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It's one year down, and 17 more years to go for Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

And if the first female chief justice's first year were to serve as a gauge for her remaining years in office, the public can

expect in the next two decades a high tribunal that embraces new technologies and strives for reform, despite severe

budgetary constraints.

In an unprecedented move, Sereno who started her term as chief justice by imposing a "dignified silence" on the high

court last week suspended the policy at least for a few hours and gathered the media for something akin to a state of the

court address, confidently detailing the reforms she has begun so far. Then she fielded questions.

Sereno made it clear that interpreting and protecting the Constitution is just a part of her job, and perhaps even the less

burdensome. On her shoulders is the weight of administering the courts of the land, covering everything from threats to the

lives of judges to decongesting the courts to improving salaries of court employees. She must not only be a top-notch legal

mind but an innovative manager and leader.

Many of the improvements in the past year were focused on making court systems more efficient.

Judicial affidavits, efficient paper use

In September, the Sereno-led court approved guidelines for the "Judicial Affidavit Rule," a policy that aims to cut by two-

thirds the time it takes for witnesses to undergo direct testimony by using judicial affidavits.

Presented in a question-and-answer format, judicial affidavits contain a witness' testimony in place of him or her being

direct-examined to expedite the presentation of evidence.

The policy was supposed to have started last January but had to be pushed to December, after the National Prosecution

expressed reservations over it.

Then in November, the high court also approved guidelines for the "Efficient Paper Rule," which set rules in the use of paper

when filing motions and pleadings, as well as when writing decisions or any administrative documents in the judiciary.

The rule also introduced for the first time electronic filing or e-filing, which require parties to simultaneously file soft or

electronic copies of their petitions or pleadings and their annexes (the latter in Portable Document Format of PDF). Filing

could either by email to the Courts e-mail address or by providing a copy in compact disc.

In the first half of 2013, e-filing was on voluntary basis, but would have become compulsory after that. At the time, the court
said this additional requirement would be "in preparation for the eventual establishment of an e-filing paperless system in the

Judiciary."

Full gear with eCourt

Then just last June, the high court went full gear with its being "tech savvy" when it launched at the Quezon City Regional

Trial Court the first ever "electronic Court (eCourt)," a computer-based system to organize and control case workflows, from

filing to implementation.

The computerized system is currently being pilot-tested at the QC RTC for eventual use in all courts nationwide.

"Even court employees nowadays play Angry Birds, Temple Run, and Candy Crush... at home... The judiciary cannot be left

behind. And it has to answer to the growing need for computerize court processes," said QC Presiding Judge Bernelito

Fernandez during the launch.

The eCourt system can be used to capture basic case information as they are filed, and tracks subsequent documents filed

at the branch courts. Decisions and writs of execution are likewise uploaded to the database.

The system minimizes or prevents errors in court fee payments, by automatically assessing the correct fee to be charged.

The system records payments made for each case and prints out official receipts.

Assigning of cases or "docketing," as well as raffling to judges are all done electronically through the eCourt. The system

also monitors and manages important dates relative to a case, and records different actions made during hearings, as well

as the status of cases.

It was during Sereno's press conference last week where she revealed a plan to create "call centers" to accommodate small

claims cases, to avoid these cases from going through the rigors of lengthy regular court proceedings. Sereno said the SC is

also thinking of assigning some judges to help areas where court dockets are heavily clogged.

Even within the four walls of its Public Information Office, reforms were evident. Aside from the obvious changing of guards

in leadership at the SC PIO from Court Administrator Midas Marquez to human rights lawyer and former University of the

Philippines professor Theodore Te as spokesman few policy changes were also introduced.

It was under Te's PIO leadership where the SC website (sc.judiciary.gov.ph) underwent a major revamp, from having a total

make-over of the site design to introducing micro-sites for important and high-profile cases that contain digital copies of

petitions, resolutions, case background and guidelines.


But perhaps the more bold reform toward making the high court more accessible to the public was the introduction on the

SC website of podcast or audio recordings of the traditionally banned-for-broadcast oral arguments. This allowed people to

monitor debates inside the halls of the SC even without going to Padre Faura where the SC sits.

Sereno had boasted that all these reforms under her one-year-old leadership were carried out despite the judiciary being

tight on budget, only getting a measly 0.83 percent of the annual national budget or P15,075,891,000 of the P1.816 trillion.

"Please Congress, kindly give us more money so we can have better-looking chairs and tables," Sereno then appealed to

the lawmakers who appropriate the budget.

Transparency

In one of the several bold moves by the SC in 2012, and right after the ouster of its former chief, Renato Corona, it opened

to the public data on the justices' wealth.

Under Sereno's term, the high court for the second time allowed the media to peek into their Statements of Assets,

Liabilities, and Net worth, revealing justices' wealth ranging from P2 million up to more than P100 million.

Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo has remained the wealthiest among the 15 Supreme Court magistrates with his

assets worth P109,743,118.28.

Meanwhile Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, the latest appointee and the most junior member among the high court

magistrates, was the least wealthy, with a net worth af P1,674,623.22.

Cases

According to the SC, it has resolved 4,262 of the 11,302 cases concerning judicial matters that landed on its justices' desks

in 2012, or a case disposal rate of 33 percent.

For cases involving administrative matters, the high court resolved 1,816 of the 4,134 cases or a 44-percent disposal rate.

A portion of these cases, naturally, was resolved already during the leadership of Sereno in the latter part of 2012. In the

following year, even more cases needed resolving. Sereno's one year term saw the high court ruling on high-profile and

controversial cases.
The Sereno-led court twice ruled in favor of the coconut farmers from the Martial Law era. In September, the high court ruled

with finality that a 24-percent bloc of San Miguel Corp. (SMC) shares was bought with coconut levy funds which constitute

public money awarding it to government with a caveat that it should be used only for the benefit of coconut farmers and

the industry.

Then in December, the high court affirmed a Sandiganbayan partial summary judgment ruling that businessman Eduardo

"Danding" Cojuangco is not entitled to shares in the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCBP) since the money used to buy it

came from public funds.

In a historic move, the SC also settled a plethora of petitions filed by a number of party-list groups that were disqualified by

the Commission on Elections mainly for not being actual representatives of marginalized and underprivileged sectors.

In its ruling, the high court let the Comelec decide on the matter, but taking into consideration a new set of parameters for

party-list groups that allowed even non-marginalized ones to take part in the polls.

Despite resolving several high-profile cases, the high court still has been left with several more pending ones.

The SC has just finished hearing oral arguments on the highly divisive "Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health

Act," enacted in December last year, and the revived issues on government shares under Republic Act 7942 or the Mining

Act of 1995.

A status quo ante order is currently enforced against the RH Law, preventing its implementation, indefinitely.

Just like in the RH Law, Republic Act 10175 or the Cyber-crime Prevention Act of 2012, signed by the President in

September last year, is indefinitely stopped through a temporary restraining order.

The law, which punishes online crimes and bestows additional powers to the Department of Justice in restricting and taking

down sites, is being criticized for being too vague and overarching in its scope.

Controversies

But just like all her predecessors, Sereno did not sail through her first year in calm seas.

The media reported on several occasions how Sereno seemed to have clashed with senior Associate Justice Teresita

Leonardo-De Castro.
In December, De Castro revealed how Sereno reopened the Regional Court Administration Office in Region 7 in Cebu City,

making the move appear it had the go-signal of the full court when it had not.

Five months later, Sereno once again drew De Castro's ire, who this time accused the chief justice of "deleting" her [De

Castro's] recommendation in the temporary restraining order issued by the high court stopping the Commission on Elections

from further proclaiming winning party-list groups in the May 13 elections.

In an annual report it released last week, the high court emphasized that despite all changes, controversies, and transitions,

the high court's work continued "without let-up."

"The four pillars of judicial reform (on the SC's integrity, responsiveness to judicial actions, systems and infrastructures, and

efficient human resources) have provided the framework for the overarching objective of a stable, efficient, and transformed

judiciary," the SC said. LBG/HS, GMA News

The Supreme Court announced on Tuesday the first judicial reform under Chief Justice Maria
Lourdes Sereno that was initiated by her reviled predecessor, Renato Corona.

The high tribunal said it had approved a new court rule that would result in cutting short the
testimony of witnesses in court proceedings by requiring them to submit affidavits in lieu of oral
direct testimony, thereby allowing a speedy resolution of cases.

This means that the witnesses will be subjected to cross examination immediately and cut short by
50 percent the presentation of witnesses, according to Deputy Court Administrator Raul Villanueva,
who was designated the courts new communicator for judicial reform.

Judicial affidavit rule

At a briefing, Villanueva said the court approved unanimously at its en banc meeting Tuesday what
he described as the judicial affidavit rule upon the recommendation of Senior Associate Justice
Antonio Carpio, chairman of the committee on revision of rules of court, and Associate Justice
Roberto Abad, head of the subcommittee on revision on rules of procedure.
Villanueva, a former trial judge, said the measure, which would take effect on January 1, was pilot-
tested at the Quezon City Regional Trial Court beginning in April while Corona was facing the
Senate impeachment court, which subsequently ousted him for dishonesty in his asset declarations.

He said the measure would apply to all actions, proceedings and incidents requiring the reception
of evidence in all courts and quasi-judicial bodies. Parties in a litigation are required to submit the
judicial affidavits not later than five days before pretrial or a preliminary conference or prior to
scheduled hearings of motions and hearings, he said.

The affidavit contains the name of the witness, the name of the lawyer who took the evidence and
statement that the witness is answering questions and that he is conscious that he is under oath and
may be held criminally liable for false testimony or perjury.

The new rule applies to criminal cases under three circumstances: when the maximum penalty does
not exceed six years, the accused agrees to the use of judicial affidavit irrespective of the penalty
involved and in the civil aspects of criminal actions regardless of penalty.