“The Birth of Virtual Justice: Hastened by the COVID-19 Pandemic” by the Hon. Emily San Gaspar-Gito

The COVID-19 pandemic is something that judges around the world did not expect. The first few months of the year 2020 have already been hounded by too many natural disasters in various parts of the world – the Philippines included, with the eruption of the Taal, Volcano. But no one had prepared for a pandemic that could bring the judicial system to almost a standstill. Good for the Philippine Judiciary though, it has a Supreme Court that is decisive and wise. To protect the health and general welfare of the judges, court personnel and litigants, the Supreme Court physically closed all courts. It was a decision that saved so many lives

To ensure however that the judiciary would be able to perform its constitutional mandate, the Supreme Court issued several directives, one after another, almost to a dizzying pace, in response to the impact of COVID-19 to the lives of the people who depend on the workings of the judicial system.  It immediately directed all courts to have “judges-on-duty” and “skeleton-forces” who would act on all urgent matters, particularly those cases involving persons deprived of liberties (PDLs). It required the judges all over the country to conduct an inventory of cases involving PDLs who may be released on bail, recognizance or provisional dismissal. It also instituted the “e-filing system” for criminal cases, thereby allowing the people to seek recourse with the Courts even during the lockdown. Then, the most innovative “COVID-19 inspired solution” was set in place, the pilot testing of the online video conferencing (OVC). 

It was a solution fraught with so many challenges, ranging from lack of internet connection to slow connection, from lack of personnel to man the system to unfamiliarity with the applications and so on and so forth. Even so, we, judges, and our support staff were jolted into action and opted to address these challenges, the most difficult of which is personally educating ourselves with the programs Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Teams for the online video conferencing.  

I remember frantically studying the programs as if I was racing with time. I felt the sudden need to learn it before the Supreme Court released their guidelines. 

How can a Generation X judge like me cope with this new system of hearing cases? 

I never thought there was something more difficult than the study of law. For a judge who already feels “high tech” and “internet savvy” with her limited familiarity with Facebook, Yahoo, Gmail, Twitter, Instagram and Viber, studying the Microsoft Outlook and Teams was a jump into an unknown realm. 

Upon receiving my official email address from the Supreme Court, I aimlessly tinkered with my laptop (guided by instinct), until I saw a stream of Courts signing in. I almost jumped with joy. It was a trial and error method. I went through with it just following the directions appearing on the screen, testing some icons, even backing out when things became too unfamiliar. Just being able to sign in made me smile like a child who feels a sudden surge of confidence for my newfound ability.  But the joy was short-lived. The smile faded when I was directed to the Microsoft Teams. Again, it was a trial and error journey. But every discovery of the features of the programs created a feeling akin to finding an Easter egg, or to winning a Christmas raffle or to receiving a year-end bonus.   

With twelve (12) members of the Staff under my wing, what followed was a series of attempts and persuasion to bring them in to study the programs.  After a week of study, all of us were able to have a workable knowledge of the program and were able to successfully stage a test run. 

Then the birth of virtual justice came.

On May 5, 2020, at exactly 2:30 pm, the Regional Trial Court, Branch 5, Manila held its first-ever online video conferencing attended by the public prosecutor, public attorney, private complainant, the two (2) accused (one at Pandacan Police Station 10 and one at the Manila City Jail), the branch clerk of court, the staff in charge with the criminal cases, the Court interpreter and the stenographer. We were in various parts of Luzon, as far as Cavite and Batangas, yet we were able to hold a bail hearing and an initial trial at the same time. One team, six channels, effectively practicing “social distancing.” Two (2) accused were released on bail and on provisional dismissal. A good start to decongest the already overcrowded Manila City Jail. 

Surprisingly, the jail officers and the police officers in charged with the custody of the accused were both fast in responding to the Court’s invitation for an online video conference. They were able to easily manipulate the Microsoft Teams program to our amazement and delight. The same is true with respect to the private complainants who appear to be millennials and fully conversant with the programs. Truly I must say, there is such a thing as a generation gap.

The online video conference is the culmination of days of study and practice on how to manipulate the Microsoft Outlook and Teams programs. With a smile on our faces, we can say that self-study, the learning curve, is the beginning of CHANGE. We are now ready for the “new normal.”  We are enthusiastically looking forward to more productive days sans the risks of COVID-19. 

And then another challenge came. When the lockdown was lifted, the in-court hearing resumed. This necessitated the judges and their staff to come to Court. How do we make our Courts safe for our staff and for the litigants and their lawyers? Immediately, I had glass barriers installed between the Court staff and the public. I bought Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Ultra Violet Lights, alcohols, disinfectants, foot mats and face shields for my Court. I am glad to say that we have been doing in-court hearings every day for several weeks already and no one from my staff has been found positive for the COVID-19 virus. By strictly observing all health protocols, we can say that we have been succeeding, as of now. I pray that we will remain COVID-free in the days to come as we continue to perform our task of administering justice. 

Lastly, we thank the Philippine Supreme Court for always keeping in mind the health and general welfare of its officials and employees, as well as that of the public, by devising means to avert the spread of COVID-19, without abandoning the Judiciary’s constitutional mandate to administer justice.

Together, we shall overcome.

This blog post was prepared by IAWJ member, Judge Emily San Gaspar-Gito. The views presented in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the IAWJ.