Leadership key to judicial reforms in Asia

Marites Danguilan Vitug, abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak

Posted at Jan 26 2009 06:03 PM | Updated as of Jan 27 2009 02:03 AM

SINGAPORE--As they reform their judiciaries, various countries in Asia and the Pacific—from Cambodia to Singapore to Nepal—are finding common lessons, the most important of which centers on leadership.

In a meeting last week of justices, judges and judicial officers from 22 countries, delegates spoke of leadership as a significant factor for reforms to succeed. These include upgrading the competence of judges, decreasing court backlogs, improving access to justice of the poor, reducing corruption and improving accountability.

“Leadership is important to ensure continuity of reforms,” Philippine Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio said during an open forum. “Senior administrators should be on board because reform means loss of power, as the courts decentralize.”

Carpio represented the Philippine Supreme Court in this regional meeting called the Asia-Pacific Judicial Reform Forum. This is the third meeting of the Forum, which was born in Manila in 2005, when justices, judges and court officers agreed to establish a “judicial knowledge and sharing network for all of the Supreme Courts and the judicial community” in Asia and the Pacific.

“It takes time before reforms become institutionalized,” Evelyn Dumdum, who used to manage reform projects in the Supreme Court, told abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak. “Leaders should therefore continue to engage all those involved in the reform process.”

Livingston Armytage, director of the Center for Judicial Studies in Australia, said that “some judges are uncomfortable with tasks which are beyond writing decisions. But realities show the need for them to participate in the reform process.”

Still, Armytage said that courts are becoming “less conservative” as they “seize the reformist role to improve justice.”

Singapore: most advanced

A highlight of this year’s Forum is the launch of its book, “Searching for Success in Judicial Reform: Voices from the Asia-Pacific Experience.” A collection of essays describing the experiences of seven countries in introducing and sustaining reforms, it is the Forum’s first collaborative project.

“While our judicial systems may be different, our challenges are more or less the same,” Singapore’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong said in his opening speech.

Singapore is the most advanced, perhaps in the world, in terms of serving justice, using modern technology and an efficient system of court administration. As court officials acknowledge, they have the advantage of size and their experience is peculiar to their historical, political and economic context.

In a decade (Singapore started its reforms in the 1990s), Singapore has gotten rid of backlogs and public trust in its courts is a high of 97%, according to a 2007 survey.

The World Bank, in a 2007 study, said that Singapore’s judicial system has been transformed from one characterized by “inefficiencies, delays and inadequate administrative capacity to one widely seen as among the most efficient and effective in the world.”

Delegates were given a tour of the Supreme Court which houses wi-fi court rooms equipped with video-conference facilities, digital audio recorders, computers, and projectors which enhance evidence on large screens. Transcription is outsourced and this service is paid for by the Supreme Court as well as the parties to a case.

The Supreme Court building itself says much about the state of Singapore’s judiciary: modern, mall-like, with touch-button information terminals (parties to cases know when their hearings are scheduled) and well-lit halls.

Community and the courts

In the discussions, it was clear that the public is vital in making reforms succeed.  In countries like Sri Lanka and Vanuatu, civil-society groups have formed coalitions with the courts to improve access to justice.

In the Philippines, civil-society groups are keeping close watch on the appointments process in the Supreme Court.

Media was mentioned as an important element in the reform process—but only by a few countries. And the experience with media is uneven.

In Malaysia, for example, negative public perception of the courts is partly blamed on the media. “Even before the courts have the opportunity to hear the evidence, the media would normally go into speculations and come to certain possible conclusions,” said Justice Tan Sri Richard Malanjum, chief judge of the High Court of Sabah and Sarawak.

“What should the courts do? Go for public relations?” Malanjum continued. “Or should the power on contempt of court be executed?”

In the case of Mongolia, part of the reform process is training the media and reaching out to the public through radio and TV, among others.

The Philippines, a few years ago, conducted training programs for reporters who cover the judiciary.

Many countries have yet to tap or work with news organizations to popularize their judicial reforms. In the meantime, “media are restrained by possible contempt of court” when they report on the judiciary, said Param Cumaraswamy of the International Commission of Jurists.

Independence and foreign funds

A number of the reform programs in the region are funded by development aid and loans from multilateral institutions like the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development.

This has become a concern among countries which questioned, at first, the agenda and influence of these funders. Armytage, who edited “Searching for Success,” wrote in the book’s introduction that judiciaries should “integrate their judicial reform plans with broader national-change agendas” and that they need to “engage more closely with their reform partners,” including donors.

When some judicial officers were initially wary of the “agenda” of foreign funding institutions, Evelyn Dumdum, who is now an ADB consultant, said that the Philippines found that judicial reform goals converged with those of the funders.

Many countries in the Forum acknowledge that, at the end of the day, reform programs should not be imposed by external agencies.