Thursday, February 24, 2011

Judge fined: delayed decisions.


A.M. No. 09-7-284-RTC
February 16, 2011


This administrative matter stemmed from the Report dated July 6, 2009 on the judicial audit and physical inventory of cases conducted by the Audit Team of the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) in March 2007 in the Regional Trial Court of Mandaue City, Branch 56, Cebu, in anticipation of the compulsory retirement of Judge Augustine A. Vestil (Judge Vestil), then presiding judge of the same court.

The report disclosed that during the audit, the trial court has: (1) a total caseload of 1,431 cases consisting of 555 civil cases and 876 criminal cases; (2) 15 cases submitted for decision, but were already beyond the reglementary period;[1] (3) two cases with pending incidents awaiting resolution, which were beyond the reglementary period;[2] and (4) 247 cases, which had remained dormant for a considerable length of time.

It was further reported that Branch 56 did not observe an organized record management. No system was being followed to facilitate the monitoring of the status of cases. The court records were found to be in disarray as: (1) court records of terminated and archived cases were mixed with active cases; (2) copies of orders, pleadings and other documents were not chronologically attached to the case folders; (3) copies of the minutes of the hearings/proceedings were left unattached to the case folders and were merely kept in a separate file; and (4) loose copies of orders, pleadings and other documents were found merely inserted in the case folders.

Thus, on April 23, 2007, then Deputy Court Administrator Zenaida N. Elepaño issued a Memorandum, directing Judge Vestil to: (1) submit an explanation of his failure to: [a] decide 15 cases submitted for decision within the reglementary period, [b] resolve the incidents for resolution in two cases within the reglementary period, and [c] take further action on the 247 cases despite the lapse of a considerable length of time; (2) decide the 15 cases submitted for decision and resolve the incidents in two cases; and (3) take appropriate action on the 247 dormant cases within 45 days from notice.

Likewise, in the same Memorandum, Atty. Emeline Bullever-Cabahug (Atty. Cabahug), Clerk of Court of the same court, was directed to devise and adopt a records management system that will ensure the immediate and orderly filing of court records, and effectively facilitate the monitoring of the status of cases and supervise her staff members to ensure prompt delivery of their respective assignments.

x x x.

x x x.

A review of the records would show the undisputed delay in the disposition of numerous cases assigned to Branch 56 which was then presided by Judge Vestil. There were at least 80 civil cases, some were filed as early as 1997, which are still pending as of March 2007. Furthermore, at least 100 criminal cases are still pending beyond the 90-day reglementary period.

In his defense, Judge Vestil sought refuge from the fact that Branch 56 was saddled with a heavy caseload. We are, however, unconvinced. The Court knew the heavy caseloads heaped on the shoulders of every trial judge. But such cannot excuse him from doing his mandated duty to resolve cases with diligence and dispatch. Judges burdened with heavy caseloads should request the Court for an extension of the reglementary period within which to decide their cases if they think they cannot comply with their judicial duty. This, Judge Vestil failed to do. Corollarily, a heavy caseload may excuse a judge’s failure to decide cases within the reglementary period but not their failure to request an extension of time within which to decide the case on time.[3] Hence, all that respondent judge needs to do is request for an extension of time over which the Court has, almost customarily, been considerate.

Moreover, as correctly pointed out by the OCA, it is not enough that he pens his decision; it is imperative to promulgate the same within the mandated period. The lack of staff that will prepare and type the decision is equally inexcusable to justify the delay in the promulgation of the cases.

We cannot overemphasize the Court’s policy on prompt resolution of disputes. Justice delayed is justice denied. Failure to resolve cases submitted for decision within the period fixed by law constitutes a serious violation of Section 16,[4] Article III of the Constitution.

The honor and integrity of the judicial system is measured not only by the fairness and correctness of decisions rendered, but also by the efficiency with which disputes are resolved. Thus, judges must perform their official duties with utmost diligence if public confidence in the judiciary is to be preserved. There is no excuse for mediocrity in the performance of judicial functions. The position of judge exacts nothing less than faithful observance of the law and the Constitution in the discharge of official duties.[5]

Furthermore, the proper and efficient court management is the responsibility of the judge, and he is the one directly responsible for the proper discharge of his official functions.[6] What we emphasized before bears repeating: “It is the duty of a judge to take note of the cases submitted for his decision or resolution and to see to it that the same are decided within the 90-day period fixed by law, and failure to resolve a case within the required period constitutes gross inefficiency.” “A judge ought to know the cases submitted to him for decision or resolution and is expected to keep his own record of cases so that he may act on them promptly.” “The public trust character of his office imposes upon him the highest degree of responsibility and efficiency.”[7] Accordingly, it is incumbent upon him to devise an efficient recording and filing system in his court, so that no disorderliness can affect the flow of cases and their speedy disposition.

Failure to render decisions and orders within the mandated period constitutes a violation of Rule 3.05,[8] Canon 3, of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which then makes Judge Vestil liable administratively. Section 9, Rule 140 of the Revised Rules of Court classifies undue delay in rendering a decision or order as a less serious charge punishable under Section 11 (B) of the same Rule.

Here, considering that Judge Vestil had been previously administratively sanctioned for dereliction of duty,[9] the imposition of fine amounting to P40,000.00 is, thus, proper.

WHEREFORE, in view of all the foregoing, Judge Augustine A. Vestil is adjudged administratively liable for failure to decide cases within the reglementary period and is hereby FINED in the amount of P40,000.00, to be deducted from the P100,000.00 previously retained from his retirement benefits. The Fiscal Management Office is DIRECTED to immediately release the balance of Judge Vestil’s retirement benefits after such fine has been deducted therefrom.