MANILA – Courts and prosecution offices in the Philippines will be closed starting Monday, March 23 – an unprecedented move to address the rapid spread of the coronavirus disease or COVID-19 but which also sparked concerns among human rights groups.
“All courts nationwide, from the Supreme Court down to the first level courts, shall be physically closed to all court users…effective 23 March 2020, Monday,” the Supreme Court announced Friday, citing the unabated rise of COVID-19 infection, the state of calamity declaration for the entire country and the many cities either on ‘Extreme Enhanced Community Quarantine’ or ‘Lockdown.’
The physical closure of the courts will limit the movement and travel of justices, judges and their skeleton-staff, the SC said, as only judges and their skeleton staff will be required to attend to urgent matters.
The courts may still be reached through hotlines, email addresses and Facebook accounts. SC urged parties to call or message the courts first from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m, Monday to Friday.
“If urgent, only then will the justice or judge on-duty, together with the skeleton-staff, go to court to receive and act on the said urgent matter,” it said.
Following the SC announcement, Justice Undersecretary Adrian Sugay issued a memorandum to all prosecutors Friday informing them that all prosecution offices around the country will also be closed.
“Upon the directive of the Secretary, all prosecution offices nationwide shall be physically closed effective 23 March 2020 and for the duration of the public health emergency,” he said, urging prosecutors to stay at home unless there are urgent matters which will require them to go to their offices or the courts.
Urgent matters include inquests for prosecutors and bail application hearings for the courts.
The high tribunal has appealed to law enforcement agents to allow justices, judges and their skeleton-staff to pass through the checkpoints while the Department of Justice advised prosecutors to coordinate with the Philippine National Police for the names of point persons and their contact details who will attend to inquests and other very urgent court duties.
Supreme Court spokesperson Brian Keith Hosaka said the executive judges of the different courts, in consultation with other judges, will take care of the mechanics as to scheduling and staffing, taking into consideration the proximity and mobility of the judges and the staff who will be required to go on duty.
Justice Secretary Menardo Gueavarra, meanwhile, encouraged prosecutors and their staff to be “creative.”
“We leave it to prosecution offices to devise their own ways; use the official vehicle, private car pool, bikes, etc. We all have to be creative these days,” he told reporters in a message.
CHANGE OF HEART
The twin announcements came 4 days after President Rodrigo Duterte imposed a Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine, suspending all forms of mass public transportation and confining residents to their houses.
Just the week before, the Supreme Court vowed to stay open despite a late-night announcement on March 12 by the President placing Metro Manila on a community quarantine, prohibiting travel to and from Metro Manila.
“The Judiciary will not shut down. It has a public duty to fulfill specifically to ensure Rule of Law even in times of crisis,” SC Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said.
Instead, SC drastically reduced court operations to a skeleton staff, temporarily suspended follow-ups and cancelled training programs offered by its education arm, the Philippine Judicial Academy.
In response, the Department of Justice suspended work and maintained a skeleton force.
What changed in a span of 1 week?
“The COVID-19 infection is rapidly rising and the Judiciary acknowledges that indeed the most effective way to curb its spread is by limiting the movement of people. Hence, the Judiciary decided to further reduce its operations to the barest minimum without actually shutting down and continue addressing the urgent needs of the public,” Hosaka said.
He denied the COVID-19 test conducted on Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta was a factor.
Peralta attended a conference in The Hague, The Netherlands from March 1 to 7, 2020. He did not show symptoms upon arrival but later on got tested on March 17 after he experienced persistent coughing. He also went into self-quarantine.
The test came out negative, the SC announced Friday.
“The limited mobility during the ECQ was a consideration, but that is something which may be addressed through coordination with the proper authorities. We simply just wanted to protect the health of our court personnel and the public from the COVID-19 virus,” he explained.
Guevarra, for his part, said the new DOJ directive was “prompted by the SC administrative order” issued Friday.
HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS
The Philippine Association of Court Employees immediately praised the SC’s decision to close the courts.
“Ito po ay sa kaligtasan din ny mga taga-Hudikatura. Asahan po ninyo ang matibay na panunungkulan namin at pakikiisa na suklian ang inyong binabahagi sa mga panahong ito,” read the PACE statement coursed through Hosaka.
(This is for the safety of those with the Judiciary. Rest assured that we will faithfully serve and join you in exchange for what you have share with us at this time.)
National Union of Peoples’s Lawyers President Edre Olalia said the decision to close the courts was “prudent and done in abundance of caution.”
But he warned: “It must not unwittingly give the impression that the justice system has ground to a halt.”
Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of rights group Kaparatan, echoed this call.
“In physically closing down courts and prosecution offices, government must ensure that access to the judicial system shouldn’t be impeded by those who go to it to obtain justice. In the same breadth, I shouldn’t be used to further political persecution through judicial harassment,” she said.
Karapatan cited the case of a 69-year-old street dweller who was arrested on March 16 after she was found sleeping on the street in Malate, Manila supposedly beyond the curfew hours.
More than 20 others were also arrested in Manila Wednesday and were not released until Friday due to the absence of prosecutors and their staff to process inquest proceedings.
The 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew in Manila was supposed to take effect only on Thursday but the Manila City council decided to implement it immediately on Monday.
On Saturday, San Juan police arrested 42 residents who violated the enhanced community quarantine while a Facebook post on Friday showed an image of minors placed inside a dog cage due to supposed violation of curfew and the ECQ.
The Justice department had earlier said there are legal bases to arrest ECQ violators, including “non-cooperation” with the ECQ.
Karapatan called for a review of this “militaristic and anti-poor response.”
“While we understand the public health emergency to be very serious and stringent measures need to be implemented to contain the spread of COVID-19, we remind the government that protecting the right to life and security should not infringe on other basic human rights and civil liberties,” said Roneo Clamor, Karapatan deputy secretary general, in a statement.
The DOJ has instructed prosecutors to “ensure the availability at all times of inquest prosecutors who shall be on-call.”
Hosaka assured the public the courts will remain operational despite its physical closure.
“The courts will only be closed physically but it will still continue to function in order to attend to urgent matters. That is why we will be providing hotlines and email addresses so that court users may get in touch with the courts in their respective jurisdictions. We cannot overemphasize that and assure the public that the Judiciary will continue to operate even in times of crisis,” he said.
Guevarra insisted criminal laws are not suspended during times of emergency.
"Law enforcement, prosecution, and court adjudication structures and procedures will just have to make the necessary adjustments, no matter how difficult it may be. Otherwise, we will have a breakdown of law and order,” he said.
For his part, former SC spokesperson and criminal law professor Theodore Te suggested introducing rules for virtual operations, including the possibility of posting bail online.
“New guidelines should be issued on posting bail online, as the official policy according to the SOJ is to continue arresting and jailing quarantine violators,” he said in a series of tweets Saturday.
“To avoid docket congestion, the Interim Rules for Virtual Courts (claiming it) may provide for bail on recognizance and a moratorium on the filing and litigation of civil complaints except for HC (habeas corpus) and Amparo and prioritize bail posting with templated orders,” he added.
The Supreme Court said the Chief Justice and the SC task force on COVID-19 will continue monitoring the situation.