Judiciary to operate with skeletal staff during Metro Manila quarantine

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 13 2020 05:01 PM | Updated as of Mar 13 2020 08:32 PM

MANILA (UPDATE) - The judiciary will continue operations but only with a skeletal force during the month-long community quarantine in Metro Manila amid the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak, the Supreme Court said Friday. 

This followed President Rodrigo Duterte's declaration Thursday night that the capital region would be under quarantine from March 15 until April 14 to contain the virus. Work in the executive branch will be suspended, travel in and out of the metro will be barred, classes will be suspended by another month, and mass gatherings are discouraged. 

In guidelines released following a special en banc meeting of justices, the high court said it was "adopting measures which were the product of feedback and consultations with its first and second level courts." 

"As part of its social and moral responsibility, the Judiciary is taking all necessary precautions to ensure the health and general welfare of its workers and the public without abandoning its mandate under the Constitution," the high court said in a statement. 

Under the guidelines, all courts in Metro Manila, including collegiate courts such as the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, the Sandiganbayan, and the Court of Tax Appeals, "shall operate only with a skeleton staff effective from March 15-April 12, 2020." 

"All justices and judges must be on standby during this period to act on and hear urgent matters," it said. 
 
A circular issued by Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta allows only those with official business in the said courts to enter their halls. It also requires that court premises and common areas "must be constantly sanitized." 

Executive and associate justices are, meanwhile, tasked to "monitor the conditions of their respective personnel and workplaces to avert the spread or threat of the virus."
 
A separate memorandum Peralta issued to the SC Chiefs of Office and Services, meanwhile, required several units to "report for work in full force": Medical and Dental Services, Office of the Bar Confidant, Property Division, Security Division, and Office of Administrative Services. 

Contractual employees of the Presidential Electoral Tribunal are not required to go to work, while the Chiefs of Office/Service must come "to ensure the normal operation of the office." 

The memo also said social distancing "shall be strictly enforced at all times," while it put in immediate effect a flexible work arrangement. 

It also suspended the personal follow-up of pending transactions with the judiciary, barring visits to courts. 

"The Office of the Chief Justice has resolved to temporarily suspend/restrict the personal follow up of all transactions throughout the various SC offices, effectively immediately, until further notice. The said suspension/restriction pertains only to dealings with the general public and other stakeholders of the Court," it said. 

Peralta also ordered the creation of a task force to address the COVID-19 outbreak, headed by Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez. 

The body "shall recommend actions to be taken, guidelines and policies to the Chief Justice and the Court En Banc to prevent the spread and minimize the threat of the virus; monitor the conditions of justices, judges, court officials and personnel, and workplaces; and monitor issuances of the Executive and Legislative Departments to harmonize actions of the Judiciary," the court said. 

The chief justice's memo also cancelled training programs and activities of the high court's education arm, the Philippine Judicial Academy. 

In a tweet following the meeting, Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said the judiciary will remain open. 

"The Judiciary will not shut down. It has a public duty to fulfill specifically to ensure the rule of law even in times of crisis," he said in a tweet. 

"Operations, however, will be adjusted to deal with the health concerns of the public as well as the welfare of judicial personnel," he said. 

Duterte declared the capital region's quarantine as at least 52 cases, mostly patients from the metro, have been confirmed, with 49 reported just over the past week. Of this number, five patients have died. 

Under the quarantine, land, domestic air and sea travel to and from Metro Manila will be restricted, while the executive branch will suspend work. 

Government also recommended the private sector to follow work-from-home schemes and discouraged mass gatherings.