By Hannah Torregoza, May 23 2019; Manila Bulletin

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The Senate has approved on third and final reading the measure creating judges-at-large positions in the lower courts to address the perennial backlog in trial courts.

Senate Bill No. 2065, under Committee Report No. 496, or the proposed “Judges At-Large Act” of 2018 was approved with 17 affirmative votes, zero negative vote, and no abstention.

Senator Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara, principal author of the measure, said the lack of judges is one of the primary factors of court congestion. Another factor is the deployment of regular judges as assisting or acting judges.

“The measure intends to amend Batas Pambansa Bilang 129 by providing for the positions of judges-at-large who have no permanent salas,” Angara said.

Angara explained that the deployment of regular judges as assisting or acting judges has proven to be an unproductive and inefficient solution in reducing backlog in trial courts as those who are deployed often have to divide their attention between their own sala and the vacant or congested court to which they have been assigned.

The lawmaker said data from the Senate Legislative Budget Research and Monitoring Office (LBRMO) in 2018 revealed that out of the 37,230 total positions in the Supreme Court and the lower courts, 12,076 are unfilled – or roughly a third of the total positions.

During a Senate finance committee hearing in 2012, he said lawmakers were told that there were 591 trial courts—or about 26 percent of the total—which were considered vacant, even though these were funded.

“The committee further found out that the funds for these vacant courts were considered ‘savings,’ then realigned and disbursed as additional compensation for sitting judges and personnel,” Angara said.

Under the measure, Angara said these judges-at-large shall have the same qualifications, salaries, privileges, allowances, emoluments, benefits and ranks as their counterpart judges, but with additional “displacement allowances” to cover their housing, food, transportation and other necessary expenses incurred during their detail to courts outside their places of residences.

Sen. Richard Gordon, chair of the Senate committee on justice and human rights and sponsor of the measure, also commended the passage of the bill in the Senate.

“Justice delayed is justice denied. Article III, Section 16 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution specifically states that ‘all persons shall have the right to a speedy disposition of their cases before all judicial, quasi-judicial or administrative bodies,’” Gordon said.

“We are aware that there are courts that have overloaded salas or dockets. The proposal here, therefore, would assign judges-at-large to support or to assist practically in passing these cases that are loading the docket so that justice could be made more swift,” he added.

“The reason why we are doing this is not just to relieve the judges but because of the provision of the Constitution that disposition of cases must be done fast so we won’t violate the theory of speedy dispensation of justice,” he said.