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Philippine Supreme Court conducts digital hearings amid COVID-19

After formally institutionalising videoconference proceedings for all its courts nationwide, the Philippine Supreme Court (SC) said its virtual hearings have posted a success rate of 80%.

According to the judiciary, the imposition of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) at the onset of the pandemic brought challenges across all judicial levels. In the early months of the pandemic, community quarantine and reported infections of Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs) with Covid-19 in different detention facilities restrained the movement and travel of PDLs, judges, and court personnel. During that period, the SC did not have any official regulating platform to mount video conferencing hearings which was badly needed at that time.

Accordingly, the SC issued Administrative Circular 37-2020 for the pilot testing of hearings of criminal cases through videoconferencing in select courts in cities nationwide. In just over a week of the 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.

This year, videoconferencing was formally institutionalised, and the guidelines and the conduct of video conferencing became effective. For the first time in its 119-year history, the Philippine judiciary has blazed a new concept by allowing remote testimony from parties situated even in different parts of the nation and the globe, said SC.

The court administrator said 27,000 courts across the country have carried out 170,000 video-con hearings from May 4, 2020, to January 8, 2021. At present, all courts are authorised to conduct videoconferencing hearings, bringing the total to 2,715 courts.

The SC picked an international communication and collaboration platform which is also interoperable with the judiciary’s other projects. The international tech giant said they are privileged to work alongside the Supreme Court in this historic achievement where remote appearances from parties across and beyond the country are now part of court proceedings.

Moreover, the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) released Circular 93–2020 to implement the SC’s Administrative Circular 37 –2020. The OCA circular emphasised that the pilot-test will apply only to hearings on urgent matters in criminal cases involving PDLs during the period of public health emergency in select court stations nationwide.

Under the guidelines, videoconferencing hearings will only be allowed to use the “Philippine Judiciary 365” a platform which has an application for official e-mail accounts, and the official tech partner’s collaboration tools to host the videoconferencing hearings. No court can use any other platform or an e-mail account, other than the officially provided Philippine Judiciary online platform.

Also, under the guidelines, the tribunal stressed there is a serious need to further restrain the movement and travel of court users, PDLs, judges and court personnel to further reduce the spread of the infectious COVID-19 disease.

Similarly, the SC also looks to utilise the digital space in their payment operations when the court signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with a local bank for the development of an e-payment solution for the judiciary. The electronic payment gateway will involve an application designed to provide the courts with the options to receive fees and payments digitally from litigants, their counsels, and representatives.

Following the MOA with the local bank, the SC also invited other banks and e-payment service providers to submit their proposals to integrate their e-payment service with the Judiciary ePayment Solution. The payment facility will be rolled out nationwide to first and second-level courts with pilot courts, according to the SC.

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