Philippine courts go high-tech

Five regional trial courts, located in the cities of Makati, Mandaluyong, Marikina, Quezon City and Cebu, are now enjoying the privileges of being pilot “Electronic Courts” or e-courts that are equipped with high-tech equipment and computer systems designed to speed up the resolution of cases.

The e-courts project is an initiative of Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and is aimed at reducing the backlog of unresolved cases in the judicial system, lawyer Ivan John E. Uy, chief information officer of the Supreme Court, told Computerworld Philippines.

Uy said 20 million pesos (US$387,000) has been earmarked to launch the e-courts project this year. “The first 10 million pesos used to set up the pilot e-courts came from Pimentel’s Countrywide Development Fund (CDF), while the other 10 million pesos will come from the Supreme Court’s 2002 budget,” he added.

Under the project, the pilot e-courts have been equipped with Computer Aided Transcription machines (CATs), video room, a Web site of their own and a computer link-up to the Supreme Court’s system for such functions as case tracking and monitoring.

“CATs would be a big help in speeding up the judicial process since they would allow the court stenographer trained in operating these machines to produce transcriptions of a testimony in just a few hours after the witness takes the stand,” explained Uy. Its deciphering program can be expanded to include Filipino words. New words can also be stored in its vocabulary for automatic recognition, allowing faster predictive transcriptions.

Uy said equipping the lower courts with CATs through the e-courts project is very significant, especially in the effort to speed up the resolution of cases. He said, in a manual process, a stenographer takes an average of four hours to transcribe just one hour of notes. The lawyers, in turn, receive the transcripts after a few weeks.

“Hearings get postponed for months just because the lawyers are waiting for the transcripts to become available. In a worst case scenario, if the stenographer resigns or goes on sick leave, entire testimonies are repeated all over again,” he noted.

But with CATs in the e-courts, this problem will be solved. He said the high tribunal has already experienced the reliable performance of these machines.

“The SC has been using 12 CAT units that it purchased from the United States for about 500,000 pesos each during the mid-1990s.” CATs also played a central role during the Senate impeachment trial of then President Joseph Estrada. During that time, SC lent the Senate some of its CAT units to meet the documentation requirements of the daily proceedings. Transcripts of the day’s testimonies were posted in Pimentel’s Web site within hours after the last witness took the stand.

Another component of the e-courts project is the video room designed especially to try cases involving underage complainants or witnesses. Victims who are minors can give their testimony without being intimidated by the sight of the accused inside the courtroom.

“This is very helpful for young victims of rape or child abuse since they don’t have to be inside the same room with their abusers. The child could give his or her testimony in front of the camera and the accused, the judge, the counsels and court audience can just watch him or her in a video screen placed inside the courtroom,” explained Uy.

The e-courts will also put up their on Web sites to provide lawyers with information about hearing schedules as well as updates on orders and decisions in specific cases. E-court databases and records will be made available online once the computer linkup to the SC is implemented.

The linkup allows SC to access certain e-court records and determine if its rules for the speedy disposition of cases had been complied with. Case tracking and monitoring will be facilitated through the linkage, with the computer program being able to identify and tag as priorities long overdue cases through their case numbers.

Judges’ performances can also be evaluated faster without waiting for the actual performance reports through the link. The SC would just have to access their records online and use them as basis for promoting or demoting judges.

“At present, only 5 million pesos of the second 10 million pesos has been released by the Department of Budget and Management,” said Uy. “We are still awaiting the other 5 million pesos so we could replicate the pilot e-courts to as many lower courts as possible in the different local government units by the end of the year.”