< All Topics

B. Judicial independence and autonomy


Recognizing the vital role that the Judiciary plays in our system of government as the sole repository of judicial power, with the power to determine whether any act of any branch or instrumentality of the government is attended with grave abuse of discretion, no less than the Constitution provides a number of safeguards to ensure that judicial independence is protected and maintained. (Re: COA Opinion on the Computation of the Appraised Value of the Properties Purchased by the Retired Chief/Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, En Banc, A.M. No. 11-7-10-SC, 31 July 2012)

a. Concept

There are two (2) concepts of judicial independence:

1) Institutional judicial independence; and

2) Individual judicial independence. (Ibid.)

A truly independent judiciary is possible only when both concepts of independence are preserved – wherein public confidence in the competence and integrity of the judiciary is maintained, and the public accepts the legitimacy of judicial authority.

1) Institutional judicial independence

Institutional judicial independence – focuses on the independence of the judiciary as a branch of government and protects judges as a class. (Ibid.)

a) Limitation on the legislative branch

The Constitution expressly prohibits Congress from depriving the Supreme Court of its jurisdiction, as enumerated in Section 5, Article VII of the Constitution, or from passing a law that undermines the security of tenure of the members of the judiciary. (Ibid.)

The Constitution also mandates that the judiciary shall enjoy fiscal autonomy. (Ibid.)

The Constitution protects as well the salaries of the Justices and judges by prohibiting any decrease in their salary during their continuance in office, and ensures their security of tenure by providing that “Members of the Supreme Court and judges of lower courts shall hold office during good behavior until they reach the age of seventy years or become incapacitated to discharge the duties of their office.” With these guarantees, justices and judges can administer justice undeterred by any fear of reprisals brought on by their judicial action. They can act inspired solely by their knowledge of the law and by the dictates of their conscience, free from the corrupting influence of base or unworthy motives. (Ibid.)

b) Limitation on the executive branch in relation to administration of courts and personnel

The Constitutution grants the Supreme Court administrative supervision over all courts and judicial personnel. Jurisprudence has characterized administrative supervision as exclusive, noting that only the Supreme Court can oversee the judges and court personnel’s compliance with all laws, rules and regulations. No other branch of government may intrude into this power, without running afoul of the doctrine of separation of powers. (Ibid.)

2) Individual judicial independence

Individual judicial independence – focuses on each particular judge and seeks to insure his or her ability to decide cases with autonomy within the constraints of the law. A judge has this kind of independence when he can do his job without having to hear – or at least without having to take it seriously if he does hear – criticisms of his personal morality and fitness for judicial office. (Ibid.)

Judicial Independence is a pre-requisite to the rule of law and a fundamental guarantee of a fair trial. A judge shall therefore uphold and exemplify judicial independence in both its individual and institutional aspects.

b. Jurisdiction

GENERAL RULE: The Congress shall have the power to define, prescribe, and apportion the jurisdiction of various courts. (Section 2, Article VIII, 1987 Constitution)


1) Congress may not deprive the Supreme Court of its jurisdiction over cases enumerated in Section 5 hereof. (Section 2, Article VIII, 1987 Constitution)

2) No law shall be passed reorganizing the Judiciary when it undermines the security of tenure of its Members. (Paragraph 2, Section 2, Article VIII, 1987 Constitution)

c. Prohibition

The Members of the Supreme Court and of other courts established by law shall not be designated to any agency performing quasi-judicial or administrative functions. (Section 12, Article VIII, 1987 Constitution)


a. Fiscal autonomy

The Judiciary shall enjoy fiscal autonomy. (Section 3, Article VIII, 1987 Constitution)

One of the most important aspects of judicial independence is the constitutional grant of fiscal autonomy. Just as the Executive may not prevent a judge from discharging his or her judicial duty (for example, by physically preventing a court from holding its hearings) and just as the Legislature may not enact laws removing all jurisdiction from courts, the courts may not be obstructed from their freedom to use or dispose of their funds for purposes germane to judicial functions. (Re: COA Opinion on the Computation of the Appraised Value of the Properties Purchased by the Retired Chief/Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, supra.)

While, as a general proposition, the authority of legislatures to control the purse in the first instance is unquestioned, any form of interference by the Legislative or the Executive on the Judiciary’s fiscal autonomy amounts to an improper check on a co-equal branch of government. If the judicial branch is to perform its primary function of adjudication, it must be able to command adequate resources for that purpose. This authority to exercise (or to compel the exercise of) legislative power over the national purse (which at first blush appears to be a violation of concepts of separateness and an invasion of legislative autonomy) is necessary to maintain judicial independence and is expressly provided for by the Constitution through the grant of fiscal autonomy. (Ibid.)

1) Scope and extent of fiscal autonomy

As envisioned in the Constitution, the fiscal autonomy enjoyed by the Judiciary, the Civil Service Commission, the Commission on Audit, the Commission on Elections, and the Office of the Ombudsman contemplates a guarantee of full flexibility to allocate and utilize their resources with the wisdom and dispatch that their needs require. It recognizes the power and authority to levy, assess and collect fees, fix rates of compensation not exceeding the highest rates authorized by law for compensation and pay plans of the government and allocate and disburse such sums as may be provided by law or prescribed by them in the course of the discharge of their functions. (Bengzon v. Drilon, G.R. No. 103524, 15 April 1992)

Fiscal autonomy means freedom from outside control. If the Supreme Court says it needs 100 typewriters but DBM rules we need only 10 typewriters and sends its recommendations to Congress without even informing us, the autonomy given by the Constitution becomes an empty and illusory platitude. (Ibid.)

The Judiciary, the Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman must have the independence and flexibility needed in the discharge of their constitutional duties. The imposition of restrictions and constraints on the manner the independent constitutional offices allocate and utilize the funds appropriated for their operations is anathema to fiscal autonomy and violative not only of the express mandate of the Constitution but especially as regards the Supreme Court, of the independence and separation of powers upon which the entire fabric of our constitutional system is based. (Ibid.)

2) No reduction below previous year

Appropriations for the Judiciary may not be reduced by the legislature below the amount appropriated for the previous year. (Section 3, Article VIII, 1987 Constitution)

3) Automatically released

After approval, appropriations for the Judiciary shall be automatically and regularly released. (Section 3, Article VIII, 1987 Constitution)

Previous A. Concepts
Next C. Appointments to the judiciary
Table of Contents