Online Courts: Videoconferencing Hearings During a Pandemic
On 17 March 2020, the entirety of Luzon was placed under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) pursuant to Proclamation No. 929, series of 2020. This issuance was a response to the growing number of cases of the Novel Coronavirus or COVID-19 in the country in general, and in Metro Manila in particular. The ECQ meant travel and movement restrictions as well as a shift to a work from home arrangement for most industries and occupations. Following the Proclamation, the Supreme Court issued Administrative Circular No. 31-2020 which instructed all courts to maintain only the necessary skeletal staff to act on matters that need immediate attention. The same issuance suspended all hearings, except those on urgent matters, thus: “ALL HEARINGS NATIONWIDE are suspended during this period, except on urgent matters, such as but not limited to petitions, motions and pleadings in relation to bail and habeas corpus, promulgation of judgments of acquittals, reliefs for those who may be arrested and detained during this period, and other related actions that may be filed in relation to measures imposed at the local or national levels to address the declared health emergency” . Further, because of quarantine restrictions, courts were forced to resort to remote means of delivering justice. As such, the Supreme Court released several issuances to address this shift to out-of-court means or methods, including Administrative Circular No. 33-2020 and OCA Circular No. 89-2020. These issuances provide instructions on electronic filing of complaints or informations as well as online posting of bail.
Another Supreme Court issuance that addressed quarantine restrictions is Administrative Circular No. 37-2020, released on 27 April 2020. This Circular allows hearings on urgent matters in criminal cases involving Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs) to be conducted online through videoconferencing. Accordingly, it enumerates the authorized court stations that can do a pilot test of this method of hearing cases. As stated in the Circular, hearing through videoconferencing applies to all stages of the trial, including arraignment, pre-trial, bail hearing, trial proper, and promulgation of judgment. Likewise, it applies to both newly-filed and pending criminal cases. Administrative Circular No. 37-2020 also orders courts to ensure that the constitutional rights of the accused are still protected and observed, especially the right to be present and defend oneself at every stage of the proceedings, the right to testify as witness, and the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses against them. Citing A.M. No. 19-05-05-SC, dated 25 June 2019, Administrative Circular No. 37-2020 reiterates that these rights are satisfied even when the appearance and testimony are done remotely through videoconferencing. Finally, this Circular orders participants to the hearing to preserve the solemnity of the proceedings even if they are out of court.
Later, or on 14 May 2020, the Supreme Court issued Administrative Circular No. 39-2020. Under this Circular, all courts initially authorized to conduct hearing on urgent matters in criminal cases through videoconferencing pursuant to Administrative Circular No. 37-2020 are now further authorized to hear all cases before them through videoconferencing, whether the case be criminal or civil, whether it be pending or newly-filed, and regardless of the stage of the trial. This Circular also provides that videoconferencing hearings shall be had either upon joint motion of the parties or upon orders of the court. This issuance further provides that the taking of the testimony of a witness through videoconferencing shall be akin to the taking of a deposition upon oral examination under Rule 23 Section 1 of the Rules of Court. It also emphasizes that if the witness will be testifying on duly subscribed written statements given to law enforcement or peace officers, or on affidavits or counter-affidavits submitted before the investigating prosecutor, or on judicial affidavits, such documents must be received by the court and the parties through electronic transmission at least three days prior to the scheduled hearing, in accordance with the Rules on Electronic Evidence.
Similarly, in Administrative Circular No. 40-2020, released on 15 May 2020, the Supreme Court allowed videoconferencing hearings upon joint motion of the parties or upon orders of the court. This issuance is directed to courts located in areas under the less restrictive General Community Quarantine (GCQ). These courts shall follow the same guidelines provided in Administrative Circular No. 39-2020. Thus, despite the re-opening of courts in some areas, particularly in areas under GCQ, videoconferencing hearings may still continue. In fact, on 31 May 2020, the Supreme Court announced continuation of videoconferencing hearings in GCQ areas, citing the initial success of this method, where more than 7,000 videoconferencing hearings were done in a month and more than 22,000 PDLs were released during the lockdown. Following this announcement, more courts were authorized to conduct hearings through videoconferencing when the Supreme Court released OCA Circular No. 100-2020 on 3 July 2020.
Recently, more and more areas in the country are placed under GCQ and under the even less restrictive Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ). However, even with this transition, the Supreme Court has not yet released any issuance or order prohibiting or suspending the conduct of hearings through videoconferencing. While Administrative Circular No. 37-2020 states that hearings through videoconferencing shall apply only during the public health emergency period, it appears that that might no longer be the case. Hearings through videoconferencing is noticeably gaining approval from lawyers and magistrates alike, due perhaps to its success thus far. This might then be an indication that achieving justice through remote and electronic means may form a huge part in the new and hopefully better normal. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, one important question remains unanswered: does the shift to online means and methods make justice more accessible, or does it actually make justice less accessible than it already is?
 SC Admin. Circ. No. 31-2020, 16 March 2020.