The Senate has approved on third and final reading a measure creating judges-at-large positions in the lower courts to address the overloading of cases in the trial courts.
Senate Bill 2065, under Committee Report No. 496, or the “Judges At-Large Act of 2018” was approved with 17 affirmative votes, zero negative vote and no abstention.
Senator Dick Gordon, chairman of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights and sponsor of the measure, said the creation of judges-at-large positions in the municipal and regional trial courts nationwide would finally address the perennial backlog problems in court cases.
Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban said there were about 160,000 cases pending in the 1,200 first-level courts (city and municipal courts) and 640,000 in the 1,100 second-level courts or the regional trial courts as of 2017. Panganiban said there was no statistics yet for 2018.
The statistics defeat the Constitutional provision on the speedy disposition of cases, Gordon said.
The proposed measure seeks to create 100 positions for regional trial judges-at-large and 50 positions for municipal trial judges-at-large nationwide to be assigned by the Supreme Court as acting or assisting judges in regional trial courts or second level courts and in the municipal trial courts or first level courts that are overloaded with cases.
“Justice delayed is justice denied. Article III, Section 16 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution specifically states that ‘all persons shall have the right to a speedy disposition of their cases before all judicial, quasi-judicial or administrative bodies,'” Gordon said.
“Justice delayed is justice denied.”
However, the seasoned legislator pointed out that while the Constitution guarantees the peoples’ right to speedy disposition of cases before the courts, the clogged dockets of the courts cause great delay in the disposition of cases.
“We are aware that there are courts that have overloaded salas or dockets. The proposal here therefore would assign judges-at-large to support or to assist practically in passing these cases that are loading the docket so that justice could be made more swift. The reason why we are doing this is not just to relieve the judges but because of the provision of the Constitution that disposition of cases must be done fast so we won’t violate the theory of speedy dispensation of justice,” the veteran lawmaker said.
Senator Sonny Angara, principal author of the measure, noted that lack of judges is one of the primary factors of court congestion. The second factor is the deployment of regular judges as assisting or acting judges.
“The lack of judges is one of the primary factors of court congestion.”
The deployment of regular judges as assisting or acting judges, however, has been proven to be an unproductive and inefficient solution since those who are deployed often have to divide their attention between their own salas and the vacant or congested court to which they have been assigned, Angara said.
A 2018 data from the Senate Legislative Budget Research and Monitoring Office (LBRMO) revealed that out of the 37,230 total positions in the Supreme Court and the lower courts, 12,076 are unfilled – or roughly a third of the total positions.
During the 2012 Senate Finance Committee hearing, it was also discovered that there were 591 trial courts (or about 26 percent of the total) which were considered vacant, even though these were funded.
The committee further found out that the funds for these vacant courts were considered “savings,” then realigned and disbursed as additional compensation for sitting judges and personnel, the seasoned legislator said.
The measure, the veteran lawmaker said, intends to amend Batas Pambansa Bilang 129 by providing for the positions of judges-at-large who have no permanent salas.
These judges-at-large, according to the measure, shall have the same qualifications, salaries, privileges, allowances, emoluments, benefits and ranks as their counterpart judges, but with additional “displacement allowances” to cover their housing, food, transportation and other necessary expenses incurred during their detail to courts outside their places of residences.
The House of Representatives approved its counterpart measure on May 15 last year.