Sanchez: Decongesting dockets

A WEEK ago, court annexed mediators (CAM) attended the training seminar held by the Supreme Court on the Revised Guidelines for Continuous Trial of Criminal Cases. We were together with trial court judges, prosecutors, and Public Attorney’s Office lawyers.

As mediators, our mandate is to use interest-based negotiations, not evidenced-based to determine the guilt of the accused. We tend to dissuade parties in conflict from pursuing their legal cases against the other party.

Here are some interesting data from the seminar. The handout noted that the lower courts account for a majority of the justice system’s total case load, with over 600,000 cases pending in dockets every year, with criminal cases comprising 77 percent of cases filed and pending in criminal courts. Furthermore, perennial problem of delays and docket congestion in many trial courts remain unabated.

Results? The administration of justice is impaired. Our justice system itself violates the Constitutional mandate to speedy trials. And the poor who cannot afford to post bail get the short end of the stick and has to suffer subhuman conditions in detention jails.

Justice delayed is justice denied. Recognizing these delays as problematic, Republic Act (RA) 8493 (Speedy Trial Act of 1998), fixed a period of 30 days from the filing of the information to the conduct of an arraignment of the accused. In no case shall the entire trial period exceed 180 days (or six months) from the first day of trial.

In addition, RA 9285 asserts that the State shall encourage and actively promote the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) as an important means to achieve speedy and impartial justice and declog court dockets.

When CAM began in Negros Occidental back in May 2004, the dockets of the Regional Trial and Municipal Trial Courts in Cities grappled with 7,557 cases. Unless the number of court cases is reduced, trial judges will be overburdened because they are mandated to pen decisions within three months of cases primed for resolution.

Now under the revised guidelines, trials should be held from Monday to Thursday and courts must call the cases at exactly 8:30 a.m. for morning hearings and 2 p.m. for afternoon hearings.

“The Revised Guidelines for Continuous Trial of Criminal Cases shall apply to all newly-filed criminal cases, including those governed by special laws and rules, in the first and second level courts, the Sandiganbayan and the Court of Tax Appeals as of effectivity date.

The project is designed to cut trial duration in criminal cases from the usual three to five years to just around three months – an extreme target compared to the six months mandated by RA 8493.

Despite their skepticism, the seminar participants pledged to give the process their best shot. Amen to that.

(bqsanc@yahoo.com)