoconferencing hearings have already been conducted by our judges, while some 22,522 PDLs have been released since the lockdown, either through bail or recognizance, or after serving the minimum imposable penalty for the crime they were charged. Such not only freed up space in the country’s jail facilities, but more importantly, eliminated the risk of further spread of COVID-19 infection to the inmates inside the jail facilities, he said.
“All told, the new normal can be justice is accessible to everyone at all times. We just have to embrace enabling technologies that are reliable, malware-free and Covid-free,” stressed Court Administrator Marquez.
The Philippine courts are utilizing videoconferencing technology for inmates to eliminate the safety, security and health risks posed by the personal appearance of PDLs who are “considered to be high-risk or afflicted with highly contagious diseases.” Such risk is not only posed on the accused but also to judges, court personnel, and the public in general. This will also guarantee the accused’s rights to be present and confront witnesses against them and to ensure the continuity of proceedings in criminal cases. ###