The Roles and Responsibilities of the Philippine Judiciary

Have you ever wondered how disputes are settled? Say for instance, how is a conflict between two individuals solved? How is justice served when an individual violated a law? Where can people ask for help when the government commits violation of citizens’ rights? These questions pertain to the interpretation and application of the law.

You have already learned that the national government is comprised of three branches, which are co-equal and which operate under a system known as separation of powers and checks and balances. If the legislative enacts laws and the executive implements them, what roles does the judiciary play? This section deals with the third branch of the government— the judiciary. In addressing the questions raised above, the judiciary exercises what is called its judicial power.

Judicial Power

The power to decide on legal disputes is known as judicial power. Article VIII, Section 1 of the 1987 Constitution provides that “judicial power shall be vested in one Supreme Court and in such other lower courts as may be established by law.” As provided in the same section, “it includes the duty of the courts of justice to settle actual controversies involving rights which are legally demandable and enforceable, and to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the Government.” Hence, the central function of the judges is to adjudicate and interpret the law.

The judicial branch is one of the three independent, coequal, and coordinate branches of the government. The independence of the Philippine judiciary is manifested in the following:

  • Creation of the Judicial and Bar Council
  • Expanded power of judicial review
  • Fiscal autonomy of the judiciary
  • Power to review proclamation of martial law and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus
  • Security of tenure of the judges
  • The Supreme Court as judge in presidential elections

Structure, Organization, and Composition of the Judiciary

The present judiciary is comprised of regular courts tasked to administer justice. These are organized into four, the first two being review courts and the last two being trial courts:

  • Supreme Court
  • Court of Appeals
  • Regional Trial Courts
  • Metropolitan Trial Courts, Municipal Trial Courts, Municipal Circuit Trial Courts, and Municipal Trial Courts in Cities

There are also special courts, which are tribunals that have limited jurisdiction over certain cases or controversies. One example is the Shari’a Court, which has the powers similar to the regular courts but the subjects over whom judicial powers are exercised are limited to Muslim Filipinos (Pangalangan 2011). Another is the Court of Tax Appeals, which retains exclusive appellate jurisdiction to review by appeal not only civil tax cases but also those that are criminal in nature. Finally, the Sandiganbayan is a special court that has jurisdiction over civil cases (including graft, corruption, and other offenses) committed by public officers and employees and those in government-owned or government-controlled corporations.

The expanded judicial system of the Philippines also includes quasi-courts or quasi-judicial agencies. These are bodies or agencies that exercise adjudicatory powers in certain types of controversies. While judicial powers technically pertain to and are exercised only by courts, agencies such as the Civil Service Commission, Commission on Elections, and Commission on Audit also posses quasi-judicial powers (Pangalangan 2011).

The following presents the organization of regular courts.

The organization of courts
The organization of courts

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is also known as the court of last resort. It is composed of a chief justice and 14 associate justices.

Powers of the Supreme Court
according to Article VIII, Section 5 of the 1987 Constitution

  1. Exercise original jurisdiction over cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and over petitions for certiorari, prohibition, mandamus, quo warranto, and habeas corpus.
  2. Review, revise, reverse, modify, or affirm on appeal or certiorari, as the law or the Rules of Court may provide, final judgments and orders of lower courts in:

    1. All cases in which the constitutionality or validity of any treaty, international or executive agreement, law, presidential decree, proclamation, order, instruction, ordinance, or regulation is in question.

    2. All cases involving the legality of any tax, impost, assessment, or toll, or any penalty imposed in relation thereto.

    3. All cases in which the jurisdiction of any lower court is in issue.

    4. All criminal cases in which the penalty imposed is reclusion perpetua or higher.

    5. All cases in which only an error or question of law is involved.

  3. Assign temporarily judges of lower courts to other stations as public interest may require. Such temporary assignment shall not exceed six months without the consent of the judge concerned.

  4. Order a change of venue or place of trial to avoid a miscarriage of justice.

  5. Promulgate rules concerning the protection and enforcement of constitutional rights, pleading, practice, and procedure in all courts, the admission to the practice of law, the integrated bar, and legal assistance to the underprivileged. Such rules shall provide a simplified and inexpensive procedure for the speedy disposition of cases,shall be uniform for all courts of the same grade, and shall not diminish, increase, or modify substantive rights. Rules of procedure of special courts and quasi-judicial bodies shall remain effective unless disapproved by the Supreme Court.

  6. Appoint all officials and employees of the Judiciary in accordance with the Civil Service Law.

Section 6 also provides that the Supreme Court shall have administrative supervision over all courts and the personnel thereof.

The offices under the Supreme Court include the Judicial and Bar Council, the Office of the Court Administrator, the Philippine Judicial Academy, and the Philippine Mediation Center.

Section 8 provides that “a Judicial and Bar Council is hereby created under the supervision of the Supreme Court composed of the Chief Justice as ex officio Chairman, the Secretary of Justice, and a representative of the Congress as ex officio Members, a representative of the Integrated Bar, a professor of law, a retired Member of the Supreme Court, and a representative of the private sector.”

The president shall appoint the members of the Judicial and Bar Council for a term of four years with the consent of the Commission on Appointments. “Of the Members first appointed, the representative of the Integrated Bar shall serve for four years, the professor of law for three years, the retired Justice for two years, and the representative of the private sector for one year” (Section 8, paragraph 2). Moreover, “the Council shall have the principal function of recommending appointees to the Judiciary. It may exercise such other functions and duties as the Supreme Court may assign to it” (Section 8, paragraph 5).

Qualifications, Term of Office, Appointment, and Removal of the Members of Judiciary

The following are the qualifications of the members of the Supreme Court as provided by Article VIII, Section 7, paragraph 1:

  • Natural-born Filipino citizen
  • At least 40 years old
  • Must have been for 15 years or more a judge of a lower court or engaged in the practice of law in the Philippines
  • Of proven competence, integrity, and probity

Paragraph 2 of the same section provides that the “Congress shall prescribe the qualifications of judges of lower courts, but no person may be appointed judge thereof unless he is a citizen of the Philippines and a member of the Philippine Bar.”

Meanwhile, Section 9 stipulates that “the Members of the Supreme Court and judges of the lower courts shall be appointed by the President from a list of at least three nominees prepared by the Judicial and Bar Council for every vacancy. Such appointments need no confirmation. For the lower courts, the President shall issue the appointments within ninety days from the submission of the list.” Just like the president and vice president, the justices of the Supreme Court may be removed from office through impeachment (Article XI, Section 2).

Section 11 of Article VIII mandates that the members of the Supreme Court and the judges of lower courts shall hold office in good behavior until they reach 70 years old, or become incapacitated to fulfill their duties. The authority to discipline judges of lower courts is vested in the Supreme Court en banc. The judges of lower courts could also be dismissed by a vote of a majority of the members who took part in the deliberations on the issues of the case.

Finally, section 12 prohibits the members of the Supreme Court and of other courts to be designated to any agency which performs quasi-judicial or administrative functions.

Issues, Challenges, and Prospects

The Philippine judicial system is far from perfect as it continues to face several issues and problems. Among these are the widespread perception of graft and corruption; questions on judicial independence and the manner of appointments; negative perceptions on delivering justice; delay and inefficiency in the administration of the judicial system; and people’s accessibility to courts, among others.

As Dressel (2011) observed, “despite constitutional safeguards for judicial independence and the assertiveness of the Philippine Supreme Court, the judicial system generally is plagued by problems ranging from limited access to justice by the poor to chronic inefficiency and widespread perceptions of corruption and political interference.” He added that the Philippines’ poor have far less access to justice as compared to those who have connections and who make use of the system to their advantage. High-level corruption is rarely prosecuted. While the highest court of the land achieved points of success with regard to judicial reform, its programs are still spoiled by killing of judges, filing of libel suits against critical members of the media (as done by President Arroyo), and the granting of presidential pardon to President Estrada in 2007. There were also last-minute Supreme Court appointments done by Arroyo, which raised questions about the independence of the highest court. With President Benigno Aquino’s election and platform under “Tuwid na Daan,” late Chief Justice Renato Corona, an Arroyo appointee, was impeached. This was followed by the ouster of Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno through a quo warranto filed by the Solicitor General for Sereno’s failure to file her SALNs during her stint in the University of the Philippines.

Political patronage and interference continue to threaten the independence of the judiciary. Creating a strong, apolitical judiciary is more crucial in the context of Philippine democratic consolidation. The declining political trust of the public on the judiciary and the justice system is also an important concern. The immediate settling of cases and enhancing the administration of justice remain to be important challenges to judicial performance. The judiciary must also address the growing complexity of legislation and the need for advanced technologies, which will enable courts to cope with the challenges of the digital age.

Nonetheless, it must be realized that the prospects of judicial reform in the country is not solely the task of the said government branch. The judiciary encompasses an expanded justice system, and it involves several stakeholders—including, but not limited to—other branches and agencies of the government, public and private groups, and the people.