Today is Sunday, September 23, 2018

The People's Courts*

By Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno

Exactly three months ago, we gathered around 500 people from the different disadvantaged sectors of our society -- farmers, fisherfolks, women and children, migrant workers, the informal sector, laborers, the urban poor, our indigenous peoples, the elderly -- for the opening of our Forum on Increasing Access to Justice: Bridging Gaps, Removing Roadblocks. On its closing, we pledged not to forfeit even a fraction of time before aggregating the ideas proposed in the Forum and putting the doables in our rulebooks.

A little over a week after the Forum, we launched our new “Justice on Wheels” in the Manila City Jail to inject more adrenaline into our jail decongestion program. In one day, 9 inmates were released, while 4 were given medical attention. Since then, we have brought our Justice on Wheels to Caloocan City, Quezon City, Cebu, Aklan, Davao City, Davao del Sur, and Davao del Norte. On Saturday, Justice on Wheels will dispense justice in Cavite. On October 10, this mobile court will be in Tacloban/Samar. To date, more than 300 inmates have been released through our Justice on Wheels Program (JOW). We have improved our JOW to make more effective our promise of bringing justice right to the doorsteps of the poor. The enhanced JOW program now includes medical and dental services, and so far it has given these health services to more than 2,000 inmates. Likewise, the JOW program now includes expert lectures from the Philippine Judicial Academy (PhilJA) to barangay officials on their powers and duties under our different laws. The JOW now also includes free legal assistance from the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP). On the trestle board is our plan to bring our enhanced JOW to the indigenous peoples. We now also use our mobile court for mediation. In Bulacan and Rizal, it has successfully mediated 1,329 cases, out of 1457 cases for a success rate of 85%.

This first step of increasing our poor people’s access to justice through the JOW has undoubtedly earned the praise and the support of the public. I am happy to announce that the World Bank has just assured us that it will add three more buses to our Justice on Wheels Program. The province of Saranggani will handover one bus in November. Another bus is coming from the Filipino- Chinese Federation. The City of Manila, through Mayor Lim, has already converted 2 container vans into courts, stationed right in front of the City Jail, to facilitate the trial of cases involving detained inmates therein. With this increase in our fleet of mobile courts, we intend to accelerate and complete the visit of our JOW in every province to satisfy the quest for justice of our poor people.

Today, we are launching our second project to increase access to justice by the poor through the new Rule of Procedure for Small Claims Cases. At this juncture, allow me to acknowledge the men and women who have worked beyond the call of duty to craft this new Rule. They are the Technical Working Group composed of retired Court Administrator Zenaida N. Elepaño; Assistant Court Administrator (ACA) Thelma C. Bahia; ACA Jose Midas P. Marquez; Judge Myra G. Fernandez, Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 18, Manila; Judge Angelene Mary Quimpo- Sale, RTC, Branch 106; Quezon City, Judge Maria Filomena D. Singh, RTC, Branch 85, Quezon; Judge Germano Francisco D. Legaspi, RTC, Branch 31, Manila; Judge Lelu P. Contreras, RTC, Branch 34, Iriga City; Mr. Edilberto A. Davis, Chief, Project Management Office (PMO); Atty. Orlando B. Cariño, PhilJA; Atty. Sygrid M. Promentilla, PMO and Atty. Alicia A. Risos-Vidal of the IBP. We must also express our gratitude to our developmental partners -- the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the American Bar Association-Rule of Law Initiative (ABA-ROLI) -- for their full and unflinching support of this project. Let us give them all a big, big hand.

The Rule of Procedure for Small Claims Cases addresses the poor people’s acute need for justice that is faster, more accessible, and less costly. I will not discuss in detail how the new rule seeks to attain these worthy objectives. Let me just outline, however, its main features in broad strokes. First, the new rule covers only civil cases for sums of money involving not more than P100,000. Statistics show that most of the poor get involved in civil litigations in amounts no more than P100,000; hence, we targeted these cases. The objectives are clearcut: resolve the cases of the poor at the quickest time; cut their cost of litigation; and widen their access to courts.

The strategies are the following: (1) establish pilot Small Claims Courts that will exclusively handle these cases; (2) simplify the procedure to govern these cases, so that no litigant will complain of lack of understanding of the process; (3) limit the participation of lawyers and encourage the use of mediation, conciliation and other approaches for the amicable settlement of disputes; (4) transform the role of judges from that of passive referees to interventionist umpires, but without removing their neutrality; (5) prohibit postponements except once; (6) decide the case within one day; (7) make decisions final, but subject to the certiorari jurisdiction of the High Court on the ground of grave abuse of discretion; and (8) use prepared judicial forms to facilitate the filing of a claim, the filing of an answer, the resolution of motions, and the promulgation of a decision on the case. The forms are so simple, user friendly that even common folks can use them without assistance. We have designated 24 first-level courts to act as Small Claims Courts; and the PhilJA has just concluded its workshop to familiarize the judges with the new rule, especially their new role as interventionist judges in these small claims cases.

Small Claims Courts have been successfully used in other countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, in order to help the poor obtain speedy and low cost resolutions of their cases. There is no reason to fear that it may not succeed in our country if all the stakeholders in our justice system would join in this project. For so long a time, we have sat on our hands in the face of the urgent need to widen our poor people’s access to justice. Social justice is a buzz word in other countries, but inaction in our jurisdiction has made it a boo word. With our Justice on Wheels Program and this new Rule of Procedure for Small Claims Cases, we have shortened the distance between our dream of justice for the poor and the cruel reality on ground. There are more steps to be undertaken by the Supreme Court. Let no one be touched by any doubt on the sincerity of the Court to improve our poor people’s access to justice.

Thank you for listening, and may God bless us all!


*Closing Remarks for the Launch of the Rule of Procedure for Small Claims Cases, September 30, 2008, Supreme Court New Session Hall, Padre Faura, Ermita, Manila

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