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August 01, 2014

In the Face of a Natural Disaster, a Philippine Judge Strives to Make Her Court and the Justice System Better

August 2014

Evelyn Lesigues is a senior judge with the Tacloban Regional Trial Court. Having served in the court for years, she has witnessed a few milestones and a few setbacks. The latest setback came on November 8, 2013, in the form of Typhoon Yolanda. Yolanda, which experts say is the strongest typhoon to make landfall in modern history, slammed into the city of Tacloban and its surrounding area. Winds blowing at more than 200 miles an hour and a 30-foot storm surge left much of Tacloban in ruins. The court and its paper records of more than 4,000 cases were no exception. A witness said that in the aftermath, the court records looked like they had been “put through a washing machine for an hour.”

In their joint post-typhoon inspection, the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) and the Philippine Supreme Court discovered that the Tacloban courthouse had no electricity, water still stood in much of the building and the majority of paper records, hardware and software either had been washed away or rendered useless. The smell of mold and mildew permeated throughout. Outside, vehicles had been thrown around like toys and the mangled remains of buildings, trees and other materials had gathered in vast mounds. Yet, the resilience of the court staff and their refusal to accept defeat outshone the destruction.

Judge Evelyn embodies that resilience. Her house was badly damaged by the storm; her personal belongings lost or destroyed. But she never considered dwelling on her loss a real option. “We have already moved on,” she said. “We can feel sad, lonely for days or weeks, but not for months, not for years. Because we still have our own lives [for] which we have to be thankful. We still have a purpose on this earth. We have to be positive.”

Judge Evelyn also lost many friends and colleagues to the typhoon. “At first I was devastated at the situation, until I rationalized things and said, oh this is nature, this is an act of God, so why fret over this? I have to move on,” she said, “We have to do something to improve our situation.” She decided to return to her duties as soon as possible. Just three months after Typhoon Yolanda hit, branch 43 of the Tacloban Regional Trial Court (Judge Evelyn’s branch), along with branch 44, became the first to begin hearing cases again. Determined to get back to work even when the courthouse was out of commission, Judge Evelyn conducted hearings from the Philippine Supreme Court’s mobile courthouse in the shell of a retrofitted bus dubbed Justice on Wheels.

By March, Judge Evelyn moved into a makeshift office erected in the middle of what used to be the Tacloban Regional Trial Court’s library. Her staff put down desks wherever they could, working in the midst of sagging shelves and stacks of ruined books. Unfettered by the smell of mold that drafted in intermittently and the tangled piles of indistinguishable refuse that towered outside her window, Judge Evelyn remained optimistic and encouraged by the progress made since Typhoon Yolanda. As branches of the court slowly came back to life, judges and staff who had lost almost everything were spending their own money to refurbish their offices, determined to contribute to the recovery of the Tacloban court.

Among the pressing issues in the natural disaster’s aftermath was the destruction of case records, most of which could not be reconstructed to any useable degree. To support the rapid disposition of cases in the region, ABA ROLI coordinated and sponsored classes for all judges from the Tacloban Regional Trial Court and other courts in the surrounding areas to facilitate the judges’ certification in judicial dispute resolution (JDR). Judge Evelyn attended one of these trainings from March 18–22.

Judge Evelyn said that the trainings will help to decongest court dockets. “At the same time,” she continued, “[JDR will] empower the litigants to settle their disputes by their own means and by their own time.”

With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, ABA ROLI will continue to help to rebuild the Tacloban Regional Trial Court, including by equipping it with an electronic court automation system.

To learn more about our work in the Philippines, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at [email protected].