Philippines Judicial Department
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
The legal system used in the early 1990s was derived for the most part from those of Spain and the United States. Civil code procedures on family and property and the absence of jury trial were attributable to Spanish influences, but most important statutes governing trade and commerce, labor relations, taxation, banking and currency, and governmental operations were of United States derivation, introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Judicial power is vested in a Supreme Court and in such lower courts as may be established by law. The 1981 Judicial Reorganization Act provides for four main levels of courts and several special courts. At the local level are metropolitan trial courts, municipal trial courts, and municipal circuit trial courts. The next level consists of regional trial courts, one for each of the nation's thirteen political regions, including Manila. Courts at the local level have original jurisdiction over less serious criminal cases while more serious offenses are heard by the regional level courts, which also have appellate jurisdiction. At the national level is the Intermediate Appellate Court, also called the court of appeals. Special courts include Muslim circuit and district courts in Moro (Muslim Filipino) areas, the court of tax appeals, and the Sandiganbayan. The Sandiganbayan tries government officers and employees charged with violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.
The Supreme Court, at the apex of the judicial system, consists of a chief justice and fourteen associate justices. It has original jurisdiction over cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers, and consuls, and over petitions for injunctions and writs of habeas corpus; it has appellate jurisdiction over all cases in which the constitutionality of any treaty, law, presidential decree, proclamation, order, or regulation is questioned. The Supreme Court also may hear appeals in criminal cases involving a sentence of life in prison. Article 3 of the Constitution forbids the death penalty "unless, for compelling reasons involving heinous crimes, the Congress hereafter provides for it."
The Supreme Court also regulates the practice of law in the Philippines, promulgates rules on admission to the bar, and disciplines lawyers. To be admitted to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, candidates must pass an examination that is administered once annually. Professional standards are similar to those of the United States; the Integrated Bar Association's code borrows heavily from the American Bar Association's rules. Some 30,000 attorneys practiced law in the Philippines in the mid1980s , more than one-third of them in Manila. Counsel for the indigent, while not always available, is provided by government legal aid offices and various private organizations. Many of the private groups are active in representing "social justice" causes and are staffed by volunteers.
Members of the Supreme Court and judges of lower courts are appointed by the president from a list of at least three nominees prepared by the Judicial and Bar Council for every vacancy. The Judicial and Bar Council consists of a representative of the Integrated Bar, a law professor, a retired member of the Supreme Court, and a representative of the private sector. Presidential appointments do not require confirmation. Supreme Court justices must be at least forty years of age when appointed and must retire at age seventy. According to Article 11 of the constitution, members of the Supreme Court "may be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust." The House has exclusive power to initiate cases of impeachment. The Senate tries such cases, and two-thirds of the Senate must concur to convict someone. The judiciary is guaranteed fiscal autonomy.
The armed forces maintain an autonomous military justice system. Military courts are under the authority of the judge advocate general of the armed forces, who is also responsible for the prosecutorial function in the military courts. Military courts operate under their own procedures but are required to accord the accused the same constitutional safeguards received by civilians. Military tribunals have jurisdiction over all activeduty members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
The traditional independence of the courts had been heavily compromised in the Marcos era. Because the 1973 constitution allowed Marcos to fire members of the judiciary, including members of the Supreme Court, at any time, anyone inclined to oppose him was intimidated into either complying or resigning. None of his acts or decrees was declared unconstitutional. The thirteen Marcos-appointed Supreme Court justices resigned after he fled, and Aquino immediately appointed ten new justices.
The Philippines has always been a highly litigious society, and the courts often were used to carry on personal vendettas and family feuds. There was widespread public perception that at least some judges could be bought. Public confidence in the judicial system was dealt a particular blow in 1988 when a special prosecutor alleged that six Supreme Court justices had pressured him to "go easy" on their friends. The offended justices threatened to cite the prosecutor for contempt. Aquino did not take sides in this dispute. The net effect was to confirm many Filipinos' cynicism about the impartiality of justice.
Justice was endlessly delayed in the late 1980s. Court calendars were jammed. Most lower courts lacked stenographers. A former judge reported in 1988 that judges routinely scheduled as many as twenty hearings at the same time in the knowledge that lawyers would show up only to ask for a postponement. One tax case heard in 1988 had been filed 50 years before, and a study of the tax court showed that even if the judges were to work 50 percent faster, it would take them 476 years to catch up. Even in the spectacular case of the 1983 murder of Senator Benigno Aquino, the judicial system did not function speedily or reliably. It took five years to convict some middle-ranking officers, and although the verdict obliquely hinted at then-Chief of Staff General Fabian Ver's ultimate responsibility, the court never directly addressed that question.
The indictment of former Minister of Defense Enrile on the charge of "rebellion with murder" shows that the courts can be independent of the president, but also that powerful people are handled gently. Enrile was arrested on February 27, 1990, for his alleged role in the December 1989 coup attempt in which more than 100 people died. Because Enrile was powerful, he was given an air-conditioned suite in jail, a telephone, and a computer, and a week later he was released on 100,000 pesos (for value of the péso--see Glossary) bail. In June 1990, the Supreme Court invalidated the charges against him. A further test of the court system was expected in the 1990s when criminal and civil charges were to be brought against Imelda Marcos. In 1991 Aquino agreed to allow the former first lady, who could not leave New York City without the permission of the United States Department of Justice, to return to the Philippines to face charges of graft and corruption. Swiss banking authorities agreed to return approximately US$350 million to the Philippine government only if Marcos were tried and convicted. Marcos did not seem to be reluctant to face the Philippine courts.
Data as of June 1991
NOTE: The information regarding Philippines on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Philippines Judicial Department information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Philippines Judicial Department should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.