To mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the Philippines, the entire Luzon region was placed under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) from 17 March until 13 April 2020, which was further extended to 30 April 2020, and until 15 May 2020 at least in respect of certain areas, including Metro Manila. Provinces and cities not covered by the ECQ were placed under a General Community Quarantine (GCQ) starting 1 May 2020 until 15 May 2020.
In line with the appeal of the Government for the general public to stay home to control the further spread of COVID-19, the Supreme Court implemented guidelines to limit movement and travel of justices, judges and their skeletal staff. It likewise issued guidelines on the procedure for filing motions, pleadings, and other court submissions during the ECQ and GCQ period.
In order to curb the spread of infection in detention facilities and restrict movement and travel of court users, the Supreme Court also issued guidelines on hearings and provisional liberty in cases involving persons deprived of liberty.
Physical closure of courts
Administrative Circular No. 35-2020 requires all courts in the ECQ areas to be physically closed except for urgent matters. Litigants, lawyers, prosecutors and the general public are therefore advised to first contact the proper court through any of its identified hotlines, email addresses and Facebook accounts to determine if a matter is urgent.
A list of the hotlines, email addresses and Facebook accounts of all courts nationwide may be accessed through – http://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/hotlines/.
Administrative Circular No. 36-2020, on the other hand, requires all courts in the GCQ areas to open beginning 4 May 2020 to act on urgent matters only. Under the said circular, the Supreme Court restricted the presence or attendance in courts of judges and court personnel, lawyers and court users, who are more than 59 years old or who are at risk or most vulnerable, such as those who have medical conditions or are suffering from illnesses or sickly.
Urgent matters that may be acted upon by the courts during ECQ and GCQ
In an earlier circular, The Supreme Court directed courts to act only on urgent matters; and below is a non exhaustive list of such urgent matters:
- · Petitions, motions and pleadings in relation to bail;
- · Petitions, motions and pleadings in relation to habeas corpus;
- · Promulgation of judgments of acquittals;
- · Reliefs for those who may be arrested during the ECQ period; and
- · Other related actions filed in relation to measures imposed at the local or national levels to address the declared health emergency
Suspension of hearings
Thus, except urgent matters, all hearings in the ECQ and GCQ areas remain suspended until 15 May 2020. However, in areas under GCQ, the judges may, in their discretion, set for hearing other urgent matters or concerns to expedite proceedings or cases before their respective courts.
Extended period for court actions not deemed urgent matters
The periods for court actions with prescribed periods in both ECQ and GCQ areas shall be extended for thirty (30) calendar days counted from 16 May 2020, except court actions on urgent matters.
With respect to the filing of petitions and appeals, complaints, motions, pleadings and other court submissions due up to 15 May 2020, the Supreme Court granted an extension of 30 calendar days from 16 May 2020. Nevertheless, parties may still make submissions within the reglementary period on or before 15 May 2020 through electronic means, if available.
While the courts shall remain physically closed to all court users, the courts shall continue to operate from 9:00am to 3:00pm, Monday to Friday until 15 May 2020. Electronic communications must be transmitted by court users from 8:30am to 2:00pm.
Functioning courts and technology
It is apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the courts to revisit traditional litigation and trial processes. Clearly, the decision to hasten modernization is not only on account of convenience. The need to function and provide services during times of public health emergencies consistent with the courts’ constitutional mandate to settle disputes and controversies demanded that the courts fast-track the shift towards becoming more technologically capable.
While the issuances above generally provide that they will be observed only during this public health crisis, there is no assurance that even after the GCQ is lifted the courts will have the real option to shift back to the traditional way of doing things without exposing judges, court staff, practitioners and parties to health risks. The processes outlined above may very well be the “new normal” in practice, or at the very least a preview of what’s to come. As always, keeping abreast of new issuances and regulations is key in ensuring that parties are protected and remedies are timely availed of in legal proceedings.
 Administrative Circular No. 32-2020 dated 20 March 2020; Administrative Circular No. 34-2020 dated 8 April 2020; Administrative Circular No. 37-2020.
 Administrative Circular No. 33-2020 dated 31 March 2020.
 Administrative Circular No. 37-2020 dated 27 April 2020; Administrative Circular No. 38-2020 dated 30 April 2020.
 Administrative Circular No. 32 -2020 dated 20 March 2020.
 5, Administrative Circular No. 31-2020 dated 16 March 2020.
 6, Administrative Circular No. 35-2020 dated 27 April 2020; 4, Administrative Circular No. 36-2020 dated 27 April 2020.
 4, Administrative Circular No. 36-2020 dated 27 April 2020.
 8, Administrative Circular No. 35-2020 dated 27 April 2020; 8, Administrative Circular No. 36-2020 dated 27 April 2020.
 7, Administrative Circular No. 35-2020 dated 27 April 2020; 6, Administrative Circular No. 36-2020 dated 27 April 2020.
 2, Administrative Circular No. 35-2020 dated 27 April 2020.