NO WONDER justice crawls slower than snail-pace in the country. Our judicial system is overwhelmed with pending cases being disposed at a glacial pace. Daily, nationwide, 2,130 judges and 26,238 court personnel contend with over 780,000 cases before the courts, excluding the Supreme Court of the Philippines. That is a ratio of 1:366 caseloads per judge.

To address situation, the Supreme Court adopted other measures to hasten the movement of cases filed in court. Chief Justice Reynato Puno said that the highest court will continue to strengthen the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) of cases by putting in place the system of conciliation, arbitration and mediation.

But even CAM might not be enough. The challenge is how to resolve conflicts without filing a case in court. Indigenous conflict management systems do exist but are outside the radar screen of the judiciary. The task—and the challenge—are to interface these systems with the judicial process.

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That challenge was the main agenda during the forum dialog between the Philippine Mediation Center and the indigenous communities of the Ikalahans, Mangyans, Higaonons, Pala’wans, Tedurays, Subanens, Kalingas and Igorots to find common grounds and convergence on ADR.

Last November, I helped co-organize the Tribal Justice Forum: A Dialog for Convergence” to explore community-based compliments to CAM. The forum sought common grounds among the different systems for the purpose of convergences. We had two-day conference at the Consuelo Center for Leadership and Innovation, Baguio City.

Assistant Solicitor General Karl Miranda noted that many indigenous communities in the Philippines practice mediation, developed way before the Spanish colonial rule and fine-tuned from generation after generations. In this respect, tribal systems developed best practices over the centuries and that the country’s lower courts can learn from them.

One such learner from the bench is Buguias Regional Trial Court 64 Judge Agapito K. Laoagan Jr, a pioneer on using the Cordillera’s indigenous ADR systems. An Ibaloi by birth, Judge Laoagan is familiar with both national and customary laws such as the Bodong (or peace pact or council).

Unlike CAM, Bodongs mediate on land and family disputes, and even on criminal cases such as rape and murder. Better that the opposing parties settle their differences amicably for 100 thousand pesos than for the complainant to win a zero-sum game of imprisonment over the accused and exemplary and moral damages of 1 million pesos—which are largely collectible only on paper anyway.

Bodongs strive to regain harmony within their communities through restitution instead of the judicial norm of retribution on criminal cases. The tribal community gets embarrassed if a complainant files a case in court because that implies that their native systems were unable to resolve their conflicts.

Laoagan pointed out that the Bodong’s power lies on the tribal sense of community, where the fear of ostracism holds a moral and cultural suasion over its members. It is this fear of social exclusion that pushes down recidivism, or habitual relapses into crime. It is the community—not the violator’s family—that is responsible for the rehabilitation of the offender and restoring harmony within the tribe.

Similarly, the Mangyans, Tagbanuas, Higaonons, and Tedurays mentioned that conciliation, mediation and arbitration are intrinsic in their dispute resolution mechanisms, and that the aim is to avoid discord from growing larger and to restore harmony within their communities. Thus, under their system, no one goes to prison but the offender has to restitute in cash, kind or community service.

Pastor Delbert Rice echoes a similar point in the case of the Ikalahan’s Tongtongan. Any Ikalahan who kills a person, hurts or wounds another, rapes or commits pre-marital sex, steals something, gossips, abuses anyone, violates a Podong (or breaking off a marital engagement), breaches an agreement, or causes any other disturbance is compelled to appear before a Tongtongan.

Any Ikalahan—youth, elders, female or male—can attend and are allowed to talk. Tongtongan presiders are any person who are mature, neutral, and able to maintain order and not talkative, and can present evidence. To ensure neutrality, the Tontongan inhibits members—even an elder—from presiding if they are perceived to have conflicts of interests in the proceedings.

So effective are the Tongtongans, that like the Bodong, recidivism is very low. They punish the accused to satisfy the complainant, but not enough to destroy the violator. No one goes to prison.

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