Tech

After Supreme Court Okays Videoconferencing, Over 170,000 Virtual Hearings Have Been Held Nationwide

Official guidelines for videoconferencing became effective in January this year.
IMAGE SUPREME COURT/MICROSOFT
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The Supreme Court (SC) issued guidelines for videoconferencing in December last year, primarily because of safety concerns related to the pandemic. The High Court institutionalized virtual hearings and deemed it an alternative mode to in-court proceedings. The guidelines became effective a month later. 

"On January 16, 2021, videoconferencing was formally institutionalized, and the guidelines and the conduct of video conferencing became effective,” said Honorable Jose Midas P. Marquez, SC court administrator, in a news release. “For the first time in its 119-year history, the Philippine judiciary has blazed a new trail by allowing remote testimony from parties situated even in different parts of nation and the globe."

At the onset of the pandemic, and as with many other offices and industries, the SC found it difficult to conduct in-person hearings because of reports of COVID-19 infections, particularly of persons deprived of liberty or PDLs. That severely restricted the movement and travel of PDLs, judges, and court personnel. By March 20, 2020, courts nationwide were closed and all official work was ordered to be done electronically.

Pilot testing of hearings of criminal cases through videoconferencing in select courts in cities nationwide began on April 27, 2020. It was officially approved by the SC in June 2020. 

After just over a week of pilot testing, 4,683 PDLs were released, and after two months, 21,375 videoconferencing hearings were conducted by judges. As of October 2020, more than 81,000 PDLs and children in conflict with the law were released through virtual court hearings.

“At present, all courts are authorized to conduct videoconferencing hearings bringing the total to 2,715 courts,” Marquez said. The number is up from just 1,000 at the beginning of the pandemic.

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“I am pleased to note that from May 4, 2020, to January 8, 2021, while parts of the country are still on varying forms of a lockdown and with hardly any mentoring, almost 170,000 video conferencing hearings in both civil and criminal cases have already been conducted by our judges with a success rate of 80 percent,” Marquez added.

Picking the right platform

The SC went through several tools and software that made virtual hearings possible and, after a careful evaluation, it decided on Microsoft 365, which it said is “cost-efficient and ensures security and compliance.” 

"We are privileged to work alongside the Supreme Court of the Philippines in this historic achievement where remote appearances from parties across and beyond the country are now part of court proceedings,” said Microsoft Philippines Public Sector Director Joanna Rodriguez. “The leaders of the national judiciary aspire to provide Filipinos with innovative and accessible citizen services, and we’re fully committed to empowering them with the right technology solutions to do so—today and in the future.” 

Despite the significant digital leap forward, Marquez said there are still improvements to be made, and enabling more technology will allow the courts all over the country to be more efficient, effective, and responsive. 

“This should reduce, if not totally eliminate, the biases that could stall exponential technological developments to enhance and expedite the administration and dispensing of justice,” he said.

 

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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