Wheels of justice grind slow,
results, audit of funds slower

Last of Two Parts

NUMBERS – people, cases, funds – are a messy, maddening mix in the courts. The numbers defy all myth and romance about the majesty and dread that literature ascribes to the men and women in robes, and indications are they pose a perpetual challenge for the administrators of the country’s judicial system.

Indeed, attempts of the judiciary to keep a firm grip on its budget and fiscal processes alone have already triggered periodic delays in completing audit reports, as well as caused recurring disputes on compliance with budget circulars that should apply across the bureaucracy.

As a result, according to the Commission on Audit (COA), the task of auditing the courts, and prying open their books, continues just as slowly as the wheels of justice grind in the country.

In large part, this means that there is no real gauge on just how effectively the judiciary is using the monies it receives.

For now, it certainly looks like a multibillion-peso budget has not helped the courts improve performance, based on their own targets.

By its own admission in its annual report, the judiciary’s case disposition rate has varied from a low of 22 percent for the Sandiganbayan to a mere 32 percent for the lower courts, to a high of just 60 percent for the Supreme Court.

No. 9 budget rank

This is even as its coffers overflow with monies from various sources. In the 2010 national budget, for instance, the judiciary has been allotted total new appropriations of P12.67 billion, apart from an expected P1.7 billion in collections from various court fees that support the payment of cost of living and other allowances for court personnel.

The judiciary, in fact, has consistently ranked among the top 10 recipients of public monies, by single agency category.  In 2008, it landed No. 9 on the list, after departments of Education, Public Works, Interior and Local Government, National Defense, Agriculture (with additional funding from the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act), Transportation and Communication, Health, State Colleges and Universities, but ahead of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

In addition, the judiciary receives grants for foreign-assisted projects. In 2008 alone, the Judiciary Reform Support Program that combined World Bank loans and local counterpart money amounted to P1.29 billion.

The amounts seem huge for a small but highly centralized organization of more than 25,000 personnel, including 2,194 justices and judges. Yet if court insiders could have their way, the judiciary should have an even bigger budget, so that salary rates can be adjusted further, and to sustain many reform initiatives that had been started since 2000 under the so-called Action Program for Judicial Reforms.

As it is, nearly three-fourths or 70 percent of the judiciary’s budget this year has been set aside for personnel services.  Of the judiciary’s total new appropriations, P 8.8 billion will pay for salaries, apart from cost-of-living allowances that are being sourced from court fees collections.

In contrast, maintenance and other operating expenses will get just P 3.5 billion, or 27 percent, and capital outlay, a pitiful P362 million, or just 2.8 percent.

This partly explains why, in many lower courts, inadequate and decrepit facilities and limited financial resources are additional burdens, apart from huge case loads.

1 judge: 52,077 Pinoys

This is, after all, a judicial system in which there is only one judge for every 52,077 Filipinos, according to the Supreme Court’s 2008 Annual Report. Data also show that for every case a court disposes, nearly two cases take its place.

By all accounts, without the generous servings of grants and loans from foreign donor agencies, the judiciary would not have seen changes such as the computerization of court records and the setting up of a Regional Court Administration Office — a sad commentary on the “value for justice’ that the Philippines accords its courts.

By end 2007, the dockets of the lower courts had 674,917 pending cases. By end-2008, this dipped to 642,649, or less 32,268 cases – a mere 5 percent decline because the new figure includes 333,597 new cases filed that same year.

In terms of case outflow or disposition of cases, the lower courts posted just modest gains in 2008 — 418,031 cases. The catch, however, is that of the cases disposed of, only 282,236 cases were decided or resolved; 116,560 were archived; and 19,235 were transferred to other courts.

The most clogged dockets are assuredly that of the regional trial courts with 358,112 pending cases, followed by the metropolitan trial courts, as of end-2008. There are only 770 RTC judges (apart from 192 vacancies), and 69 MeTC judges (apart from 26 vacancies) by end-2008.

But if the lower courts are not doing well in case of net case outflow, the three third-level courts – Court of Appeals, Court of Tax Appeals and Sandiganbayan – are moving even slower.

The Court of Appeals, in fact, disposed of fewer cases — from 42.9 percent in 2007 to 41.2 percent in 2008 – while the two other courts showed slight to significant progress. Both had very poor performance ratios to begin with.

The Sandiganbayan’s disposition rate rose from 11.72 percent  in 2007 to 22.8 percent  in 2008, while the  Court of Tax Appeals, from 33.8 percent to 36.4 percent..

Picture not pretty

If the actual numbers are called in though the picture does not really look as pretty.

As of end-2008, the Appeals court’s case files: 28,906 case input, 11,915 output, for or less than half of cases disposed of.

The Tax Appeals court’s case files: 1,082 input, 394 output, or just a third of cases disposed of.

The Sandiganbayan’s case files: 2,805 case input, 641 output, or less than a fourth of cases disposed of.

The high court en banc, now composed of 14 justices with the 15th member expected to be named before August 17, has a disposition rate of 46 percent for judicial matters, and 67 percent for administrative matters.

The first division has a 55 percent and 61 percent disposition rates; the second division, 67 percent and 47 percent; and the third division, 41 percent and 64 percent, for judicial matters and administrative matters, respectively.

More and more litigants are coming before the high tribunal. In 2008 alone, 11,943 new cases were filed. More than half or 7,032 cases were disposed of, just 8 percent better than the 2007 figure.

Discipline, penalties

The high court the watch of recently retired Chief Justice Reynato Puno has reportedly received zero complaint of alleged misconduct by the justices. However, 27 cases had been filed against personnel of the Supreme Court in 2008, with results ranging from two persons being dismissed, while all the others were just warned or severely reprimanded.

In contrast, the Court of Appeals has been visited by 50 administrative complaints – 26 filed, 12 decided, 10 dismissed – yet only one justice was dismissed and one other “admonished.” A Sandiganbayan justice was also “suspended” during the period.

It’s a half-and-half picture in the case of RTC judges – of 317 complaints filed, 168 had been dismissed. The penalties imposed in 53 decided cases had have been generally light. Only two were dismissed, three suspended, 8 admonished, 6 reprimanded, and 34 were imposed fines.

Against the metropolitan and municipal trial court judges, 167 administrative complaints were filed, but 74 were dismissed. Yet again, the penalties imposed were largely not severe – two were dismissed, two suspended, six reprimanded, three admonished, 16 fined, and one other forfeited service benefits.

‘Value for money’

In the meantime, COA itself conducted what was supposedly a “value for money” audit for the Sandiganbayan as part of its 2009 report on the anti-graft court. The audit, however, focused on limited performance indicators: prompt processing and disposition of cases.

According to the COA, the Sandiganbayan in 2008 disposed of 642 cases, or much more than its target of 541 cases “despite its limited budget.”  Because of that and with less than the indicative budget it allotted for disposing one case (P217,000), the COA commended the Sandiganbayan for “showing the efficiency of its personnel and the effectiveness of the program at less cost to the government.”

What the COA “value for money” audit might have missed out on, however, is the significant fact that in the panoply of courts that make up the judiciary, the Sandiganbayan’s case disposition rate is the worst.  The COA report did not discern, too, whether the cases disposed of were big or high-impact or complicated. And after what COA described as a “show of efficiency,” the Sandiganbayan’s case load remained heavy, with a total of 2,164 pending cases.

No one, though, would argue against the usefulness of audits, especially in figuring out just what is going where. Yet if the judiciary has been unable to benefit from these in recent years, it has no one to blame but itself, say state auditors.

Need to decentralize

To COA Director Rizalina Mutya, head of the agency’s Cluster B that is assigned to the courts, the judiciary could well make things simpler for itself by decentralizing its budget, accounting, and audit processes.

Mutya says that right now, “nearly all their transactions… have to be reported to the head office, unlike other agencies that have regional accounting offices that could do consolidation by end of year.”

She says that most agencies agree to deliver audit reports to COA auditors by February 15, “as their Valentine’s Day gift to us,” and so that COA could meet its April 15 deadline for agency audit reports. But Mutya says the Supreme Court is unable to do this “so the auditors are late.”

The Supreme Court, aside from being the “court of last resort,” also acts as administrator of the lower courts.

High court personnel explain that part of the causes of delay is “about 20 budget items” that have locked the courts and the budget department in a fierce debate and have placed the Treasury in a quandary. The root of the rift: which agency should control and disburse the funds, and how.

Pay hike for judges

Then there is the unsettled issue of whether salary increases granted in a series across the board by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo should be billed on top or as part of the special allowance for justices and judges that another law had authorized earlier. The backpay claims of the officers of the court could amount to about a billion pesos by now, an amount not yet reflected in the 2010 budget, according to court officials.

The problem began when then President Arroyo issued Executive Order No. 661 (dated March 14, 2007 or two months before the elections) and Executive Order No. 719  (dated May 1, 2008), which authorized two successive 10-percent increases in the compensation of all civilian, uniformed and military personnel of the  bureaucracy.

In 2007, Arroyo imputed the increase on the salaries and subsistence allowance of civil servants. In 2008, she authorized it as a 10-percent increase in their “basic monthly salaries.”

The SAJ gambit

The two pay adjustments have been paid to the court rank and file but not yet the judges and justices, who are receiving what is called the SAJ, “a special allowance equivalent to the 100 percent individual basic monthly salaries under the Salary Standardization Law, granted to justices, judges, and Judiciary officials holding a similar rank.”

Created in 2003 by Republic Act No. 9227, or “An Act Granting a Special Allowance for Justices, Judges, and those Holding Ranks Equivalent to Justices of the Court of Appeals and the Regional Trial Court,” the SAJ was implemented over the span of four years, spreading uniformly the special allowance in amounts equivalent to 25 percent of the basic salaries covered for each installment.

As provided by RA 9227, the surplus from the collections in excess of the amount paid to the recipients “may be used by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to grant additional allowances exclusively to other court personnel not covered by the benefits granted under the said law.”  Funding for the SAJ is derived from the legal fees originally prescribed, imposed, and collected under Rule 141 of the Rules of Court.

Under the SAJ law, “such special allowance shall be considered as an advance implementation of any salary increase as may be authorized by law.” The sad result: the judges and justices had been left out in the implementation of the two 10-percent pay increases that Arroyo had authorized in her two executive orders.

These days, judges in courts across the country are said to be grumbling over the issue, especially because of salary distortions that have been reportedly created. Says one high court official: “Some judges have complained that their clerks of court are now better paid than they are.”

CJ’s prerogatives

Within the ambit of the general appropriations act (GAA), however, the high court’s prerogatives over its budget have been well enshrined. The GAA enrolls “Special Provisions Applied to the Judiciary” such as:

  • On organizational structure, “The chief justice is authorized to formulate and implement the organizational structure of the Judiciary,  fix and determine the salaries, allowances and other benefits of their personnel, “and whenever public interest so requires,” make adjustments in the Personal Services itemization to cover the transfer of item or creation of new positions in the Judiciary.”
  • On augmentation of any  item in the court’s budget, the chief justice may authorize the presiding justices of third-level courts  “to use savings from any item of their respective appropriations for maintenance, repair, and improvement of their compounds and other facilities; payment of adjusted pension rates to retired justices, extraordinary expenses, commutable transportation and representation allowances and fringe benefits for justices, clerks of court, and other court officials and personnel; necessary expenses for the employment of temporary employees for judicial administration; and compensation for attorneys-de-officio.
  • On pension rates for retired justices, the chief justice is authorized “to approve the payment of adjusted pension rates to retired justices, as revised by existing laws and administrative circulars of the high court.

With such broad powers, the only thing left for the courts to do is to observe transparency and accountability in how it spends all the money at its command. – PCIJ, July 2010