Facing unobstructed the mute witness yet effective participant in the ravaging fury of supertyphoon Yolanda on November 8 last year, the Bulwagan ng Katarungan (Hall of Justice) that lies immediately across the sea off Magsaysay Boulevard this City was a helpless casualty.
Especially the offices and court salas peeping straight at the sea, which doors and windows were smashed, splintered and twitched, this edifice that houses voluminous court case records and administrative portfolios and not to elaborate the personal files of personnel of offices nestled therein, could not hide the effect of the storm surge that sty Yolanda churned out. Not one room therein was spared.
Few days after Yolanda walloped Tacloban and nearby towns with tsunami-like wall of waves, big bosses from central office respectively of the Dept. of Justice, Public Attorney’s Office and the Supreme Court negotiated the circuitous road to Tacloban to visit and provide assistance to their employees stationed at the Bulwagan ng Katarungan in this City. They came not just with prayer for the employees’ safety and soon recovery from the shock in Yolanda’s torment, but also with relief goods and cash assistance.
Chief Public Attorney Persida Rueda-Acosta gave cash assistance not only to the rank and file of PAO, but the lawyers as well, and even to other employees stationed at the Tacloban HOJ. She likewise provided laptop and printer to the PAO to be immediately used in the resumption of service to the public.
The Regional, Provincial and City Prosecutor’s Office(s) received a power generating set from the City government. DOJ provided them electric fans and laptops with printers also for the immediate resumption of operation of these three offices. Thus in spite of the sorry condition of the rooms and files in these offices, work was officially back two weeks after the Category 6 supertyphoon’s attack. However, considering the dearth in supplies for the printing of legal forms, some, affidavits for instance, were hand-written.
At the Regional Trial Court, Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez toured to Eastern Visayas with two Justice on Wheels buses travelling a couple of days ahead of him. The JOW buses were packed with relief goods for the employees. One stayed at the trial court in Guiuan, Eastern Samar where sty Yolanda had its landfall on the fateful day, while the other is now parked at the Bulwagan compound in Tacloban.
This JOW bus will be used by the two newly created court salas of RTC Tacloban, that is branch 43 presided by Judge Evelyn Lesigues and Branch 44 presided by Judge Eligio Petilla. The air-conditioned JOW buses, which had already traveled to Eastern Visayas including Tacloban for several times, is refurbished with fixtures fit to hold hearings and small conferences. These JOW buses, introduced during the time of Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr, was likewise used by the High Court in other places stricken by calamities in lieu of destroyed court salas.
On Jan. 7, Justice Marquez, who returned before Christmas to distribute cash assistance to employees of trial courts in Tacloban, visited RTC Tacloban once more. This time, he was with representatives from the United States Assistance for International Development (USAID)-ABE to hold a short conference with judges and clerks of courts or their representatives on the help that this foreign institution could provide to affected courts.
The USAID, Justice Midas said, will be providing Tacloban-based Courts with equipment, such as scanners and computers to help in setting up database of all court cases and processes. This will now be in line with SC’s latest initiative, the paperless processes. Court employees, Justice Marquez added, will be trained on this endeavor. He added that the SC is likewise seeking the assistance of USAID to help rehabilitate the Hall of Justice.
In the meantime, he instructed the judges and staff to get back to regular court hearings and make a semblance that the courts are already working, prioritizing the cases of detention prisoners.
He further instructed all court judges & staff to “conduct inventory of court records, segregate damaged records from those (that are yet readable) and help reconstitute these records.
He further directed the creation of a special committee consisting of at least 2 judges and the Clerk of Court, including MTCC & the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, that will somehow help enlist some suggestions or inputs and discuss them with the USAID point person to iron out the systematic conduct of these project. CA Marquez stressed in the informal conference held outside the lobby of the Hall of Justice, “What we want is for all of us to work together. USAID is not here to dictate but to help in the systematic (safekeeping and preservation) of court records.
In compliance with Justice Marquez’ instruction, the RTC in Tacloban has started receiving cases filed by the (Tacloban) City and (Leyte) Provincial Prosecutors Offices, and raffled these cases as well as the newly filed non-criminal cases to court salas last week.
On January 13 and 14, perhaps the first to hold court hearing at RTC Tacloban, Branch 7 (Family Court) is slated to start calling out court cases. Assisting Judge Yolanda Dagandan is optimistic that the court can make it even without steady and ample power supply, comfortable courtroom and equipment necessary for the production of court processes , such as Orders, subpoena, notice of hearing, certificate of arraignment and minutes of court hearing.
Court Administrator Marquez, nevertheless, informed that some office supplies and equipment will be coming within this month from SC in Manila. As of now, all of the offices in the RTC lost the use of their computer desktops and printers. Furnitures and appliances were likewise destroyed by Yolanda’s storm surge.
There is great hope of fast return to normalcy in operation of offices at the Bulwagan ng Katarungan in Tacloban while there are outsiders who or that can reach out and help the offices hardest hit by the supertyphoon in November last year to rise above the ruins that the disaster has created. The wheels of justice will start to roll again now that the courts are getting back to business.