Reporting a success rate of 80% of virtual hearings in both civil and criminal cases after 170,000 virtual hearings covering the period of May 4, 2020-Jan. 8, 2021, the Philippines’ Supreme Court has institutionalized video conference proceedings for all courts nationwide.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced lockdowns that led to the disruption of all activities across all sectors, including the government. With the intent of ensuring the continuation of justice in spite of the situation, the Supreme Court utilized Microsoft 365, a unified communication and collaboration platform with Office web applications, cloud services, and security.
“On Jan. 16, 2021, videoconferencing was formally institutionalized, and the guidelines and the conduct of video conferencing became effective,” said Jose Midas Marquez, court administrator of the Supreme Court of the Philippines. “For the first time in its 119-year history, the Philippine judiciary has blazed a new trail by allowing remote testimony from parties situated in even in different parts of the nation and the globe.”
The approved Guidelines on the Conduct of Videoconferencing allow remote appearances in court proceedings from individuals within and even outside the Philippines.
The Microsoft digital solutions are interoperable with the judiciary’s other projects. The technology company also supported the necessary skilling for the IT team throughout the pandemic.
During Microsoft’s recent “Asenso Pilipinas: Building Digital Resilience” Summit, Marquez shared how the Supreme Court of the Philippines embraced innovation to spark digital transformation throughout the 27,000 courts across the country under its jurisdiction.
According to Marquez, the imposition of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) at the onset of the pandemic brought challenges across all judicial levels.
In the early months of the pandemic, Community Quarantine and reported infections of Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs) with COVID-19 in different detention facilities restrained the movement and travel of PDLs, judges, and court personnel. At that time, Marquez said, the judiciary worked with a skeletal workforce and was mandated only to act and resolve matters filed before the courts electronically.
“This was as much as we could do as we did not have any official regulating platform to mount video conferencing hearings which was badly needed at that time,” Marquez said.
With the substantial capability to launch virtual hearings, the Supreme Court Chief Justice Diosdado M. Peralta issued Administrative Circular 37-2020 for the pilot testing of hearings of criminal cases through videoconferencing in select courts in cities nationwide on April 27, 2020.
In just over a week of the pilot testing, 4,683 PDLs were released, and after two months, 21,375 videoconferencing hearings were conducted by judges. As of October 2020, more than 81,000 PDLs and children in conflict with the law were released through virtual court hearings.
The judiciary is aware that there are still improvements to be made, and enabling more technology will allow the courts all over the country to be more efficient, effective, and responsive.
“This should reduce, if not totally eliminate, the biases that could stall exponential technological developments to enhance and expedite the administration and dispensing of justice,” Marquez said.
He added that with more people gaining access to the internet and accustomed to technology, virtual access to justice could be a reality in the country sooner than later.