Like all other parts of public life, the administration of justice and access to legal remedies and dispute resolution have been severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The notes series ‘Rule of Law in the time of COVID-19’ provides a perspective from the field of how the justice system has been affected by the pandemic and how national justice actors are responding and adapting to the situation. By documenting responses and practices by those working in some of the world’s most complex environments, the notes seek to provide a better understanding of opportunities and challenges for promoting the rule of law during this extraordinary time.
The notes series aims to provide an in-country snapshot from the perspective of IDLO’s country offices.
As in other contexts, the COVID-19 outbreak in the Philippines risks exacerbating systemic challenges already faced by vulnerable groups. These challenges include prison overcrowding, case backlog in the justice system, unequal access to health care and social services, ongoing conflict, and corruption.
With more than half of its 110 million population living in the Luzon region, including Metro Manila, implementation of Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) regulations, including strict curfew, police-military checkpoints and pass system, cancellation of public transportation, and closure of most industries and government services, has negatively impacted women and low-income workers in particular. Initial challenges with testing, hospital capacity, and underlying health concerns already present in the country further contributed to the impact of the pandemic.
On 16 March 2020, the Philippines announced an ECQ, which extended to 31 May for Metro Manila, and was downgraded to a General Community Quarantine effective from 1 June. These and other emergency measures are guided by the limitations set forth in the Constitution (Article VI, Section 23) and relevant international law. On 25 March, the Philippine Congress passed the Republic Act 11469 – also known as “Bayanihan (United Efforts) to Heal As One Act” – effective for three months unless extended or terminated earlier by Congress, which gives the President emergency powers to address the COVID-19 crisis.
Quarantine implementation is overseen by the Inter-Agency Task Force which is spearheaded by the armed forces and the police. As part of the ECQ, a curfew and regular checkpoints were set up across the Luzon region, including Metro Manila. A pass system, issued by local community leaders, ensured that only essential workers – such as hospital personnel, grocery store and pharmacy workers – and those going out for groceries, medicine or health services were allowed to move about for limited reasons.
Impact of COVID-19 on the justice system
Department of Justice National Prosecution Service
During the ECQ, offices of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and National Prosecution Service (NPS) across the Luzon region and much of the Philippines were closed and operating only with skeleton staff. Preliminary investigation hearings, case conferences, meetings and training scheduled during the period were cancelled. Assigned prosecutors were tasked to receive complaint affidavits, counter affidavits and other papers relating to preliminary investigations and administering oaths.
All inquest proceedings were ordered to proceed with task force heads instructed to ensure the attendance of inquest prosecutors and necessary support staff. Many inquest proceedings had to transition to e-inquest and experienced some challenges due to equipment and internet connectivity issues, and the ability to connect with court systems.
For the most part, court operations have been severely curtailed with the most impact felt in the Luzon region, including Metro Manila. During the ECQ period, courts were closed for in-person services and focused only on emergency and essential activities, including inquest proceedings and eventually petition and parole hearings. Trials and other hearings are gradually starting to pick up as Metro Manila eases into the General Community Quarantine and more judges and court personnel are returning to courts. The Supreme Court is putting together committees to look into “new normal” trials and hearings via videoconferencing and to learn from needs and challenges that have arisen during the pandemic.
In prisons and other detention institutions, overcrowding and health, hygiene and sanitation conditions increase the risk of the spread of COVID-19. A significant proportion of detainees present vulnerabilities such as pre-existing medical conditions (high blood pressure, heart and respiratory tract diseases, etc.) and being older, which puts them at increased risk of severe illness if they become infected with COVID-19.
Civil society and access to justice
Upon announcement of the ECQ, civil society organizations, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), universities, and bar associations, all turned to remote working and online learning. Although they faced challenges in implementing their missions and mandates, the crisis has also provided opportunities to help those most in need.
NGOs found ways to utilize technology to engage with impacted communities through online platforms and hotlines. Urgent needs quickly materialized around sexual and gender-based violence and ensuring access to shelters and other forms of assistance; seeking release from prison for certain categories of persons deprived of liberty; and providing access to food and health resources for those most impacted by lockdown restrictions. Alternative law groups and universities such as the University of the Philippines and the Ateneo Human Rights Centre mobilized to provide legal services online. NGOs also mobilized in information dissemination regarding implications of the ECQ.
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the official organization of Philippine lawyers, suspended its work during the ECQ. Despite reduced court operations, IBP encouraged all members to be proactive during the COVID-19 quarantine. It issued guidelines on how lawyers can help, such as giving legal advice on rights and duties regarding the quarantine, advocating for appropriate government action, and expressing appreciation for health emergency workers.
Impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable groups
It is estimated that 17.6 million Filipinos live below the poverty threshold estimated at Php 10,727 (approximately US$200) for a family of five per month. Particular concerns for poor people in the context of the pandemic include limited or no access to soap and water and face masks, cramped and close living quarters making social distancing difficult, and limited access to health, basic social services and public transport. Moreover, the suspension of social welfare programs triggered the need for cash subsidies to buy food and essential supplies, including medicines; these were to be provided under the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program which supports some 4.3 million poor households. There has been a substantial impact on informal and low-income workers who were unable to work from home and are now jobless and unable to provide basic essentials for their families.
Women in the Philippines have been experiencing the pandemic differently from men. Specific challenges for women include difficulties in receiving hygiene kits and access to family planning and pre- and post-natal care. Female-headed households are most vulnerable with the widespread loss of jobs due to the ECQ, including those in low-income and informal jobs. The strain is particularly acute for women who are under pressure to home-school children and care for elderly family members Moreover, as they are called upon to help with community frontline disease prevention, women put themselves at risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to a lack of personal protection equipment, which increases the risk of spreading infection to children and family at home. There are also indications of an increase in gender-based violence as women are forced into lockdown with abusive partners and access to justice and resources becomes more difficult.
While many confirmed cases of COVID-19 are adults with pre-existing conditions, children are affected when they are separated from their parents and caregivers who are quarantined or confined in hospitals. With the suspension of classes, more than 22 million children and adolescents have had their education disrupted. Children are also restricted from going outside and to public places such as grocery stores.
Under the ECQ, many of IDLO’s partners were obliged to reduce their activities as offices and courts were mostly closed, operating only on a skeleton staff addressing urgent and essential activities. This caused IDLO’s partners – the Office of the Ombudsman, the DOJ’s NPS, the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), and the Philippines Judicial Academy – to either suspend work or convert to remote working from home. IDLO has had to shift its capacity-building support to the Prosecution Service and other partners to virtual platforms and remote learning. This includes delivering specialized training on investigation and prosecution of drug crimes and trial advocacy training, which will assist prosecutors in dealing with traditional types of legal cases as well as new aspects and challenges arising in the context of the pandemic.
Throughout the ECQ, IDLO also worked with partners AMLC and DOJ to complete development of training modules already in progress. These include modules on anti-fraud and anti-corruption with AMLC and environmental law and trafficking in persons with DOJ.
IDLO also adapted a gender-focused legal assessment to be conducted remotely. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted women’s issues and gaps in the legal framework that will inform the assessment and IDLO’s response.
IDLO has been working in the Philippines since 2016 and is currently implementing two rule of law programs to enhance the institutional capacity of prosecutors and address discriminatory laws for women and girls. Previously, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, IDLO operated a regional training center in Manila servicing the Asia-Pacific region.
Image credit: © ILO/Minette Rimando