By Aries Rufo
MANILA--The two-day Forum on Increasing Access to Justice initiated by the Supreme Court is serving as a reminder that it is part of the problem.
Participants from various sectors identified the SC's delay in the resolution of cases, and the non-implementation of its rulings, particularly those with issues concerning the poor, as one of the roadblocks to attaining justice.
One group cited the case of Calatagan farmers in Batangas, and the labor rights cases filed by workers of the Light Railway Transit and Nestle as examples of pending and decided cases which have been left hanging. In the Calatagan case, peasant and fisherfolk have secured an SC decision granting them ownership of 2,000 hectares of land but the order, issued 20 years ago, is yet to be implemented by the environment department.
In the LRT case, it was only recently, after eight years of protracted legal battle that the SC came up with its ruling. The Court ordered the LRT Authority to shell out P208 million to pay some 200 workers it dismissed following a strike.
Another group cited the Court's move in dismissing cases due to technicalities. One particular case cited was that of the Sumilao farmers in Bukidnon where the SC in 1999 supposedly skirted merits and resorted to technicalities when it upheld the Conversion Order issued by then Executive Secretary Ruben Torres on the Quisumbing estate. The SC said the agriculture department failed to question Torres's conversion order on time.
Deputy Court Administrator Jose Perez, who synthesized the reports from the different sectors, praised the candid observations from the participants and assured that the Court will try to address all the concerns and issues that have been raised.
Chief Justice Reynato Puno has said he will form committees to study the recommendations and identify areas where access to justice by the marginalized can be improved.
How to level the playing field
Other roadblocks raised during the forum include: lack of knowledge on the part of administrators of justice about issues concerning the poor and the special laws and the lack of capacity to respond to these issues; indifference or lack of sensitivity to the plight of the poor; lack of lawyers, prosecutors and judges; prohibitive costs of filing cases; protracted litigation; problematic implementation of the law; corruption, especially in quasi-judicial bodies; lack of transparency in judicial appointments and lack of public venue for participation.
As for recommendations on improving access to justice, the participants sought: the enhancement of programs affecting the poor; inclusion of social legislation in the curricula of law schools; training and accreditation of paralegals; creation of tribal courts similar to the Sharia courts; reduction of court fees; and reduction of copies of pleadings.
They also suggested that private lawyers be required to render pro-bono cases and that specific groups be exempt from payment of certain court fees. More recommendations came from the participants: compliance of periods in the resolution of cases; designation of special court to prioritize cases involving the poor; use of local dialects to address the language barrier; recognition of indigenous system in dispute settlements; and the imposition of sanctions against erring judges.
The forum was held simultaneously in Manila, Cebu and Cagayan de Oro through video-conferencing. In his opening speech Monday (June 30), Puno acknowledged that justice remains an elusive aspiration for the poor and that the SC is seeking to bridge the gap.