"At this stage, parties explore the possibility of an amicable settlement or a submission to alternative modes of dispute resolution."
Pre-trial is the stage of a court proceeding before the trial. The importance of pre-trial is that it allows the parties to explore the possibility of an amicable settlement or a submission to alternative modes of dispute resolution. It is at this stage that even judges may prompt and initiate compromise discussions between the parties.
The pre-trial stage is also when the issues are simplified by the parties with the guidance of the court before the trial. This will allow the parties to limit the issues to be heard and tried during the trial. It is also at this point when the parties can enter into stipulations or admissions of facts and documents to avoid unnecessary proof during the trial.
The admissions and stipulations of the parties are expected to shorten the trial since those facts need not be proven. It is also during pre-trial when the number of witnesses are identified by the parties and they agree to fixed trial dates. The court may at this stage determine the propriety of rendering judgment on the pleadings, or a summary judgment with the effect of dispensing with the trial.
With the benefits of pre-trial, the Rules of Court requires it to be mandatory but must be terminated promptly (Section 2, Rule 18, 2019 Amendments to the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure [ARCP]). In the early 1990s, although pre-trial was mandatory, some judges would inquire if the parties were willing to compromise, and if they are not, then the judge will terminate the pre-trial.
This prevalent judicial attitude, at that time prompted the Supreme Court to introduce the detailed process of pre-trial in the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure which was later enhanced by the 2004 Guidelines on Pre-Trial and Modes of Discovery. The 2019 Amendments to the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure in turn captured the process and the practical applications of pre-trial in the courtrooms.
The pre-trial is scheduled by the branch clerk of court within five (5) calendar days from the filing of an Answer by the defendant or the filing of a Reply by the plaintiff if the latter is allowed in accordance with the Rules. The branch clerk of court will then issue a notice of pre-trial which shall be set not later than sixty (60) calendar days from the filing of the Answer or Reply (Section 1, Rule 18, 2019 ARCP).
The notice of pre-trial shall be served on the counsel, or on the party if he or she has no counsel. The counsel served with the notice is charged with the duty of notifying the party he or she represents (Section 3, Rule 18, 2019 ARCP). Non-appearance at any of the settings shall be deemed as non-appearance at the pre-trial.
The parties shall file the pre-trial brief with the court and serve the adverse party a copy at least three (3) calendar days before the date of the pre-trial. The pre-trial brief shall contain, among others: (a) a summary of admitted facts and proposed stipulation of facts; (b) the main factual and legal issues; (c) the documents or other object evidence to be marked; and (d) the names of the witnesses, and the summary of their testimonies. The failure to file the pre-trial brief shall have the same effect as failure to appear at the pre-trial (Section 6, Rule 18, 2019 ARCP).
The non-appearance of a party and counsel during the pre-trial may be excused only for acts of God, force majeure, or duly substantiated physical inability. A representative may appear on behalf of a party, but must be fully authorized in writing to enter into an amicable settlement, to submit to alternative modes of dispute resolution, and to enter into stipulations or admissions of facts and documents (Section 4, Rule 18, 2019 ARCP).
The failure of the plaintiff and counsel to appear without valid reason shall cause the dismissal of the action. The dismissal shall be with prejudice, which means the dismissed case cannot be refiled. A similar failure on the part of the defendant and counsel shall allow the plaintiff to present his or her evidence ex parte within ten (10) calendar days from the termination of the pre-trial, and thereafter the court may render judgment (Section 5, Rule 18, 2019 ARCP).
Additionally, the party or counsel who fails to appear for pre-trial despite notice shall waive any objections to the faithfulness of the reproductions marked, as well as to their genuineness and due execution. If the party and/or counsel fails to bring the evidence required for the pre-trial though he is present, he shall be deemed to have waived the presentation of such evidence (Section 2 (h), Rule 18, 2019 ARCP).
During the pre-trial, the parties are required to: (a) mark their respective evidence if not yet marked in the judicial affidavits of their witnesses; (b) examine and make comparisons of the adverse parties’ evidence with the copies to be marked; and (c) manifest for the record, in open court, stipulations on the faithfulness of the reproductions and the genuineness and due execution of the adverse parties’ evidence (Section 2 (g) 1 to 3, Rule 18, 2019 ARCP).
The introduction in the amended provision of the process of marking the documents and their comparison with the originals reinforced the desire to capture the incident inside the courtroom. However, the testimonial evidence and documents may not always be available at the pre-trial. Hence, the parties are allowed to reserve its presentation during trial, subject to certain conditions.
This is done for testimonial evidence by giving the name and position of the prosposed witness, as well as the nature of the testimony. For documentary evidence and other object evidence, it is done by giving a particular description of the evidence. No reservations will be allowed if these are not made in that manner (Section 2 (g) 4, Rule 18, 2019 ARCP). Parties cannot delay the proceedings by not being ready for the pre-trial or reserving evidence based on speculation.
Upon termination of the pre-trial, the court shall issue an order within ten (10) calendar days, reciting in detail the matters taken up therein. The contents of the pre-trial order shall control the subsequent proceedings, unless modified before trial (Section 7, Rule 18, 2019 ARCP). In simpler words, the pre-trial order will set the parameters for the trial.
After the pre-trial, the court shall refer the parties for mandatory court-annexed mediation. The period for the court-annexed mediation shall not exceed thirty (30) calendar days with no further extension (Section 8, Rule 18, 2019 ARCP) If the mediation is unsuccessful and only if the judge of the court to which the case was originally raffled is convinced that settlement is still possible, the case may be referred to another court for judicial dispute resolution (JDR) (Section 9, Rule 18, 2019 ARCP).
The JDR shall be conducted within a non-extendible period of 15 calendar days from notice of failure of the court-annexed mediation. If judicial dispute resolution fails, trial before the original court shall proceed on the dates agreed upon during pre-trial. All proceedings during the court-annexed mediation and the judicial dispute resolution shall be confidential (Section 9, Rule 18, 2019 ARCP).
If there are no more controverted facts, no more genuine issues as to any material fact, an absence of any issue, or a failure of an answer to tender an issue, the court shall motu proprio include in the pre-trial order that the case be submitted for summary judgment or judgment on the pleadings, without the need of position papers or memoranda (Section 10, Rule 18, 2019 ARCP). It only means that there are no disputed or controverted factual matters to be tried.
This is a special feature of the 2019 Amendment to the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure. This is because if the conditions are present, it is possible for the case not to proceed to trial. In such an event, judgment shall be rendered within ninety (90) calendar days from the termination of the pre-trial (Section 10, Rule 18, 2019 ARCP). The order of the court to submit the case for judgment shall not be appealed or reviewed by certiorari.
The Rules of Court can always be revisited and revised by the Supreme Court to adapt to the changing needs of the judicial system. However, judges as the frontliners in the administration of justice must see to it that the Rules of Court are faithfully observed by the parties, and that the parties and their counsels respect and comply with the orders and processes of our courts.