By Danton Remoto
In my last column, I detailed the findings of our group in the Supreme Court-initiated workshop on giving justice to marginalized groups held last July 7-8. The next items in our list of issues include the weak justice system in the fiscal and prosecution levels. The Supreme Court initiated the workshop to help hasten the administration of justice for all people. Our facilitator was the bright and efficient Court of Appeals Justice Magdangal M. de Leon.
The farmers in our group said that landowners are tolerated in filing multiple suits against farmers just to harass them. The spurious cases filed include qualified theft, although all parties know that the root cause of the problem is agrarian. Perhaps because some fiscals are afraid of these big landowners – or even beholden to them – the cases are allowed to be filed in court. The fiscals’ point is that since it is a matter of evidence, anyway, let the courts decide.
Moreover, some fiscals were scored for being abusive, meting out punishment too harsh and not commensurate to the crime. The farmers also asked for a Supreme Court directive that if a case is an agrarian dispute, the MTCs should refer it to DARAB because they have no jurisdiction over agrarian disputes. Some farmers also protested against fiscals who do not know land valuation. If the decision of the judges has been overruled many times, that means that they have a gross ignorance of the law. Therefore, our group suggested a monitoring of the decision of judges. The clerk of court should report the number of cases appealed and erroneous judges sanctioned, so they will think twice when penning their decisions.
Our group recommended that we follow the US judicial system in their anti-strategic lawsuits against public participation, or the anti-slap law. If a case is determined to be in violation of anti-slap provisions, then this is an additional ground to dismiss a case. The environmentalists in our group also said that the anti-slap provisions should also be applicable in the cases they handle. Our group also said that in some murder and rape cases against the police, the police officer is merely transferred, Mindanao being the choice spot for transfer – as if Mindanao deserves to be the hell’s pit for these scoundrels. And speaking of Mindanao, our group also recommended that the Shari’a courts be expanded to help ease the burden of the regular courts.
Our group also recommended that more judges should be hired for a more efficient disposition of cases. Moreover, there should be an immersion program for prosecutors so they would know the actual implementation of the law, not just its theoretical aspects. The various sectors must also have a voice in the appointment of fiscals and judges. And then, there was a suggestion where everybody’s heads nodded in unison – higher pay for judges and security for them, since more judges are being gunned down.
The next body – the National Labor Relations Commission – received a lot of brickbats not just from our group but also from the reports issued by the other groups. Allegedly, this quasi-judicial body handles the cases with the pace of a turtle. Therefore, the Supreme Court should issue time-frames within which cases would have been decided. Another recommendation is for the cases to go directly to the Supreme Court from the NLRC. The group also mentioned that some employees in NLRC serve as fixers; when there is no grease money, allegedly the cases ground to a halt. Moreover, the NLRC arbiters settle cases even without the presence of the workers’ lawyer, thus leading to a settlement that is way too low, to the detriment of the workers.
The complaints were so loud and vociferous that at one point, in my presentation, I said that the NLRC, in its present state, should be fumigated.
The urban poor in our group also lamented the fees that have to be paid in court, i.e., filing fees, for the cases to proceed. These fees seem to be a source of income for the courts. For example, if a laborer wants a re-computation of his back wages, he has to pay a fee of P500 again. Since the laborer is already out of work, the P500 is an additional burden.
The urban poor also lambasted some people in government for their insufficient knowledge of RA 7270, the Urban Development Housing Act. The bull’s eye of complaints was targeted at the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA). The MMDA has its own ordinances on demolition of shanties; thus, the parameters of the MMDA powers should be clarified. Moreover, they accuse the MMDA and the National Housing Authority of demolishing shanties even in private properties, with cases still pending in the courts. Our members also asked for a special court for the urban poor – or an urban land reform and housing court – to expedite the disposition of their cases.
Specifically, our group asked the Supreme Court to issue an opinion to clarify and settle conflicts in laws pertaining to the urban poor. For example, the SC needs to clarify the United Nations ES|R Report General Comment No. 7 versus Republic Act 7279, the Urban Development and Housing Act of the Philippines; and the Building Code. The Supreme Court also has to delineate the lines between RA 8975 and RA 7279, and that between the Water Code and MMDA Resolution 03-96. Our urban poor also asked the Supreme Court to remind the judges that there is an SC circular 03-72 implementing Executive Order 152, requiring a certificate of clearance before shanties could be demolished.
Moreover, our urban poor sectors are also praying for a resolution to amend OCA 72 to ensure that there won’t be displacement prior to demolition of shanties. The members of the judiciary should also be educated in the law and ramifications of the UDHA, related laws, and the international legal instruments on housing rights. This education should be complemented with fora like these, when actual cases are discussed, ideas and insights shared.
As for public-sector workers who comprise 1.5 million, our group recommended the expansion of workers’ rights. The Civil Service Commission and the government agencies handle a lot of administrative cases. The backlog can be eased if we allow paralegals of the civil service to handle the cases of public-sector workers. Only criminal cases should be left to the Ombudsman.
Moreover, paralegals should be allowed to represent cases involving farmers, laborers, and other marginalized groups. The arbiters are not aware that this is allowed under the Rules of Court, and thus frown upon this suggestion.
I was happy to be there for two days, serving as secretary and later, as reporter for our group. I saw democracy in action. Issues were raised, debated, sieved. Then they were reported, collated, and I told my friends in the Supreme Court that the next task is the most difficult – to work.
And exactly a week later, Supreme Court Justice Reynato Puno began his Justice on Wheels tour, where the justices when to the prisons to expedite cases by holding trials in buses. And two months later, the Supreme Court dismissed a Court of Appeals justice, sanctioned another one, and admonished another in connection with the attempted bribery in the Meralco-GSIS case. It was a humiliating case and I was cheering the retired justices who went through the cases and the evidence at hand with the solid, stern, and serious air of school teachers.
The wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow, but with Justice Puno as helmsman of the Court, I see some kind of hope.
I wish I could say the same thing for the Presidency or the Congress. But I would be a big cheat to myself if I do.