A Conversation with Philippines Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno
December 14, 2016
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs has put a spotlight on justice issues. In Asia editor Alma Freeman recently sat down with Maria Lourdes Sereno, the 24th and current chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines. Sereno, who at age 52 became the second-youngest person and the first woman to head the judiciary, discusses access to justice, an under-manned justice sector, closing the gender gap, and more.
You have been a longstanding champion on access to justice issues in the Philippines. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the justice sector today?
In the Philippines, there are only 2,000 courts nationwide that serve a population of a hundred million. If you compare this ratio with developed countries, it’s clear we have an undermanned justice sector.
One of the biggest challenges surrounding access to justice is the high cost of transportation entailed in physically getting to a courtroom. The cost of a lawyer is also often prohibitive—which is the same challenge that every poor person faces in any society. Today, there are not enough lawyers or paralegals helping the poorest sectors of society in the Philippines, and it is quite unfortunate that we don’t see a proportionate increase in legal assistance vis-à-vis the increase of the population. So even though we are trying to keep pace with the problem of access to justice, we need the coordination of the Executive Department, through the Department of Justice, to help us, because the provision of legal aid is principally a province of the public attorney’s office. They are also so terribly undermanned, so the judiciary is trying to help in every way it can. I’m trying to push the law schools and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines to provide more legal interns to assist with legal aid services.
And what areas of progress have you seen?
The Supreme Court’s latest push to expand the coverage of small claims cases has provided an enormous opportunity. The lower classes of society are benefitting from the speedy disposition of cases involving money claims up to $4,000 (200,000 PhP). Turnaround is fast, and it costs nearly nothing for a litigant to press his or her claim. For many people that means a lot: instead of allocating a substantial amount of the claim for costs, you can basically secure a judgment that may be immediately executed, with the amount intact, within a day or a week at most.
So, this is one major program that we are pushing, and we are now trying to publicize the program to as many people as possible, including to overseas Filipino workers. We hope that this will bring about an improved perception by the people that the judiciary cares for the ordinary person; that the judiciary is not just for the rich and those with a dozen lawyers. The judiciary should be the one reaching out to help people in their most vulnerable moments, especially when they have these kinds of disputes, which will spell the difference between almost losing everything for those who are in the poorer sectors.
The latest World Economic Forum “Global Gender Gap Report” ranked the Philippines 7th out of 145 countries in closing the gender gap—the only Asian country to land even in the top 50. As the first woman Chief Justice in the Philippines, where do you think gender equity stands in the Philippines?
In the legal sector the gender gap is narrow—there are more female law students than male law students now, and I think that given a few more years, there will be even more women judges than male judges. But when it comes to the broader problems of women in developing countries, including the Philippines, we face the double-burden syndrome, which is still very, very prevalent. In the Philippines, for example, you have very successful women in the workplace, but who still primarily or exclusively have the burden of running the household. These constraints of course have long-term effects on women’s health and ability to reach their full potential.
The greatest opportunity for Filipino women is in demonstrating leadership to their counterparts, especially in Asia. There are only a few female chief justices in the world, and law is a strongly male-dominated profession. If you have a woman who is able to show leadership in this field and who is able to navigate her way up—without playing the power games that men play—you will see a greater appreciation for the more holistic way that women approach problem-solving that can be very constructive for institution building.
In partnership with the Supreme Court, The Asia Foundation has worked to reduce court congestion and delay in cases in the Philippines. Can you give a few examples of how this problem has impacted the Court’s effectiveness?
We have an uneven distribution of cases across the country simply because the populations in most areas vary considerably.
One of the key projects I started with the support of The Asia Foundation has been the mediation project funded by the U.S. government. By investing in more human resources to analyze the court docket, this common-sense approach to solving congestion has resulted in a 35-percent docket reduction for the courts that were most heavily burdened. The program has had unparalleled success in justice reform in the Philippines with respect to docket congestion. I think that common sense works, and that practical solutions, when implemented well and when intelligently followed, bring about immediate benefits. The turnaround time was fast for this project: it was only 14 months after its launch that we saw the first results, and the national government has already provided PhP 240 million for the following year so that the program could continue.
For those who have seen this at work, it immediately gave us hope that congestion in the Philippine courts can eventually be resolved. Many people used to believe that they should just give up on the adjudication process because it was not going to lead to a resolution fast enough for everyone’s satisfaction. Now people are starting to hope. This effort must still be spread out nationwide; it must reach enough courts, and the impact must be more widely visible for us to see a nationwide turnaround.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the interviewee and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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