Because of quarantine restrictions brought about by the pandemic, courts were forced to resort to remote means of delivering justice. In response to the health crisis, the Supreme Court issued several circulars that instructed all courts to maintain only the necessary skeletal staff, as well as circulars that sanctioned electronic or online means of filing pleadings and of conducting trials.

In fact, on 31 March 2020, the Supreme Court released Administrative Circular No. 33-2020. This Circular encouraged the method of electronic filing of pleadings. According to the issuance, its aim is to limit physical movement of court users while still enabling the courts to act on matters before it. The Circular allows criminal complaints and information, as well as their supporting documents, to be filed through electronic transmission or e-mail. Should additional documents be needed, the same may likewise be submitted through electronic means. Besides pleadings, documentary requirements for bail may also be transmitted electronically. Electronic posting of bail is allowed for both newly-filed and pending cases. According to the Circular, if the bail is approved, the approval and the release order shall be electronically transmitted as well to the proper law enforcement authority to enable the release of the accused.

Official Email Addresses

Subsequently, on 3 April 2020, OCA Circular No. 89-2020 was released. This Circular implements the earlier mentioned Administrative Circular No. 31-2020. The issuance first mandates courts to create official e-mail addresses, if they have none yet, where the pleadings and other documents will be submitted. It also mandates the Clerk of Courts to check their official e-mail accounts every 30 minutes, and to print the newly-filed complaints and information for the creation of a temporary rollo and the designation of a docket number. All pleadings received in the e-mail address shall then be transmitted to the Judge on Duty, which, if urgent, shall be resolved by such Judge; otherwise, it shall either be referred to the Executive Judge for raffle or to the Judge to whom a related pending case was earlier raffled. When OCA Circular No. 89-2020 was issued, raffles of cases have been suspended indefinitely. However, pursuant to OCA Circular No. 94-2020, released on 8 May 2020, online raffle through videoconferencing is now authorized.

Moreover, OCA Circular No. 89-2020 requires the persons filing the electronic pleadings to submit the files in Portable Document Format or PDF. Non-documentary evidence may be photographed and converted to PDF, but must be authenticated as a true photo reproduction thereof by the person submitting the same. The pleadings should still be under oath and should indicate the following details: (1) case number, (2) case title, and (3) caption, title, or heading of the pleading—e.g. Crim. Case No. 12345, People v. Juan Dela Cruz, Motion for Reduction of Bail. Court fees of the electronic submissions shall be paid in any branch of Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP).

Likewise, the posting of bail, whether through cash bond or through surety bond, shall also be made in any branch of LBP, and shall indicate the following details: (1) case number, (2) title, and (3) name of the accused for whom the bond is being posted. The validated deposit slip may then be electronically transmitted to the Clerk of Court, who is tasked to verify such payment with LBP. After verification, the Clerk of Court shall issue an official receipt, copies of which shall be transmitted electronically as well. The requirements for bail, such as pictures and fingerprints of the accused, may be submitted by the accused or their counsel electronically, and if they were submitted physically, they shall be scanned and given to the Judge on Duty digitally instead. The Judge on Duty must still personally, albeit electronically, examine the documents submitted. If bail is granted, as earlier mentioned, the Judge on Duty shall electronically transmit the release order to the relevant law enforcement authority or facility. However, upon request of the accused or their counsel, original physical copies of the release order may be provided to them.

Both the Administrative Circular and the OCA Circular emphasize that after the public health emergency, physical copies of the electronically filed documents should be produced and submitted to the courts. They also both mention that electronic filing applies only until the public health emergency persists. Nevertheless, to date, even when restrictions are being lifted one by one, the Supreme Court has not yet released any issuance that mandates going back to non-electronic means of filing pleadings and of posting bail. In fact, the Supreme Court appears to favor online modes or methods now, as can be seen with the preference given to videoconferencing hearings. Thus, the natural question that arises is this: what does all this mean for justice in the Philippines?