MANILA (UPDATE) — To keep themselves safe from the coronavirus, officers of a court in Surigao del Sur decided Wednesday to temporarily hold a hearing outside the courtroom— the first time they resorted to such mode.
Hazel Plaza-Mabale, one of the prosecutors participating in a case being heard at the Municipal Circuit Trial Court in Hinatuan town, said holding outdoor proceedings was considered by Judge Vicente Dumbrigue Jr. as a defendant attending the hearing had come from a detention facility where 12 police personnel were recently found to be COVID-positive through antigen testing.
“Mag-video conference unta mi para ma-hear iyang motion. Unfortunately, hinay kaayo ang signal. Maluoy man ang judge kung dili siya ma-hear. So, gipaadto na lang siya sa court,” Plaza-Mabale, speaking in the local language, told ABS-CBN News on Thursday.
(We were supposed to hold a video conference to hear his motion. Unfortunately, the signal wasn’t stable. Since the judge took pity on the accused if his motion isn’t heard, we were all asked to go to the court.)
“Gipagawas mi sa courtroom og didto na lang mi nag-hearing para maka-social distance mi sa detainee,” she added.
(We were instructed to go outside where we held the hearing, so we can observe physical distancing.)
Actual court hearings continue to be conducted in Hinatuan, a quiet coastal town facing the Pacific Ocean currently under modified general community quarantine, subject to minimum health protocol, said Plaza-Mabale.
The World Health Organization has said that COVID-19 transmission can occur more easily in confined and enclosed spaces with poor ventilation, in close-contact settings especially where people talk very near each other, and in crowded places.
“Kani siya ang exception nga outside sa court, kay mahadlok ang judge basi ma-expose mi sa detainee, kay gamay ra ang courtroom, unya air-conditioned. So, gipagawas mi niya,” Plaza-Mabale said.
(This was an exception - holding it outside of the courtroom - because the judge is worried we might be exposed to the detainee, considering the small size of the courtroom and it being air-conditioned. So, he instructed us to do it outside.)
Photos of Wednesday’s outdoor hearing shared by another prosecutor Wilfredo Rebuyon showed all six court officers and staff, led by Dumbrigue, as well as an accused, standing on a grassy yard, under tree shade, at a distance from each other.
All wore face masks.
Plaza-Mabale said the proceeding lasted 20 minutes, with the court completing the arraignment of a total of two accused and granting their motion to reduce bail.
“Na-release sila (They were released) from detention on the same day,” she said of the two who are facing charges for violation of Presidential Decree No. 704, or the Revised Forestry Code of the Philippines.
“Bilib bitaw ko ni Judge. Niadto jud mi sa kasagbutan para lang makapiyansa ang accused. Ang court gyud ang ni-adjust,” she added.
(I appreciate the Judge. We all went to a grassy area just so the accused can post bail. The court really did some adjustments.)
Courts in the country have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as with all other sectors, prompting the Supreme Court to issue guidelines on how the judiciary can continue with its tasks during this time of crisis.
On May 14, 2020, the SC authorized all courts in areas under lockdown to hold virtual or online hearings to partially reopen the judiciary and move heaps of legal matters forward.
Two weeks later, it also permitted electronic or online filing of charges and complaints, and bail posting. It eventually led to the resumption of full operations of courts nationwide, as government also relaxed lockdown restrictions on June 1.
Amid the lingering threat of the COVID-19, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) has requested the government to include lawyers in the vaccine priority population group A4 (frontline personnel in essential public and private sectors directly facing clients).
"Courts and other tribunals as well as necessary physical contact between lawyers and their clients have been proven spreaders of the COVID-19 virus. Quite a number of judges, prosecutors, and practicing lawyers have succumbed to the COVID-19 virus, despite repeated site or area lockdowns and travel restrictions," IBP president Domingo Cayosa said in a letter to Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and National Task Force COVID-19 Chairman Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
"The legal frontliners are particularly at risk and should be similarly protected," he added.
- with report from John Gabriel Agcaoili, ABS-CBN News