There is a saying, that justice delayed is justice denied. Some say its origins date back to William Penn, a writer who was an early advocate for democracy and religious freedom in the United States. He phrased it as “to delay Justice is Injustice.”
Here in our country, it is unfortunate that justice is being denied because we find now that we are lacking in judges who can hear the many cases that are still in the system.
In a study by the National Statistical Coordination Board (NCSB) from 2005 to 2010, the lower courts had an annual average caseload of 1,059,484 cases. This meant that the daily average of cases to go through was at 4,221 cases. At the time, there were around 1,637 judges in the lower courts. Given the annual overall caseload, that meant that they had to deal with 644 cases annually, or about 3 cases to resolve each day, given 251 working days a year.
And then we also have to consider that the number of incumbent judges compared to the total judicial positions meant that there was an average annual vacancy rate at the time of 24.3 percent. In other words, a fourth of the courts had no presiding judge. Recent data from the Senate Legislative Budget Research and Monitoring Office shows that out of 37,230 total positions in the Supreme Court and lower courts, 12,076 positions are vacant. That’s almost a third of the total.
It was suggested in the NCSB paper that one way to address the obviously overloaded justice system was to go through alternative community courts, known as the barangay justice system.
However, this can only go so far, as these are effective mostly for conflict resolution and mediation on a community level and is not meant to handle serious crimes such as homicide. There is also the suggestion that regular judges be appointed as assisting or acting judges in vacant courts, but this would be a challenge for the judge, as he or she would have to divide their attention and work hours between their own salas and the vacant courts that have been assigned to them.
This is why I authored and co-sponsored the Judges-at-Large Act during the 17th Congress, which was approved by President Duterte last August 30, 2019, as Republic Act 11459. Sen. Richard Gordon was the measure’s main sponsor, with Rep. Lord Allan Velasco as the proponent of its counterpart in the House.
With this law in place, so-called “judges-at-large” will become part of the justice system—100 among the Regional Trial Courts, and 50 at the Municipal Trial Courts. In the proposed 2020 national budget, funding for a number of these positions was included in the amendments the Committee on Finance made to the Judiciary’s appropriations.
These judges will have no permanent salas of their own, so that they can be assigned to any lower court in the country that will need an extra hand on deck, as it were, to lessen the case load back to manageable levels. Judges-at-large will have the same qualifications, salaries, privileges, allowances, and other benefits as their counterpart judges who have their own salas. They will also be given “displacement allowances” for housing, food, transportation and other necessary expenses that will be incurred as they travel to courts outside of their places of residence.
As the principal author of the law, I know how serious an issue the slow disposition of cases can be, especially for those with limited access to professional legal services. It’s a sad truth that with some cases, years upon years will pass before a case can be resolved, and that can be a horrible experience for both the accusers and the accused.
I believe that our new Judges-at-large are part of a new set of solutions that will address concerns about our justice system. Hopefully, this will also encourage more discussions and actions on how to address and keep in check the total caseload of the judiciary.
To modify a famous phrase, the wheels of justice should grind exceedingly fine, but let us do our best to make sure that they do not turn so slowly.
Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 15 years— nine years as Representative of the Lone District of Aurora, and six as Senator. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He recently won another term in the Senate.(Email: email@example.com| Facebook, Twitter &Instagram: @sonnyangara)/WDJ