How the COVID-19 pandemic changed the Philippine legal profession

John Gabriel Agcaoili, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 17 2021 06:50 PM

How the COVID-19 pandemic changed the Philippine legal profession 1
Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta conducts an online or hybrid lecture for justices of the Court of Appeals, Sandiganbayan, and Court of Tax Appeals on Feb. 24, 2021. Courtesy of Philippine Supreme Court Public Information Office

MANILA—Lawyer Ianne Angel Aquino had a bustling life, traveling daily around in Metro Manila for court hearings, briefings, and client meetings.

Up until March 10, 2020, Aquino traveled regularly from Quezon City to Valenzuela City, before driving at least 70 kilometers to Angeles City, Pampanga in the afternoon to keep up with her criminal and civil cases.

“Sobrang hectic no’n. Sobrang dependent on ease of transportation. I needed to be able to get to different places as fast and efficient as I can,” she recalled in an online interview with ABS-CBN News.

The national president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, Domingo Egon Cayosa, also had an active traveling schedule up until March 2020, going to different provinces every week to visit the chapters of the IBP and attend its regional and local activities.

“I used to travel a lot. Once a month, I would be [also] out of the country to to attend international fora, and legal conferences and conventions,” Cayosa told ABS-CBN News.

Then on March 12, 2020, the Philippine government announced a metro-wide enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) or strict lockdown to curb the COVID-19 outbreak, which had started to tear through countries worldwide since its first emergence in China late 2019.

Travel in and out of the country's capital region — whether by land, sea, or air — was nearly impossible after the clock struck midnight on March 15, 2020. Most government and private offices, businesses and even residential villages were closed, with hardened security along city and provincial borders.

The Philippine judiciary wasn’t safe from the ECQ, which seemed like it would take forever. The country’s tribunals, from the Supreme Court to metropolitan trial courts, were shut down to curb COVID-19 transmission after few dozens of judges, fiscals, and other law practitioners contracted the deadly disease. 

Besides the fear of getting infected, Aquino, like other young practicing lawyers, worried over her scheduled hearings, unfinished work, and the future of her career, which began in 2018 after she passed the bar examinations that year.

“Nung nag-close at hindi pa nagbubukas ang mga courts, I kept asking, ‘How will I earn now na walang kliyenteng pumapasok? Sarado ’yung mga korte, sarado ’yung mga government office. Technically, they don’t need my help right now. Paano ako mahahanap ng kliyente, paano nila ako hahanapin, paano nila ako maa-afford, considering that the economy has been frozen’?” she said.

Cayosa’s usual trips and meetings in the IBP were also brought to a halt. An economist with an MBA degree, he was apprehensive that if the lockdown in Metro Manila wasn’t properly managed by government, turmoil in the capital region would be inevitable.

“Buti na lang, di umabot sa ganon. That was our fear,” said Cayosa, a cancer survivor, making him vulnerable to COVID-19.

For Anna Villanoza, a corporate and tax counsel at a law firm, her fears arose a few weeks into the lockdown as she started to realize the community quarantine would take much longer than she expected.

“I started to worry about being able to do my work because all the physical files were at the office. Moreover, our support staff couldn’t go to the office either so there was really nothing that I could do with regards to some referrals,” Villanoza told ABS-CBN News.

For nearly two months, court hearings, legal briefings, and filing of complaints and charges were seemingly non-existent in the Philippines. Cases were put on hold, pleadings were suspended, and other legal processes ceased for a time.

Realizing the lockdown and the COVID-19 pandemic will be longer than anticipated, Cayosa and the IBP urged the Supreme Court, other tribunals, and quasi-judicial and administrative bodies — including the Department of Justice — to make use of online or computerized legal processes.

“This pandemic has shown to us the necessity of doing things much faster in using technology. Truth to tell, even before this pandemic, IBP and our leadership has been advocating for a paradigm shift,” Cayosa said, adding that their campaign to go digital began years ago.

On May 14, 2020, the country's top tribunal authorized all courts in areas under lockdown nationwide to hold virtual or online hearings to partially reopen the Philippine judiciary and move heaps of legal matters forward. 

Two weeks later, the Supreme Court also permitted electronic or online filing of charges and complaints, and bail posting. It eventually led to resumption of full operations of courts nationwide, as government also relaxed lockdown restrictions on June 1.

“We’re very thankful, that because of the pandemic many of the institutions to which we’ve been proposing to go digital and electronic have responded,” Cayosa said.

SNAGS IN DIGITAL TRANSITION

With the online and electronic transition of the Philippine judiciary, Aquino to continue her work. 

But she knew adjusting to the digital shift was going to be difficult since she can’t be in courts in person, even at her office or where she usually meets her clients due to mandatory physical distancing and other minimum public health standards.

Aquino installed an online communication app on her computer and set up an office at her residence with all her necessary documents and equipment only to face another dilemma — some of her clients and witnesses don’t know how to use video conferencing, especially her pro bono clients or underprivileged clients, who had to borrow computers.

“I had to ask them na, ‘Marunong po ba kayo mag-download ng (Microsoft) Teams?’ [Iyong] mga pro bono cases na in-assign sa akin sa presinto, I had to endure talking to them via Teams in the presence of so many other people in the video conference, kasi ’yun lang ’yung opportunity na makaharap sila ng laptop ’pag nandiyan ’yung pulis," she said.

Aquino also recounted an online court hearing wherein she had to ask the judge for a question to be repeated because she wasn’t able to hear it due fluctuating internet connection. Witness testimonies in her hearings were also often delayed due to slow online access.

“Bottomline, it has been a challenging, uphill struggle of an adjustment,” she said.

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It was the same for Villanoza, as working from home denoted grinding at her “sanctuary from work.”

“Since I work until late, I had this rule that I don’t work at home. So it was very difficult to transform my home into an office,” she recalled.

Like Aquino, Villanoza had experienced a lot of technical difficulties affecting a large part of her work.

“There were a lot of dropped calls and meetings that were cancelled because other parties didn’t have a stable internet connection. But as time went on, I think everyone gradually adjusted to the situation because I encounter this problem much less,” she said.

“Technology is very important to our work. Our work is at least 90% sending emails, so if we don’t have internet we really can’t do much.”

BENEFITS OF DIGITAL TRANSITION

Cayosa said such concerns and difficulties were expected at the outset due to poor and lack of access to internet connection in the Philippines. According to the Speedtest Global Index, the country ranked 110th in mobile and 103rd in fixed broadband internet speed as of November 2020 worldwide.

But despite these difficulties, he said there are benefits that the legal sector has derived from online and electronic legal processes. Cayosa noted that in the IBP, which is the mandatory bar association for Filipino lawyers, members attended more meetings after the lockdown because online conferences were more convenient for them.

“Before, most of our colleagues, because we come from different [places] in the country, we used to spend one week on IBP matters because we travel to and from the region, and that will take a day or two,” he said.

“But nowadays, we can meet from our respective offices or residences. Hindi na kami masyadong pagod sa pagta-travel and we have also saved a lot in terms of transportation costs and accommodation costs.”

Digital legal processes have been less time-consuming, more efficient and cheaper “for everyone,” Cayosa added, stressing legal documents have been piling up before the COVID-19 outbreak due to time being wasted because of domestic road traffic.

“Many of the courts are in the urban centers. Nasasayang ang oras ng abogado sa traffic, kagaya ng lahat. Even if we have private cars, we are not spared in traffic. It adds to the delay in court processes,” he said.

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With the money she saved on gas, driver wages and plane fare, Aquino said working from home while using digital and electronic legal processes has its own advantages besides avoiding COVID-19 infection.

It also lessens the risk of lawyers being ambushed or killed by assassins, she added, a grim problem and bleak reality the Philippine legal profession has long been facing. According to Cayosa, about a dozen lawyers have been killed since the lockdown started, and 57 to 61 have been slain since July 1, 2016.

“The more we work from home, the lesser we are subject to the possibility of being shot dead on our tracks. So while working and appearing online is stressful at times, it does have its own benefits,” Aquino said. 

BEYOND LOCKDOWN FOR THE FILIPINO LAWYER

A year from the lockdown's onset, Villanoza believes most changes that happened in the judiciary following the ECQ will stay even if the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. And she expects a lot more will come.

“I think my law firm saw that work really can be done remotely with the same results, so I think the work from home arrangement will still be implemented. As for the online hearings, there are some stages that can be done online while some must be done in court. I think the court system should first polish the online procedure,” Villanoza said.

“It should also be taken into consideration that some Filipinos don’t have access to internet so don’t really see this being fully implemented soon.”

Even though she misses pre-pandemic work conditions “when it was a lot simpler”, Aquino appreciates how the judiciary has allowed young lawyers such as her to adjust practicing their craft in the digital age.

“I see a big potential for video teleconferencing to be one of the main mediums in legal procedures kasi it allows witnesses from all over the world to be present in court and speak their minds and testify,” she said.

“I also see the benefits of online filing kasi that’s less papers, less transport expenses, that's less clutter sa desks ng mga judge at fiscal and mga counsel kasi nasa computer nila.”

But there “are a lot of kinks that must be fixed first,” Aquino stressed, including improvement of technology and internet speed in the Philippines and nationwide access to them.

Cayosa agrees that the burden on government, particularly the country’s Department of Information and Communications Technology, is great to improve internet services given a massive migration to online work.

“That’s a function of government. Kaya paulit-ulit natin sinasabi, ’yung mga telcos are franchises. These are just privileges, and they’re supposed to maintain or achieve a level of quality and reliability," he said.

“We keep on encouraging government to either compel the telcos to improve their services o kaya magdagdag ng mga player para may competition talaga.”

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But despite the lingering problem of poor internet connection and lack of access to technology nationwide, the Philippines’ legal sector has proved it can learn and adjust, according to Cayosa.

“Little by little, we are encouraging and succeeding in changing the mindsets of lawyers. At napaka-successful nga ’yung ating kampanya na ating kaibigang mga foreign bar association e kinokopya na ’yung ating ginagawa sa Pilipinas,” he said.

THE FUTURE FILIPINO LAWYER

With the Philippine legal sector’s shift to online and electronic legal procedures, Cayosa and the IBP propose that law schools nationwide prepare the new generation of lawyers for the “imminent” full digitalization of the judiciary.

“Dapat dagdagan na ’yung mga subjects on IT and communication using cyberspace sa mga abogado,” he said.

On all four Sundays of November 2021, the Supreme Court will hold a “digitalized, localized, and proctored” Bar exams, a first in the country’s history. 

The top court en banc last year decided against holding the examinations due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Both 2020 and 2021 Bar takers will take the exams this year.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and the government estimating the return of normalcy in the Philippines by 2023, Aquino encouraged law students to continue their studies amid the struggle of learning law online.

“I hope for law students who are not yet due for the Bar do not lose hope and do not become complacent. I know the Socratic method is not as well as practiced, or is not as good in online than it is in person but I hope they don’t lose heart in training and studying the law,” she said, referring to dialogue which uses questions to examine values, principles, and beliefs of students.

Villanoza also urged upcoming Bar takers and aspiring lawyers to avoid distractions and prioritize their Bar studies for the time being.

“The pandemic is something they cannot do anything about, but studying for the bar is something under their control. Their responsibility right now is to study well and not lose sight of their dreams,” Villanoza said.

For Cayosa, the new Filipino lawyers must set their sights globally and accept the new age of the legal profession.

“Do not be afraid of information technology. Do not be afraid of computerization or artificial intelligence. Let’s harness and embrace these technological advantages so that we can do our jobs easier and deliver justice, and most especially, peace to our people faster, and more, and better by using [them],” he said.

“Naipakita natin sa panahon ng pandemiya na kaya nating gawin. So we hope we'll continue doing that, even beyond the pandemic.”

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