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Through justice reform programmes eCourts and Continuous Trial Guidelines, the Supreme Court of the Philippines (SC) is implementing pioneering tools and reforms to combat court congestion and backlogs. This impact evaluation will provide the SC with evidence on the impacts that eCourts and Continuous Trial Guidelines have on court efficiency.
The Philippine judiciary has long faced the challenges of court congestion, which has involved a high volume of backlogged cases and severe delays in case disposition. Such delays deny citizens the ability to access swift and fair administration of justice - a key priority of the government, as highlighted in the Philippines Development Plan (2017-2022). To address this issue, SC is implementing several reforms, primarily in first and second level trial courts, to improve court efficiency and reduce backlogs. Most notable are the introduction of a system of eCourts that involve time-saving technology, new Continuous Trial Guidelines to speed up case disposition and new Small Claims Procedures to reduce court burden.
Can improvements in technology and case management practices reduce court congestion and improve efficiency, without compromising on the quality of judicial decisions?
- Can introduction of new technology and procedures under the eCourt system improve case disposition rates and reduce average trial duration?
- Can top-down directives, in the form of Continuous Trial Guidelines issued by the SC, improve case disposition rates and reduce average trial duration?
Key outcomes of interest include case disposition, trial duration and backlog.
In 2013, the SC launched the electronic courts or eCourt programme, to improve the operational efficiency of courts and bring “real-time justice” instead of “piecemeal justice” to litigants in the Philippines. The eCourt programme is an automated case management system developed for the first and second level trial courts in the Philippine judiciary that allows judges, court clerks and the public to monitor case incidents in real-time. The main features of the new technology include: monitoring and management of important dates relative to a case; recording of different actions taken during hearings, including decisions and writs of execution; and determining and recording of fee payments. The electronic system aims to avoid redundancy in the administrative process, minimise errors in court fee payments and guarantee that all case information is effortlessly known both to courts and the public. The eCourt programme is currently operational in ten cities (around 300 courts).
Continuous Trial Guidelines
In August 2015, 52 courts in eight different Halls of Justice participated in the pilot implementation of the SC’s guidelines for Continuous Trial of Criminal Cases. The guidelines prohibit postponements, mandates prompt follow up of cases and requires the trial court judge’s immediate decision for certain cases. The final aim is to expedite trials of criminal cases. In September 2017, the SC scaled up the programme and implemented revised guidelines nationally.
Theory of change
Adopting eCourt technology and procedures should, in principle, improve judicial efficiency by reducing idle time, paper-chasing, document organisation and information retrieval. These efficiency gains should add up to reduced average trial duration and higher case disposal rates. Spillovers may include improved technical and digital skills of court staff. We believe these desired outcomes can be achieved if the following assumptions hold: (1) eCourt adoption leads to more efficient and effective case management, (2) better case management reduces trial duration and case backlogs, and (3) better case management does not increase bottlenecks at the judge’s decision stage.
Continuous Trial Guidelines
Implementing revised rules and regulations for Continuous Trial Guidelines will lead to more efficient case management of criminal cases, such as through shorter arraignment and pre-trial phase and less motions, reducing average trial duration and increasing case disposal rates. Two of the underlying assumptions are: (1) courts have enough staff and manpower to facilitate case processing, and (2) judges have the capacity to strictly implement the rules.
The difference-in-difference with matching analysis will exploit the staggered introduction of the eCourt programme infrastructure. Comparing courts with and without the eCourt programme, before and after the programme was rolled out, allows for the estimation of the effect of adopting the eCourt system on backlog and average case duration. The control group are courts where the eCourt system has been or will be rolled out at a later stage. To ensure that the parallel trends assumption holds, we will select courts that are similar along a range of characteristics at baseline, including key outcomes. Making use of case-level data availability, we will investigate the trends in these and other indicators for a year prior to the introduction of eCourt functionality.
Continuous Trial Guidelines
The research team will pursue a research strategy that complements and expands on the pilot study of 52 courts by measuring the average impacts of the guidelines through an ‘event study’ design at all courts nationally. High-frequency case data captured in administrative records will be analysed before and after the guidelines implementation deadline of 1 September 2017 across all first and second level courts nationwide. Trend analysis of the difference in outcomes between courts before and after the implementation date will provide measures of the impact of the guidelines on efficiency and compliance.