Today is Sunday, September 23, 2018

Reflections on "Reasonable Promptness" In Disposition of Cases

By J. Martin S. Villarama, Jr.

The New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary mandates the performance of all judicial duties, including the delivery of reserved decisions, efficiently, fairly and with reasonable promptness. These judicial duties take precedence over all other activities. The SC thus declared that other “administrative assignments” such as organizing special events in the court, will not excuse prolonged delay in the disposition of cases since “decision-making is the primordial and most important duty of a member of the judiciary.” The public’s faith and confidence in the judicial system depends, to a large extent, on the judicious and prompt disposition of cases and other matters pending before the courts.  Administrative liability for non-compliance with the time line for rendition of judgments and resolution of motions set by the Constitution directly and primarily falls upon the judge or justice. Consequently, a magistrate’s work ethics and management style come into focus whenever something concrete tends to reveal it, be it the monthly judicial statistics report or complaints coming from the litigants themselves.

Speedy dispensation of justice, however, does not always elicit a positive response. Oftentimes, only the prevailing parties appreciate a swift decision by this Court. Some litigants are still unhappy that the appeal proceeding is terminated sooner than usual and by a judgment adverse to their cause. Ironically, and unfortunately for us, these sore losers hurl false accusations of “partiality”, “undue influence” and even bribery, questioning the integrity of the justices and court personnel. Such malicious insinuations, while understandable and expected, are grossly unfair and should not be tolerated But the point we like to stress is that the steady progress in the monthly output of disposed cases/motions by CA Justices proves that appellate decision-making within the period fixed by law is not an impossible goal.

In the course of the implementation of the Zero Backlog Program which was launched in the year 2000 by the then Presiding Justice (now Supreme Court Associate Justice) Ma. Alicia Austria-Martinez, problem areas and causes of delay have been identified and evaluated. Foremost of these were the justices’ state of health and working habits, lack of diligence on the part of researchers/law clerks, and delaying tactics employed by either of the contending parties or their counsel. This article will focus only on the first, considering that the primary responsibility of efficient and prompt resolution of cases assigned to the justice is placed directly on the latter’s shoulders.

The prompt disposition of the court’s business is attained through proper and efficient court management. To be able to follow the time limit set for deciding cases and resolving motions, judges should at all times remain in full control of the proceedings in their sala and adopt an efficient system of record management. Judges are expected to keep their own record of cases so that they may act on them promptly; they should not rely on their clerks of court for the proper management of the court’s business. Indeed, judges cannot be excused by the acts of their subordinates because court employees are not the guardians of a judge’s responsibility.

The Supreme Court has reminded judges and court personnel that they share the same duty and obligation to dispense justice promptly and speedily, and that they should strive to work together and mutually assist each other to achieve this goal. But judges have the primary responsibility of maintaining the professional competence of their staff. Judges should organize and supervise their court personnel to ensure the prompt and efficient dispatch of business, and require at all times the observance of high standards of public service and fidelity.

The work ethic imposed on magistrates is truly exacting and requires not only strict self-discipline but calls for personal sacrifice as well, nothing less perhaps than a “personal passion for work.” By the power of example, the Justice sets the work pace in his office, borne not of the desire to gain credit or prestige for outstanding performance, but rather out of a deep sense of duty and commitment to help our countrymen who may be embroiled in a protracted litigation. If prompt disposition of cases would mean less expense, anxiety, stress or sickness for the litigants, and more time and resources saved for the court to attend to other disputes or pending incidents, for us to show indifference and take our own sweet time in accomplishing the tasks on hand, is an act of injustice to them. Hence, whenever the Justice imposes the same work ethic to court employees, the latter are merely reminded of their shared responsibility towards every litigant and all persons affected by the appellate court’s dispensation of justice.

Former US President George Washington once described the administration of justice as the “finest pillar of government.”  Essentially, this consists of hard work by the magistrate. For the administration of justice demands that those who don judicial robes be able to comply fully and faithfully with the task set before them, that is, to decide cases with dispatch, be careful, punctual and observant in the performance of his functions for delay in the disposition of cases erodes the faith and confidence of our people in the judiciary, lowers its standards and brings it into disrepute.  Given the nobility of the calling and demands of the position, it is difficult to measure the worth of a lifetime’s work.

John Ruskin, an English essayist and reformer (1819-1900), has this valuable piece of advice:  He said that “[I]n order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it. They must not do too much of it. And they must have a sense of success in it.” Court management involves time, resources and people motivation. Your Justices may no longer be in the prime of health so by necessity, they have to conserve or allocate judiciously their mental and physical energies. This can be done by limiting social engagements and avoiding unnecessary work pressure by simplifying internal office procedures.

Getting the work done entails delegation of tasks. A judge is bound by duty to motivate his subordinates for the effective performance of the functions and duties of his office. Setting target completion dates of delegated tasks is one way of instilling work discipline. Law clerks or researchers must accept this as inevitable. A retired SC Justice who had worked as a law clerk in his younger days, related his own experience of approaching the matter “scientifically.” He explained that a researcher has to be resourceful and devise an efficient system of conducting his or her research and analysis of the cases assigned by the Justice. I think it is important for the young lawyers to realize that it is for their own benefit to develop “speed” and diligently perform their work duties, especially if they themselves aspire for a career in the judiciary. As officers of the court, they are also aware of their shared responsibility in preserving the integrity and independence of the courts. The enduring words of the famous statesman Winston Churchill could very well inspire our young lawyers to always give their best: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

The great lawyer, writer, scholar and orator of ancient Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 B.C.- 43 B.C.) proclaimed that “The foundation of justice is good faith.” Definitely, employment in the CA is more than just a career move or a means to earn a living, but a privilege imbued with social responsibility. Court employees, including the lawyers, are bound to observe the strict work ethic and discipline laid down in the Code of Conduct for Court Personnel, such as maintaining confidentiality of matters in connection with the cases assigned by the Justice, avoidance of conflict of interest, diligence and competence in the performance of one’s duties and tasks.

Good faith on the part of the Justices and court employees therefore, underpin all our efforts to serve the public efficiently by deciding cases brought to the CA with reasonable promptness. There need not be any external compulsion for this; it has always been there within ourselves. As Thomas Jefferson expressed it:  “Man is a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights and with an innate sense of justice.”

Finally, our greatest inspiration at the moment comes from no less than Honorable Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno, Sunday Manila Times’ Person of the Year and recently hailed by the Philippine Graphic Magazine for at last providing the country with a “moral fulcrum”. His firm yet humble declaration upon accepting the top post in the highest court of the land defines our common mission as public servants in the judiciary: “The judiciary has but one constituency and it is a constituency of one -- the blindfolded lady with a sword unsheathed. She represents justice, fair justice to all, unfairness to none. I hope to be an instrument of this kind of justice. In God, I put all my trust.”

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