Chief Justice Puno vows to improve poor’s access to courts

Rey G. Panaligan

Complaints against exorbitant lawyer’s fees, high cost of filing a case in court, and delays in the resolution of cases aired by the marginalized sectors of the country hounded the two-day “Forum on Increasing Access to Justice by the Poor” held simultaneously in Manila, Cebu City, and Cagayan de Oro City.

But Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno vowed to act on the complaints as he assured that “we will not lose even a fraction of time before aggregating the ideas proposed in this forum and putting the doables into our rule books.”

“Words on a parchment, without more, will not automatically open the doors of justice to the marginalized among our people. Their rights must be respected beyond mere paper guaranties and must be translated into reality by their enforcement,” Puno stressed in his closing remarks.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court (SC) formally received from various sectors their grievances and recommendations to improve access to the courts and the judicial system.

Puno said the two- day forum heard “the anguished cry of the representatives of the farmers, fisherfolk, children, women, migrant workers, urban poor, Moro communities, labor, informal sector, indigenous peoples, and senior citizens.”

“We have also felt the sympathetic ears of our government officials… and have also seen the readiness to help of the representatives of the business sector,” he said.

“There must be a continued and continuous effort, especially on the part of the able, to handhold the poor to the doorsteps of justice. And the able should not get weary even if the way is long and lonely, even if it is full of thorns and thistles,” he added.

The Chief Justice pointed out that “there are strong links between establishing democracy, reducing poverty, and improving access to justice.”

“Democracy is undermined where access to justice by all citizens – irrespective of gender, race, religion, age, class or creed – is impeded. Access to justice is also closely linked to poverty reduction, since poverty means deprivation of choices, denial of opportunities, and lack of voice in decisionmaking,” he said.

He stressed that improving the access to justice by the poor should be viewed as only a part of a larger effort of the government to promote social justice “in all phases of national development.”

“For while it is a noble endeavor to provide better access to justice by the poor, it is far nobler to put a period to the persistent problem of poverty – so that all Filipinos would have the opportunity, within their own means, to protect and enforce the rights owed them by the state and by their fellowmen,” he added.

For the business sector, lawyer Miguel B. Varela, chairman of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), paid tribute to Chief Justice Puno and the SC in initiating the forum to increase access to justice by the marginalized sectors of society.

Varela said that just like an individual, a business entity – as a juridical person – “has rights to protect under the law.”

But he pointed out that “the pace with which business operates is not reflected by the tempo of the resolution of any case involving an enterprise.” He, in effect, lamented the delays in the resolution of cases filed before the courts.

Varela cited three areas where the private sector and the judiciary can held each other in improving the justice system in the country.

The private sector, he stressed, should be acquainted with the legal and judicial process “to effectively mainstream itself in operationalizing justice system in the country,” while the judiciary “needs the same acumen on business practices, principles and operations to better comprehend with the emerging needs of business and how it can effectively gauge its performance in pursuit of competitive complementation with business.”

In behalf of PCCI, Varela batted for expanded utilization of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) in the declogging of court dockets.

He said that the PCCI itself has institutionalized a Mediation Center ‘that aims to expand the number of trained mediators coming mostly from local chamber of commerce and industry affiliates all over the country who can take on specific cases and help in their early settlement.”

He also recommended that lawyers should be compelled to handle more pro-bono (free) cases in lieu of complying with the Mandatory Continuing Legal Education (MDLE) credit units.

“The SC MCLE committee could probably set the guidelines on how cases will be farmed out to lawyers who opt to handle cases rather than attend seminars,” he said.

The training of more mediators, particularly in farflung provinces, was also recommended by Varela.

At the same time, Varela expressed apprehension over the alarming low level of the Philippines’ competitiveness to attract foreign investors where the “role of the judiciary cannot be overemphasized.”

He set as an example the recent ruling of the SC that affirmed the legality of the Spot-Zoning practice of local government units.

He was referring to the SC decision that upheld the legality of the resolution of the Manila City Council that led to the relocation of oil depots in the district of Pandacan.

“We respect the ruling of the High Court in the aforementioned case. We are worried, however, about its implications to investor confidence and the economy as a whole in the long run,” he said.

‘We believe that giving a blanket, absolute, and unfettered affirmation of the local government unit’s power to declare zoning may be too injurious to the competitiveness of the Philippines in attracting investors to the country,” he lamented.

The two-day forum was a sequel to the National Summit on Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances held last year at the historic landmark Manila Hotel.

The Manila Hotel summit paved the way for the adoption by the SC of the Writ of Amparo and the Writ of Habeas Data – two legal remedies to protect the privacy of an individual and checks threats and violations of his right to life, liberty, and security.(MB)


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