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    Pushing for Inclusive Justice at the Margins

    29 September 2016

    Metropolitan and City Judges Association of the Philippines, Inc. (METCJAP) 18th National Convention and Seminar, Iloilo Convention Center, Iloilo City

    It is my great privilege and honor to be with you this morning. Being surrounded by such esteemed company gives me hope that great things are about to unfold for our country. Seeing our dear friends in the judiciary also brings back good memories of my days as a lawyer.

    So please, forgive me, if I turn a bit sentimental. I was telling this to judge earlier, sabi ko kung hindi namatay ang asawa ko kasama ko na rin sana kayo ngayong umaga.

    You see – it was just four years ago, just after I lost my husband – when I had everything planned out for me and my three daughters.

    During that time, I did not want anything else except to be a judge just like my father. It was actually an idea I had been toying with for quite a while already. In fact, even before he was gone, Jesse and I already talked about my plan to apply to the judiciary. Back then, we both felt it will give us the stability that his career in politics did not.

    Kinukuwento ko po kanina, na-short list na ako, pinapili na ako kung ang alin ang preference kong court. Pipirmahan na lang po ng ating Pangulo ang aking appointment.

    Hanggang biglang… Tapos na po naaksidente na ang asawa ko noon, I still wanted to become a judge. Pero biglang naaksidente, napasok ako sa politika. I was telling Judge Grace that whenever I get together with my classmates, inggit na inggit pa din ako. Pag ang pinagkukwentuhan nila kaso.

    Before I ran as Vice President, ang plano ko after my first term in Congress mag-a-apply ako na din ako sa judiciary. Hanggang ngayon, kunukwenta ko po, matatapos ako at 57.

    Tatanggapin pa kaya ako? Iyon ang panaginip ko na hindi pa natutupad hanggang ngayon. My father has been an RTC Judge for over 30 years, he has been a city court judge for I think 10 years, so almost all his life he was a judge. So iyon din ang aking panaginip sa buhay.

    But fate had other plans. Even before we got settled in after the plane crash, everything turned a hundred and eighty degrees for us. Aside from my lawyering chores, my days used to be filled with my children’s homework and driving them around to their activities.

    Now, I am speaking before you, wearing a hat that I never thought I would wear, not in a hundred years. Many times, in the last three years or so, I still wish I was donning a toga instead.

    But my new role gives me a sense that Jesse is still very much alive in me. Iyon po ang motivation ng aking trabaho, parang buhay pa din ang asawa ko.

    Since the beginning of my term, I have been devoting two days of every week to listening journeys, traveling to far-flung barangays, and remote barrios. During these visits, I saw how years of poor governance have deprived our people of their most basic needs – health, education, housing, food, and livelihood. I have always been a firm believer that to fully understand the plight of ordinary Filipinos – public officials must go out of their way and be with them.

    Government can only be effective if it is able to penetrate real lives and see through the various layers of struggle that people go through on a daily basis. Trust me, stories are most real when heard, seen, and felt on the ground.

    Sadly, many of these stories remain untold. That is why the Office of the Vice President has taken it upon its shoulders to bring these narratives at the forefront of our attention.

    You, as members of the judiciary, play a big role in this responsibility. Remember the credo that former President Ramon Magsaysay lived by? Those who have less in life must have more in law.

    And that is what all of us here must strive to do – to anchor our changing world in principles, moral integrity, and ethics so that we can serve our countrymen to the best of our abilities. This is the very reason why we are gathered here today.

    Developing an inclusive judicial system should be at the core of any reform agenda – if we want to uphold justice and empower our people. Look around us.

    It is the farmer who is fighting to keep his land, the family being ejected from their house, the laborer being exploited by his employer, the IP communities threatened by big powerful companies – the powerless and most vulnerable ones – who are oftentimes relegated to the sidebars of the justice system.

    Whenever we would hear their heartbreaking stories, we couldn’t help but ask: why is it that those who have less in life end up having lesser before the eyes of the law?

    Upon closer examination, even the term “inclusive judicial system” almost seems like senseless repetition. Justice should – in its truest sense – be the embodiment of inclusivity. For in an ideal world, those who are at the fringes of society, those who are poor, marginalized, and oppressed, should find their haven in the courts.

    However, we all know that there are many creases and folds in our judicial system that need to be ironed out before justice can be truly inclusive.

    For instance – we have seen how lengthy, strenuous judicial and court procedures have long worked against many marginalized sectors. For many years, when my husband was still in government, I worked as a lawyer for battered women.

    I would often wake up in the middle of the night to calls from them asking to be sheltered from violent situations. These women have children to take care of, are often pressured to put food on the table, and are psychologically and emotionally oppressed.

    But something as simple as filling up forms or answering questions intimidate them. The truth is, faced with complicated judicial procedures, many of countrymen are left helpless.

    I spent ten of my lawyering years going around the farthest reaches of our region, sa Bicol po. We went to places where there were very few lawyers and reached out to farmers, fisherfolks, indigenous peoples and rural women.

    What we did was to provide them support by training paralegals at the barangay level. We made the process convenient and simple. We translated laws into the local dialect believing that justice is supposed to work that way. It should not be too difficult to understand that many times, it alienates the very people it seeks to serve.

    Long, drawn-out court procedures have also been particularly unfavorable to the poor and marginalized. We are all aware that innocent respondents can be detained far longer than prescribed sentences especially if the other party is rich or influential.

    This only drags the case, clogging courts with cases and jails with overstaying inmates—all of which weigh down government budget and governance efforts. We cannot let this practice continue.

    It is about time that we come up with more effective measures to declog our courts.

    From 2005 to 2010, our lower courts were massively congested with an average of a million cases every year or 4,221 cases per working day. This means each judge needs to handle an annual caseload of 644 or three cases to be resolved each working day. In 2010, the court case disposition rate went down to 74% from 83% the prior year.

    A lot of my former clients would usually ask: “Are lawyers prolonging the judicial process? Why are judges taking too long in making judgments? Or do judges simply have too much on their plate?” Or is it a combination of many factors?

    You are in the best position to answer this. But for me, the better question to ask is: how do these shortcomings affect the lives of the poor who seek help from our courts? How do we turn things around?

    There is a need to address the lack of judges manning our courts. Almost one fourth of our lower court benches do not have a judge. In 2007, we had 1,710 judges. By 2009, we only had 1,647.

    To make matters worse, our lawyers and judges have become targets of senseless killings themselves. By 2015, more than 40 lawyers and 20 judges have been murdered.

    Despite all of these challenges, judicial reforms are slowly changing the way things are being run in the judiciary. We laud the various efforts that are now being undertaken by the Supreme Court – led by Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno – to speed up the resolution of cases and fill up the vacancies. Earlier this year, 635 slots for “court decongestion officers” have been opened up to declog court dockets nationwide.

    Launched under the Hustisyeah! program of the SC, this strategy seeks to reduce overall case dockets by 20% by the end of this year. This is particularly helpful since many of these officers would be assigned to handle cases in many far-flung cities and municipalities across the country.

    Many have also turned to mediation and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, and the use of community courts or the barangay justice system. More courthouses are being built to accommodate communities in remote areas.

    At the heart of these changes lies the need to streamline our court procedures. There is the e-court system that uses technology to organize and control case workflows more efficiently. The Enhanced Justice on Wheels program has been providing free legal aid and dispute resolution services to the poor.

    Despite these innovations, one law school dean points out how many still turn to adhere to the so-called “chambers practice” – where cases are settled based on one’s connections rather than its merits. It is unfortunate that many of our less fortunate countrymen are victims of this corrupt practice. But how do we address something which has already been deeply embedded in our system? The worse thing about this is that the actions of a few create a permanent damage to the institution.

    We must look within ourselves, and remember the oath we have taken to serve our people. If we really want to change the system, then we must attack it from its core.

    Let us together instill trust, honesty, and integrity not just in our courts, but also in ourselves. Power is not about how we can shape and control the lives of others. Real power, in your profession – means knowing that the responsibility to hold others accountable begins with one’s self.

    Remember this: it is only in pushing full transparency and accountability among the ranks of judicial officers can real justice be achieved.

    Let us also make our interactions more relevant to the needs of our communities. We cannot be content with just making sure that we render the right judgments. We need to embrace a more proactive role in shaping the legal system. We cannot just be actors; we must direct ourselves as well.

    You have the skills, you have the knowledge, you have the resources—much more than what the average man on the street. You can be the guardians of good governance.

    The belief that justice is elusive to those in the fringes is something that we all must fight even if the challenges seem almost too big to overcome. A judiciary that dispenses fair and impartial justice efficiently and effectively is a prerequisite for social development and inclusive growth. It is our best defense against corruption. It reduces political interference in the dispensation of justice. It helps reduce waste of funds and generates trust in our public officers.

    Remember that the best way to raise judicial reform to the next level is to push it to the very margins where it is most needed.

    Maraming salamat po.

    Posted in Speeches on Sep 29, 2016