Philippine judiciary and criminal justice system under pressure: An inside look

Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0

From insufficient courts to overcrowded prisons, the Philippines’ judiciary and criminal justice system is under enormous pressure. As a result, significant reforms are needed to spur further economic development.

By Argee Abadines, edited by John Pennington

One court per 50,000 people. This is a staggering statistic highlighting one of the most critical problems in the Philippines. There are simply not enough courts to meet society’s demand. According to Maria Lourdes Sereno, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, “In the Philippines, there are only 2,000 courts nationwide that serve a population of a hundred million. If you compare this ratio with developed nations, it’s clear we have an undermanned justice sector.”

Courts are therefore overburdened with cases and do not have the staff levels required to process them all. According to statistics released in 2013 analysing data compiled between 2005 and 2010, lower courts had an annual average case load of more than 1 million which would mean an average of 4,000 cases daily. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, this means a judge would have an insane average annual workload of 644 cases.

Court cases take years to be resolved

Another massive issue is the length it takes for cases to be decided. For example, the Sandiganbayan, which is a constitutional court for public officials, takes an average of 15 years to judge a case. These delays have led to acquittals of corrupt public officials. The Sandiganbayan court has a low conviction rate. This in turn hampers anti-corruption measures in the country. Notable such cases such as one involving former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and former Makati mayor, Elenita Binay, wife of former vice-president Jejomar Binay,  have been dismissed by the Sandiganbayan.

Harry Roque, a prominent lawyer, commented, “The low conviction rates in the Sandiganbayan and in the prosecution of drug cases, coupled with the one percent conviction rate for murders, are proof that the country’s legal system is a failure.”

Many Filipinos are too poor to access justice

Poverty is also a big stumbling block because the majority of the population is still poor and they cannot afford legal services. Even if they did have access to the public attorney, which is meant for the poorest of the poor, public attorneys are undermanned and have a huge backlog of cases. As a result, the poor do not file cases knowing they are unable to afford a lawyer and it will take years for their case to get resolved.

Because of a clogged judicial and court system, overcrowded prisons are the most visible problem plaguing the correctional facilities. According to the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology which runs 415 prisons in 17 regions, on average the prisons are at 380% overcapacity. The most congested prisons can reach overcapacity level beyond 2,000%. With Duterte’s war on drugs in full swing, a lot of drug users and pushers are joining the already-packed prisons daily.

Prisoners’ rights continue to be disrespected and ignored

This has prompted human rights groups to call for reforms to improve conditions for prisoners. According to Carlos Conde, a human rights watch researcher, “Corrupt and incompetent investigators and prosecutors, a judicial and court system clogged with too many cases, and too few judges to try them. These institutional pathologies result in unjust and prolonged detention.” According to Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, prolonged detention without trial is a violation of international human rights.

Human rights groups are already agitated about Duterte’s war on drugs because they claim extrajudicial murders are occurring on a daily basis. It will likely be a matter of time before the gross injustices befalling detainees and prisoners will be another issue that dogs the Duterte administration.

Inability to post bail adds thousands of pre-trial detainees to the prison system

The struggling judicial system contributes heavily to the overcrowding. Many do not have the money to post bail. Some of the most common crimes like drug possession do not allow for bail. As such, pre-trial detainees constitute at least 64% of the prison population (over 100,000) according to data from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. This statistic makes the Philippines the country with the highest number of pre-trial detainees in Southeast Asia and the second highest in all of Asia. Prisoners can spend years in this situation, and some of those are innocent.

Recent jailbreaks have also highlighted the undermanned prisons and poor security systems. With so-called Islamic State activities increasing in the Philippines and in nearby Indonesia and Malaysia, the government needs to be wary of more jailbreaks designed to release the most hardened criminals and captured terrorists.

Increasing funds for the justice and criminal system is the key to accelerating reforms

According to Sereno, one of the easiest ways to accelerate reforms in the Justice system is to increase the national budget for it. With increased budget, the government can increase manpower, construct more courts and enhance legal systems for productivity. The current administration does not have judiciary reforms as a priority. The previous administration was only able to deliver 0.78% of the national budget in 2015. Duterte set out plans for 0.97% of the national budget to go to the judiciary in his first budget.

Given the acute lack of funds, prisons have become a haven for illegal activities, especially the proliferation of drugs. Republic Act 10575 or the Bureau of Corrections Act of 2013 was enacted to deal with the issues of congestion, inadequate facilities, lack of resources and low staff morale which led to illegal activities in the prison system thriving. The law also authorises construction of more detention facilities to decongest the prisons. However, the law remains unimplemented.

Automation of the courts has started to improve the system

One positive development is the eCourts programme, which automates trial courts and allows judges to electronically monitor their cases. They also get reminders for deadlines. Integrating technology into the judiciary department will allow judges to be more efficient and reduce the time a case takes to get resolved because they will be able to prepare in advance for court hearings. There are also some initiatives in major cities like Quezon City to digitise court filings and proceedings. Technology can definitely speed up cases and trials but this means internet speed also needs to catch up in the Philippines before it can be fully harnessed.

A major reform that Sereno is very pleased with is the expansion of coverage of small claims cases. These cases involve money claims of up to PHP 200,000 (US$4,000). It is very cheap to file a claim and turnaround time is less than a day or a week at most. This lessens the workload of the main courts and allows more cases to be resolved. In a recent speech, she said, “I don’t see why we cannot move our system from a system characterised by delay into one that is modern because it is marked by the feature of continuous conduct of trials.”

A functioning justice system is necessary for the Philippines to sustain its strong economic growth

The maxim “justice delayed is justice denied”, often attributed to British Prime Minister William Gladstone, has been around for centuries but it accurately summarises the current state of the judiciary system. There are ongoing initiatives but for the Philippines to achieve sustainable economic growth, the government needs more resources channelled towards the justice and correctional system.