In mid-September, the Philippines Supreme Court formally approved the small claims court rules and procedures that ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) staff helped to draft. The adoption of these rules and procedures will establish a new branch of the courts, which will be of considerable benefit to Filipino citizens and the court system alike. Due to the serious and debilitating backlog of civil cases in the Philippines, citizens must often wait years to resolve basic litigation. With the creation of the small claims court, minor disputes will be adjudicated much more quickly and the poorest Filipinos will experience greater access to justice.
The new rules restrict cases that can be heard in the small claims court to those with disputed amounts under 100,000 pesos (around $2,000 USD) and to matters of contract, simple negligence, failure to repay loans and other minor complaints. Cases requiring complicated evidentiary findings, such as fraud, eviction and malpractice, are excluded. There is also a prohibition on attorney representation in the small claims court. This aspect of the rules is supported by the bar association, which recognizes that the amounts of money in dispute are too small to warrant retaining an attorney; however, Filipino attorneys can still assist litigants by helping to file and prepare cases.
ABA ROLI staff worked closely with a technical working group of the Philippines Supreme Court to prepare draft rules and procedures for the small claims court. By supplying the working group with small claims laws from various international jurisdictions, ABA ROLI was able to provide ideas on how to best structure a similar court for the Philippines. ABA ROLI staff also encouraged innovative administrative procedures, such as assigning all hearing dates at the time a case is filed.
“The small claims project is one of the most gratifying programs I have worked on because everyone involved is so excited to make it work,” says Country Director Scott Ciment, “Small claims will have an immediate and positive effect on the lives of poor Filipinos who could never afford to have a judge hear their disputes.”
The project has received very encouraging feedback from the public and from stakeholders in the legal community. Next steps for the project will prove challenging, with the focus on establishing the courts and training court personnel and judges on how to handle the large caseload.
This program is supported by funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development.