Cell phone ban in courts


Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin led his first flag raising ceremony last Monday as head of the judiciary. In his speech, Bersamin asked SC employees to accept, support and love him in his 11 months as the top magistrate of the land. This actually goes without saying since he is the boss of the third branch of government (with the final say on the amount of Christmas bonus), staffers really have no choice but to love him, though this gives us an idea on the CJ’s humility, empathy and sensitivity to the feelings of those that surround him.

Surely, this statement was made under the context that a number of people expected Justice Antonio Carpio to be appointed by President Duterte. CJ Bersamin humbly acknowledged it, but justified that he actually is the most senior in the judiciary, starting out as a trial court judge, as compared to Justice Caprio, whose background is primarily in the private sector, being one of the partners of the famed CVC Law, otherwise known as “The Firm,” during the time of former President and now House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, before it painfully broke up into two warring law offices.

But this was not the most striking statement Bersamin said. As one of his policies for judicial reform, he announced his preference that court employees be banned from using cell phones during office hours. More specifically, CJ Bersamin, in Tagalog, declared: “Let us avoid using cell phones while on duty. It’s shameful. This may be petty, but it’s a good start.”

This sweeping policy directive pretty much encapsulates how the judiciary negatively perceives technology. Although phrased in very general terms, meant to be clarified and narrowed down, it is still descriptive and telling on how top management in the judicial branch feels about how technology may be more of a hindrance in their operations and discharge of official functions. Note that the exact word used by the CJ was “nakakahiya.”

Though I’m 100 percent sure that cell phones are not the enemy here; rather, it is the distraction that comes along with them. Tech-savvy and millennial court staffers probably have been busy playing mobile games, using Facebook, watching YouTube and texting for recreational purposes during office hours and these acts indeed have no place in the workplace. However, in the past few years, the role of cell phones has evolved from sources of distraction to functional gadgets integral to one’s day-to-day life.

In my past life as a trial lawyer until today as a public official, I have always been reliant on my smartphone in scheduling appointments, doing quick legal research on Google and emailing colleagues. The sending and receipt of photos are now very possible with the use of data and documents in PDF format can be reviewed instantly. It is also easier to cascade instructions in the various Viber/Whatsapp/Telegram groups that I am a part of and I can do video conferences using Skype or Facetime.

Before I continue blabbing like a college kid, allow me to relate technology to the judiciary. Instead of seeing cell phones as a distraction, these should instead be seen as a tool for efficiency and enhancement. Here are some suggestions:

The SC may contract out the development of an application on court case management in line with the digitization of court records in the various levels of the judiciary. I am aware that there are certain courts in Manila that have implemented a database search system. Some added push on this would allow its implementation in all courts, allowing litigants and court employees to electronically search for records on the app, instead of lifting bundles of dusty documents, stacked under the court benches or on top of the cabinets in courtrooms.

It may also contract the development of an alert system to litigants as notice of upcoming hearings and other deadlines that shall serve as proper notice to the parties involved. Among the problems encountered by litigants is that notices of hearings or their cancellation are at times received past the scheduled hearing date, since these are still sent out using registered mail. If these notices are sent out electronically through SMS, then so much time and paper would be saved.

Another is the conversion of the SC website to be mobile-friendly, allowing easier access to the High Court decisions that are posted online, with an alert system to notify interested parties that a certain decision has been issued already. This also saves the trouble of checking and rechecking the SC website for updates and sifting through the number of cases posted at the same time by the web administrator.

There are so many other ways to infuse technology in the judicial branch (i.e., electronic filing, mandatory email registration of lawyers, online MCLE, using laptops in Bar exams since nobody ever writes by hand a legal document) and these deserve more space in another column altogether. For now, let me conclude by respectfully appealing that cell phones should not be banned in courtrooms. It may be better to prohibit the usage of social media, video streaming and texting for recreational purposes during office hours or while in the discharge of official functions. Technology is a friend, not a foe.

Email: darren.dejesus@dejesuslegal.com

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