Thursday, April 25, 2019

Judicial delay; court dockets are overloaded; one-fourth of courts are vacant

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Will judges-at-large solve huge RTC backlog?

Readers ask if the congressional bill creating the position of “judges-at-large” will help clear the dockets of our trial courts.

First, let us review the statistics. As of 2017, over 640,000 cases pended in the 1,100 Regional Trial Courts (RTCs) all over the country, or an average of 580 cases per sala. That is just too many to handle even for the brightest and most diligent magistrates. Worse, the cases are distributed unevenly, such that some RTC judges have as many as 5,000 and some as few as 50. (Averaging only 133 cases per sala, the 1,200 Metropolitan and Municipal Trial Courts are much better off.)

Of the 1,100 RTC salas, about 25 percent are vacant due to the retirement or promotion of the incumbents. Any organization or machine that chugs with only 75 percent of its rated capacity is bound to fail.

As a direct consequence of this congestion in the RTCs, our jails are severely overcrowded. The Commission on Audit reported that the 466 penal facilities of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology with a holding capacity of 20,653 were populated by 146,302 at the end of 2017. Yes, they were overloaded six times their rated capacity. And the overload gets worse by the month.

Most of the inmates, about 60 percent, are just detainees (not convicts) undergoing trials or awaiting judgments. A good number would eventually be acquitted simply because they have been wrongly accused or their guilt has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt. Yet, they needlessly suffer deprivation of liberty and bear the unflattering stigma of having been a “bilanggo.”
To ease this huge number of unevenly distributed caseloads, the Supreme Court “paired” judges with light loads to assist those with heavy dockets. However, this method merely rotated the problem, for it inevitably led to a rise in the caseloads of the “pairing” judges.

Given this predicament, Senators Sonny Angara and Richard Gordon introduced a bill creating 100 RTC “judges-at-large” with no permanent stations, but to be deployed periodically by the Supreme Court.

The bill likewise creates 50 judges-at-large for the Metropolitan and Municipal Trial Courts. I think these latter ones are unnecessary because, as earlier stated, the first level courts are not congested. The 50 new posts would be better deployed in the RTCs. The bill has passed second reading but not the third and final reading.

While the offered solution may theoretically ease congestion, it is, in my humble opinion, difficult to implement and practice. True, the judges-at-large will have the same qualifications, salaries, privileges, allowances, benefits and rank as the regular judges, plus “displacement allowances” to cover food, housing and transportation expenses. Still, they would be considered inferior to their regular counterparts.

Consider, too, that filling up even the regular RTC posts has not been easy. That’s one reason for the 25-percent vacancy. Not many qualified lawyers apply for nominations in the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC). It would be worse for the judges-at-large. Not having permanent stations, they (and their spouses and children) would be subjected to the vagaries of frequent dislocations all over the country.

Given the comparatively low pay and the security risks in remote and rebel-infested areas where these judges would be needed, it would be difficult to lure bright lawyers into applying for the posts. The big law firms and the conglomerates entice them with higher pay, perks and benefits.

The better solution, I think, is to speedily fill up the RTC vacancies which, at 25 percent, mean that about 275 of the 1,100 salas are always unoccupied. With a little more hard work, the JBC should be able to nominate, and the President to appoint, at least 150 more regular RTC judges and keep the vacancy rate to a more manageable 10 percent. Moreover, I think the JBC should actively search for qualified nominees, instead of just waiting for applicants.

Also, in lieu of legislating a new class of 150 judges-at-large, our esteemed lawmakers can, in my humble view, help more effectively by creating 150 more regular RTC salas in the congested areas to be presided by regular RTC judges.

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