Court’s digital transformation forced by Covid-19

The legal industry has been resilient to change, innovation, and technology.

There is so much romanticism in doing many things the “old-fashioned way”. Many think that you are not a lawyer unless you use a pen and a legal pad, open a law book, or burn the midnight oil. This kind of fixed mindset make it difficult for many to trust and use technology.

You’ll be surprised as to how many lawyers don’t know how to use a computer, the Internet, and mobile gadgets. Forget about asking email addresses from these lawyers as they will likely give you a fax number instead. (Yes, fax still exists in certain law firms.)

When the Supreme Court and agencies such as the Department of Justice adopted electronic filing of pleadings and submissions a few years back (sometime in 2013 or more than 10 years since the mass use of the Internet and email), they required the use and submission of digital CDs which should contain scanned copies of the pleadings. Many younger lawyers reacted: “Who the heck still uses CD?”

There is no reason for using CDs anymore in the age of applications being installed from the Internet and communications being sent by email. In fact, most laptops already phased out CD/DVD-rom drives by then. It was thus challenging for many lawyers to burn a CD copy of pleadings as they look for computers that still had CD/DVD-rom drivers, which often was available only in Internet cafes.

When Covid-19 struck this year, and with the rising number of arrests for quarantine violations, the Supreme Court issued regulations on virtual hearings to ensure and protect that the constitutional rights of the accused, including preliminary investigation, posting of bail, and arraignment, among others. The hearings were limited to criminal cases and incidents where urgent court action was required to guarantee an individual’s liberty while waiting for the case to be heard, except for non-bailable offenses.

While there are yet to be news on how the digital hearings were conducted or its feasibility given the technological limitations, the coverage has been extended to all criminal and civil cases.

What took years for courts to adopt to electronic filing only took barely weeks to implement digital hearings, which are more important and more difficult in terms of the overall impact on the litigation of cases.

Imagine all of these actors in the convenience of their offices or homes: judges, court staff, lawyers, and clients. Would judges or lawyers be able to read the behavior and non-verbal communications of a witness? Would you be able to see if a witness is fidgety, avoids eye contact, and any other behavior putting into question his/her credibility?

On the side of lawyers, it would be challenging to protect clients or witnesses, such as making objections to misleading questions of the other counsel.

Nonetheless, this is a good development as the world will not stop spinning nor people from interacting. So long as these continue, conflicts are sure to arise. Courts should be ready to step in and perform their constitutional mandate to resolve controversies.

Still, one could simple wonder, if not for Covid-19, would we have digital hearings this early or this would have been implemented still 5 years or more from now.

Update: 29 May 2020

Digital hearings via videoconferencing resulted in the release of 22,000 detainess who were classified as persons deprived with libert. (See: Philstar News)

Update: 31 May 2020

  • 7,000 videoconferencing hearings done in a month
  • 22,000 plus persons deprived of liberty released
  • Videoconferencing to continue in areas under General Community Quarantine (GCQ)