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Brainstorm: The Next Generation | Judge-at-large

The enactment into law of Republic Act No. 11459 or “The Judges-at-Large Act of 2019” has been making the rounds in news sites and social media but many only have a vague idea, or no idea at all, what this is all about.

To begin with, our trial courts, the Regional Trial Courts and the Municipal Trial Courts (including Metropolitan Trial Courts and the oddly named Municipal Trial Courts in Cities), have severely congested case dockets which means that each of these courts has way too many cases to handle to the extent that it actually makes it nearly impossible for the presiding judges to properly perform their jobs.

Let me put it this way, in the Regional Trial Courts of Davao City alone, an average of 118 new cases are filed each week which will be shared by only 14 RTCs. The question is whether or not it is physically possible for the judges to dispose of the same number of cases each week just to maintain an even balance in the number of active cases.

Add to this the fact that the rules require the judges to hold hearings every morning and afternoon and to reserve Fridays for motions and other incidental hearings, as well as the administrative functions they are also expected to accomplish, and you will end up with the conclusion that it is virtually impossible for the judges to keep up with what they are supposed to do.

While I know a few extraordinarily efficient judges who have managed to tame their growing caseloads, the reality is that doing so is simply a Herculean task.

Why is this so? The fact is that we have too few courts to service a population that is growing too fast. The basic number of trial courts in the country was established in 1981 when Batas Pambansa Blg. 129 took effect when the country’s population was around 49 million people. At present, that population has more than doubled to an estimated 108 million people while relatively only a few courts have been added.

While it seems easy for Filipinos to add to our population, adding courts is an entirely different matter. It literally takes an act of Congress to add courts and they can only do so after taking into consideration the availability of funds to support the infrastructure, equipment and human resources necessary for each new court and, even if such new courts are created, it takes a long time for them to actually be in place and functioning.

In Davao City, for example, we have three new courts without any permanent place to put them in. Right now, the staff members of all three courts are jammed into a single room while they only have one courtroom to share. Thus, the judges of these courts are forced to “borrow” the courtrooms of other courts just to be able to hold hearings.

To be clear about it, it is not like the legal community of Davao City has not been doing anything about it. The fact is that the judiciary of Davao City, together with our local government and members of Congress, as well as the local chapter of the IBP have been exerting a lot of effort to try and follow up the erection of an additional building to house these new courts with the Supreme Court. Sadly, so far, only the furniture have arrived with nowhere to put them in.

This is the situation, we have too few courts to service too large a population that generates too many cases for the courts to handle which is made worse by the fact that, there are many vacant courts all over the country whose presiding judges have either retired or died, probably from some form of overexertion.

It is unjust, unfair and undeserved when the slow judicial system is blamed on the judges. The fact is that they are the most overworked cogs in the judicial machine.

This is where the “Judges-at-Large” law comes in. The law basically creates a pool of 150 judges (100 RTC and 50 MTC) that the Supreme Court can temporarily assign to preside over vacant courts or assist the presiding judge of courts with extraordinarily clogged dockets, all over the country. Thereafter, these judges will be appointed to permanent stations upon the recommendation of the Judicial and Bar Council. Simply put, the law creates a kind of “Judicial Rescue Squad”.

In my personal view, while this should prove to be a very welcome assistance in trying to de-clog our court dockets, it will still just be a palliative measure.

The mathematical problem is still there, too few courts for too large a population and there are only three possible long-term solutions to this.

First, to add more courts, which is expensive, second, to somehow reduce the population, which is difficult because Filipinos enjoy adding to it too much, and, finally, to find some ways to stem, or lessen, the cases that reach our courts which is also known as “alternative dispute resolution”, which is already being tried with some success such as the Barangay Conciliation System and the Philippine Mediation Center.

Other forms of ADR could possibly be the solution. Maybe training our policemen, who are usually among the first to be consulted when there are disputes, in mediation and conciliation techniques is a possibility.

If only we could just ask…. CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?

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