By: Warlou Joyce Antonio
“Let us begin.”
A short yet weighty phrase and a call-to-action akin to saying, “challenge accepted.” Such was the message of Supreme Court Associate Justice Maria Filomena “Monette” Singh to her fellow judges.
In March 2021, then Court of Appeals Associate Justice Singh was conferred the Metrobank Foundation Professorial Chair in Law during the 17th Metrobank Foundation Professorial Chair—making her the first-ever female chairholder in the program’s 19-year history.
Singh took to the podium to give her lecture, entitled “Wielding the Sword: The Role of Judicial Education in the Administration of Justice,” with sureness and passion that is palpable not only to those joining in the Supreme Court En Banc Session Hall but even to those watching from their screens. Anchored on Singh’s advocacy, that morning’s agenda focused on the sword-sharpening and shield-reinforcing roles of judicial education to arm judges in the swift and efficient administration of justice.
“Now more than ever, the public’s confidence in the judiciary is crucial if the third branch of government is to fulfill its role as the last bastion of right and justice. Integral to resurrecting such public confidence is inspiring belief in our judicial officers,” she stated.
With this, she recommended crucial pathways that the Philippine Judiciary can embark on towards “delivering justice real time.” These can be captured in three sentiments: striving for continuous learning among judges who perform the dual role of being adjudicators and administrative managers; promoting a culture of immersion and peer-mentoring; and calling for increased financial support to implement these measures.
“The result is our shared hope: to regain the public’s trust and confidence in the judiciary,” Singh shared of the courts’ collective aspiration.
A judge’s arsenal
It is no surprise that Singh, as a jurist and educator, is an ardent advocate of continuous learning. She relates the act of whetting and wielding a sword to a judge’s lifelong pursuit of knowledge and training.
Indeed, one cannot put self-improvement on hold especially, in this case, for judges whose decisions and actions carry life-changing weight as the immediate representatives of justice in the country.
“Overarching the role-based aspects of a judge is the potent constitutional epigram that public office is a public trust,” she expressed.
A jurist’s arsenal, then, is not complete without vast knowledge and expertise. Another trait that goes together with this, as Singh underscored in her lecture, is compassion.
She said, “At the forefront of the Justice Sector’s pursuit for a swift and fair administration of justice is encapsulated in the Filipino term for compassion, “malasakit.” This will be instrumental in the changes that will be proposed in the realm of judicial education, the logic being that malasakit is what will the present and future judges to strive to achieve a magistrate’s optimum potential.”
At its heart, being a magistrate is a human-centered practice. Singh and her peers pledge allegiance to the truth and go through volumes of case loads, all in pursuit of delivering justice to concerned citizens—from the benches to the masses.
Singh’s lecture gives a glimpse of the values she lives by, among which are compassion as well as constant pursuit of truth and knowledge. As the first female Chairholder in Law, Singh also offers this message, inspired by the tagline for this year’s women’s campaign, “I choose to challenge my fellow women to not let society define us. We must put an end to this struggle to always live up to “their standards” and to “their qualifications.” Let us live our lives thinking only of the possibilities, never the limitations. Instead, I choose to think that I am a woman and, therefore, I am boundless.”
Taking off from the key points presented in her lecture, Singh further shares her insights on a judge’s sworn duty to oneself, peers, and the public in this interview:
Q: You mentioned your passion for teaching during your lecture. How does being an educator factor in your advocacy and work as a jurist?
First, it is every judge’s ethical responsibility to keep one’s self educated and abreast of legal developments. From my study of adult education and my own experiences as a law professor, I know that teaching is the best way of learning as it gives the learner not just the needed knowledge and information, but also ensures comprehension and retention.
Second, being a teacher offers me an excellent medium for my advocacies. Through my legal publications, school lessons and lectures to law students, lawyers, justices, judges and court personnel, I am able to spotlight my advocacies and demonstrate their relevance to the varied roles of my listeners.
Q: For you, what does a strong judiciary look like? While there’s no blueprint, what do you think are the primary tools to shape a stronger judiciary?
I do not dream of a “strong” judiciary because in no sense is that the judiciary envisioned in our Constitution. Rather, I dream of a Judicial Department that is a genuine co-equal of the Executive and Legislative Departments of our national government.
Since I first joined the judiciary in 2002, or 19 years ago, I have had so many dreams. But all this time, all my work as a jurist and reformist has always been geared towards solidifying the four cornerstones that I believe will hold up a truly co-equal Judicial Branch of government: (1) independence, which must necessarily include fiscal autonomy and equitable budgetary allocation; (2) transparency and accountability; (3) efficiency and efficacy; and, (4) integrity.
Q: What keeps you driven to contribute to this pursuit?
My answer is constant: I love this institution, I love my work.
We are told that if you love your job you will never have to work a day in your life – that is not true. You will work and toil like everyone else, but you will do it with inspiration and dedication, and you will be prompted by no selfish motive, other than your desire to serve and serve true. And your reward – the satisfaction that no money can buy: the knowledge that you did what your oath requires of you, for no money or malice, in the pursuit of truth, as a faithful servant of justice. To me, there is no nobler pursuit.
This is a journey I share with my brothers and sisters on the bench, but every single step forward takes not just us, but all future generations with us, to the aspiration of a tomorrow where the courts are truly trusted by the people we serve as the true bastion of right and justice.
Q: We’re struck by your mention of “malasakit” in the paper. How is the concept of “malasakit” connected to the judicial system? Why is it important to practice it especially now that the country is in the middle of a pandemic?
For me, if a judge is possessed of “malasakit” for the institution, he or she will serve to the best of his or her ability, without counting the cost. This same “malasakit” for the people, whose lives, liberties and properties we pass upon and rule on on a daily basis, is the surest guarantee of competent and diligent service.
I do not believe there should be any special reason to act differently in times of a crisis, like the present pandemic, than we would in ordinary times. This attitude is something all judges must strive to practice in all instances and at all times.
Q: For you, how does compassion manifest in the work of a judge or the judiciary?
Just look at the number of judges who have lost their lives in the service, whether by illness or accident, or through violent means. Look at the courts which have remained open even during the height of a deadly pandemic just to ensure that our people can still access the system for relief. Look at our judges who have to take plane rides or boat rides, drive for hours, take public commutes, just to get to their stations and hear the cases of our litigants. Look at the trials and hearings being conducted in ramshackle and dilapidated structures, in makeshift tents, even in gymnasiums, just to serve the public.
We do this 24/7/365. That to me is “malasakit.” That to me is “service” in its purest form.
Q: Lastly, at the core of the judiciary’s work is the Filipino people. What do you think can be done to educate the public about the law and the role of the judiciary? How can this information be more accessible to them?
At the very least, there must be increased effort to make the court processes easier to comprehend and follow for our average Juan and Juana dela Cruz.
Access to justice should mean not just physical accessibility of courts. True access to justice means that every litigant is aware of the varied reliefs available to him or her, and the proper judicial remedies to utilize to avail of them. Absent such awareness, there can be no genuine access to justice.
Aside from changes in procedural rules to streamline the processes, for better public understanding, there should be simplified informational materials made available to court users for free, such as posters depicting flowcharts of case stages from filing until case completion, FAQs, sample forms and similar materials.
A joint undertaking between Metrobank Foundation, Inc. and the Philippine Judicial Academy, the professorial chair seeks to promote capacity-building and excellence in the judiciary and legal education through the delivery of timely and comprehensive discourses by seasoned legal practitioners.
Associate Justice Singh joins esteemed professorial chairholders such as Retired Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta (2019), Supreme Court Associate Justice Japar Dimaampao (2018), Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Romeo Callejo (2017), Retired Court of Appeals Associate Justice Magdangal de Leon (2016), Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Jose Vitug (2014), Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen (2009) and Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Adolfo Azcuna (2007).