Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 22 November 2014


“After 18 years, 9 found guilty in Ozone inferno.” That was the headline on the front page of this newspaper yesterday, exposing the shamefully slow dispensation of justice in the Philippines, in our antigraft court, the Sandiganbayan (SB). In the same issue, another headline, this time on page 4, “Dr. Binay buys time in cases against her” (a double entendre?), helps shed some light on why the wheels of justice grind so slowly.

With regard to the first headline, it turns out, reading the story, that it is not quite accurate. It isn’t 18 years, but 18 years and eight months, which may be rounded off to 19 years. Anyway, all my current students at the University of the Philippines were either unborn or babes in arms at the time of the Ozone Disco Club incident. But I still remember the horror I felt when I heard the news: 162 burned to death, another 93 injured, the majority of them young.

As I recall, they were bunched up against the exit door of the club, because it opened inward rather than outward, and the press of panicked people trying to escape prevented the door from being opened. The other exit door was blocked by furniture. Senseless. Avoidable. The news reports at the time pointed out several other features of the club which were in direct violation of fire regulations and the national building code. And yet permits were given freely and rapidly by the concerned officials.

So the question is: Why did it take the SB 18 years and eight months to come to the same conclusion as the media did? I understand there is the right to due process, etc., etc., but this is obviously ridiculous. The building and fire code provisions are written down. A physical examination of the premises would have been sufficient to show where the violations occurred; an examination of the building and other permits issued, and the applications for them, would not have taken too long.

Indeed, the SB decision talks about the “overwhelming” audacity of the owners, the officials’ “overlook[ing] obvious violations of the National Building Code.” It took the justices 18 years and eight months to come to this conclusion? When everything was so obvious and overwhelming? How long will it take for other cases that may be more nuanced?

The Elenita Binay headline and story on page 4 of this newspaper gives us a hint about why cases take so long: She was supposed to have been arraigned on Thursday, Nov. 20, in regard to one of the four cases regarding the Ospital ng Makati equipment expenses (I think this case has been going on since 2007 or 2008). Heidi Mendoza was state auditor and she determined that the expenditures in all four cases were grossly overstated. Mrs. Binay was mayor at the time.

So what does it mean, “arraigned”? I looked it up. To arraign means to call or bring someone before a court to answer a criminal charge. That’s when he/she pleads guilty or not guilty, or does not enter a plea at all, at which point the court enters a plea of not guilty. So it is a very simple process, right? What happened in this case, though, is that Mrs. Binay’s lawyer said they received the notice only on Nov. 14 (meaning, six days before the hearing), and he asked the SB to cancel the arraignment because he planned to file a motion for reconsideration.

And the SB, after reportedly discussing the issue for 40 minutes (this is important, because a case hearing generally takes an hour or so, because there are other cases to be heard), resets the arraignment to Jan. 29, or two months and nine days later. Dilatory tactics on the part of the lawyer? Or excessive gentleness on the part of the court? Or a combination of both? I don’t know. But that’s how cases get delayed. Or at least, one of the reasons.

I wrote about the need to increase the number of SB justices in this column six months ago, citing data that tended to show that the average time for case resolution has increased from 6.6 years to 8 years, although other estimates cite up to 12 years. As of March 2014, the justices had 3,031 unresolved cases.

The SB started with nine justices in 1978 (population: 39 million), going up to 15 justices in 1995 (population: 67 million). In 2005, there was a move (unsuccessful so far) in the Senate to bring the number of justices up to 45. This move was endorsed by the Ombudsman at the time, Sonny Marcelo (one of the best we’ve had). I said I would harp on the subject until it gets done. It didnít get any attention then, but I hope that this time, because of the Ozone case, it will. One would expect, under an administration where the war against corruption is given top priority, any move to speed up the punishment of the corrupt will have first preference. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

On the other hand, even with 15 justices now, the pace of decision-making should be faster. I went to the SB website to see what I could see. And what I saw was horrible.

In 2014, for the first eight months, the SB reports only 12 decisions and 14 resolutions. I looked at 2013, and for the whole year, 16 decisions and seven resolutions were promulgated, which means about one decision and 0.5 resolution per justice.

The year 2012 was not much better, with 19 decisions and three resolutions; 2011 and 2010 were significantly better, with 48 and 46 decisions, respectively. But even then, that means roughly three decisions on the average were rendered per justice for those years.

It seems we not only have to increase the quantity, but also the quality, of the justices.