July 2010 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

Here are selected July 2010 rulings of the Supreme Court of the Philippines on legal and judicial ethics:

Attorney; attorney’s fees. The issue of the reasonable legal fees due to respondent still needs to be resolved in a trial on the merits with the following integral sub-issues: (1) the reasonableness of the 10% contingent fee given that the recovery of Tiwi’s share [in unpaid realty taxes] was not solely attributable to the legal services rendered by respondent, (2) the nature, extent of legal work, and significance of the cases allegedly handled by respondent which reasonably contributed, directly or indirectly, to the recovery of Tiwi’s share, and (3) the relative benefit derived by Tiwi from the services rendered by respondent. The amount of reasonable attorney’s fees finally determined by the trial court should be without legal interest in line with well-settled jurisprudence. Municipality of Tiwi, represented by Hon. Mayor Jaime C. Villanueva and Sangguniang Bayan of Tiwi Vs. Antonio B. Betito, G.R. No. 171873, July 9, 2010.

Attorney; engagement of private counsel by GOCC. In Phividec Industrial Authority v. Capitol Steel Corporation, we listed three (3) indispensable conditions before a GOCC can hire a private lawyer: (1) private counsel can only be hired in exceptional cases; (2) the GOCC must first secure the written conformity and acquiescence of the Solicitor General or the Government Corporate Counsel, as the case may be; and (3) the written concurrence of the COA must also be secured.  Failure to comply with all three conditions would constitute appearance without authority.  A lawyer appearing after his authority as counsel had expired is also appearance without authority.  Rey Vargas, et al. vs. Atty. Michael Ignes, et al., A.C. No. 8096, July 5, 2010.

Attorney; engagement of private counsel by LGU. Pursuant to this provision [Section 444(b)(1)(vi) of the LGC], the municipal mayor is required to secure the prior authorization of the Sangguniang Bayan before entering into a contract on behalf of the municipality. In the instant case, the Sangguniang Bayan of Tiwi unanimously passed Resolution No. 15-92 authorizing Mayor Corral to hire a lawyer of her choice to represent the interest of Tiwi in the execution of this Court’s Decision in National Power Corporation v. Province of Albay. The above-quoted authority necessarily carried with it the power to negotiate, execute and sign on behalf of Tiwi the Contract of Legal Services. Municipality of Tiwi, represented by Hon. Mayor Jaime C. Villanueva and Sangguniang Bayan of Tiwi Vs. Antonio B. Betito, G.R. No. 171873, July 9, 2010.

Attorney; gross misconduct. In Lao v. Medel, we held that the deliberate failure to pay just debts and the issuance of worthless checks constitute gross misconduct for which a lawyer may be sanctioned with one-year suspension from the practice of law. However, in this case, we deem it reasonable to affirm the sanction imposed by the IBP-CBD, i.e., Atty. Valerio was ordered suspended from the practice of law for two (2) years, because, aside from issuing worthless checks and failing to pay her debts, she has also shown wanton disregard of the IBP’s and Court Orders in the course of the proceedings. A-1 Financial Services, Inc. vs. Atty. Laarni N. Valerio, A.C. No. 8390, July 2, 2010.

Attorney; violation of attorney-client relationship. We find no merit in petitioners’ assertion that Atty. Binamira gravely breached and abused the rule on privileged communication under the Rules of Court and the Code of Professional Responsibility of Lawyers when he represented [respondent] Helen in the present case.  Notably, this issue was never raised before the labor tribunals and was raised for the first time only on appeal.  Moreover, records show that although petitioners previously employed Atty. Binamira to manage several businesses, there is no showing that they likewise engaged his professional services as a lawyer.  Likewise, at the time the instant complaint was filed, Atty. Binamira was no longer under the employ of petitioners. Lambert Pawnbrokers and Jewelry Corporation and Lambert Lim vs. Helen Binamira, G.R. No. 170464. July 12, 2010.

Court personnel; immoral conduct. Employees of the judiciary are subject to a higher standard than most other civil servants.  Immorality has been defined to include not only sexual matters but also “conduct inconsistent with rectitude, or indicative of corruption, indecency, depravity, and dissoluteness; or is willful, flagrant or shameless conduct showing moral indifference to opinions of respectable members of the community, and an inconsiderate attitude toward good order and public welfare.”  There is no doubt that engaging in sexual relations with a married man is not only a violation of the moral standards expected of employees of the judiciary but is also a desecration of the sanctity of the institution of marriage which this Court abhors and is, thus, punishable. Julie Ann C. Dela Cruz vs. Selima B. Omaga, A.M. No. P-08-2590, July 5, 2010.

Judge; abuse of authority. In issuing the Direct Contempt Order without legal basis, Judge Francisco is more appropriately guilty of the administrative offense of grave abuse of authority, rather than gross ignorance of the law and incompetence.  Olivia Laurel Vs. Judge Pablo B. Francisco/Judge Pablo B. Francisco Vs. Olivia Laurel/Judge Pablo B. Francisco Vs. Olivia Laurel/Judge Pablo B. Francisco Vs. Gerardo P. Hernandez, et al./Judge Pablo B. Francisco Vs. Nicanor B. Alfonso, et al./Judge Pablo B. Francisco Vs. Caridad D. Cuevillas/Judge Pablo B. Francisco Vs. Hermina S. Javier, et al./Judge Pablo B. Francisco Vs. Atty. Rowena A. Malabanan-Galeon, et al./Judge Pablo B. Francisco Vs. Atty. Rowena A. Malabanan-Galeon//Judge Pablo B. Francisco Vs. Atty. Rowena A. Malabanan-Galeon, et al./Joel O. Arellano and Arnel M. Magat Vs. Judge Pablo B. Francisco, A.M. No. RTJ-06-1992/A.M. No. P-10-2745/A.M. No. RTJ-00-1992/A.M. No. P-10-2746/A.M. No. P-102747/A.M. No. P-10-2748/A.M. No. P-10-2749/A.M. No. P-10-2750/A.M. No. P-10-2751/A.M. No. P-03-1706/A.M. No. RTJ-10-2214, July 6, 2010.

Judge; bias and partiality. Established is the norm that judges should not only be impartial but should also appear impartial.  Judges must not only render just, correct and impartial decisions, but must do so in a manner free from any suspicion as to their fairness, impartiality and integrity. This reminder applies even more to lower court judges like herein respondent because they are judicial front-liners who have direct contact with litigants. Atty. Jose A. Bernas vs. Judge Julia A. Reyes, Metropolitan Trial Court, Branch 69, Pasig City, A.M. No. MTJ-09-1728, July 21, 2010.

Judge; gross ignorance of the law. To be held liable for gross ignorance of the law, the judge must be shown to have committed an error that was “gross or patent, deliberate or malicious.”  Also administratively liable for gross ignorance of the law is a judge who – shown to have been motivated by bad faith, fraud, dishonesty or corruption – ignored, contradicted or failed to apply settled law and jurisprudence. As a matter of public policy though, the acts of a judge in his official capacity are not subject to disciplinary action, even though such acts are erroneous. Good faith and absence of malice, corrupt motives or improper considerations are sufficient defenses in which a judge charged with ignorance of the law can find refuge. Rolando E. Marcos vs. Judge Ofelia T. Pinto, A.M. No. RTJ-09-2180, July 26, 2010.

Judge; gross ignorance of the law. A patent disregard of simple, elementary and well-known rules constitutes gross ignorance of the law. We find that the respondent judge’s error does not rise to the level of gross ignorance of the law that is defined by jurisprudence.  We take judicial notice of the fact that at the time he issued the Writ of Amparo on January 23, 2008, the Rule on the Writ of Amparo has been effective for barely three months.  At that time, the respondent judge cannot be said to have been fully educated and informed on the novel aspects of the Writ of Amparo.  More importantly, for full liability to attach for ignorance of the law, the assailed order, decision or actuation of the judge in the performance of official duties must not only be found to be erroneous; it must be established that he was motivated by bad faith, dishonesty, hatred or some other similar motive.  Ruben Salcedo vs. Judge Gil Bollozos, A.M. No. RTJ-10-2236, July 5, 2010.

Judge; simple misconduct. The Judge’s act of solemnizing the marriage of accused’s son in the residence of the accused speaks for itself. It is improper and highly unethical for a judge to actively participate in such social affairs, considering that the accused is a party in a case pending before her own sala.  In pending or prospective litigations before them, judges should be scrupulously careful to avoid anything that may tend to awaken the suspicion that their personal, social or sundry relations could influence their objectivity. Considering the above findings, it is apparent that respondent judge’s actuations constitute simple misconduct. Rolando E. Marcos vs. Judge Ofelia T. Pinto, A.M. No. RTJ-09-2180, July 26, 2010.

(Mon thanks Barbara Anne A. Gandionco for her help in preparing this post.)