December 2011 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

Here are selected December 2011 rulings of the Supreme Court of the Philippines on legal and judicial ethics:

Affidavit of Desistance; no effect on disciplinary proceeding.  It bears to stress that a case of suspension or disbarment is sui generis and not meant to grant relief to a complainant in a civil case but is intended to cleanse the ranks of the legal profession or its undesirable members in order to protect the public and the courts.  It is not an investigation into the acts of respondent as a husband but on his conduct as an officer of the Court and his fitness to continue as a member of the Bar.  Hence, the Affidavit dated March 15, 1995, which is akin to an affidavit of desistance, cannot have the effect of abating the instant proceedings. Elpidio P. Tiong vs. Atty. George M. Florendo. A.C. No. 4428. December 12, 2011

Attorney; gross immorality. Possession of good moral character is not only a condition for admission to the Bar but is a continuing requirement to maintain one’s good standing in the legal profession. It is the bounden duty of law practitioners to observe the highest degree of morality in order to safeguard the integrity of the Bar. Consequently, any errant behavior on the part of a lawyer, be it in his public or private activities, which tends to show him deficient in moral character, honesty, probity or good demeanor, is sufficient to warrant his suspension or disbarment. Respondent’s act of having an affair with his client’s wife manifested his disrespect for the laws on the sanctity of marriage and his own marital vow of fidelity. It showed his utmost moral depravity and low regard for his profession. He also violated the trust and confidence reposed on him by the complainant, which in itself is prohibited under Canon 17 of the Code of Professional Responsibility.  Elpidio P. Tiong vs. Atty. George M. Florendo. A.C. No. 4428. December 12, 2011

Attorney; gross misconduct; inexcusable ignorance of well-established rules of procedures. The respondent, while an MTC judge, accepted a petition for declaratory relief filed by the Municipal Council of San Fernando, Pampanga, assigned it to himself, and acted on it, all on the same day and without issuing summons or giving notice to the complainant who was the part adversely affected by the resolution subject of the Municipal Council’s petition.  The New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary mandates that judges must not only maintain their independence, integrity and impartiality but they must also avoid any appearance of impropriety or partiality, which may erode the people’s faith in the judiciary.  Integrity and impartiality, as well as the appearance thereof, are deemed essential not just in the proper discharge of judicial office, but also to the personal demeanor of judges. This standard applies not only to the decision itself, but also to the process by which the decision is made. As a member of the bar and former judge, respondent is expected to be well-versed in the Rules of Procedure. This is expected upon members of the legal profession because membership in the bar is in the category of a mandate for public service of the highest order. Lawyers are oath-bound servants of society whose conduct is clearly circumscribed by inflexible norms of law and ethics, and whose primary duty is the advancement of the quest for truth and justice, for which they have sworn to be fearless crusaders. Office of the Court Administrator vs. Atty. Daniel B. Liangco A.C. No. 5355. December 13, 2011

Court personnel; grave misconduct. Under Section 9, Rule 141 of the Rules of Court, the sheriff is required to secure the court’s prior approval of the estimated expenses and fees needed to implement the court process. It is imperative that a sheriff shall observe the following: (1) the sheriff must make an estimate of the expenses to be incurred by him; (2) he must obtain court approval for such estimated expenses; (3) the approved estimated expenses shall be deposited by the interested party with the Clerk of Court and Ex Officio Sheriff; (4) the Clerk of Court shall disburse the amount to the executing sheriff; and (5) the executing sheriff shall disburse/liquidate his expenses within the same period for rendering a return on the writ. Any unspent amount shall be refunded to the party who made the deposit. Sheriffs are not authorized to receive any voluntary payments from parties in the course of the performance of their duties. A sheriff cannot just unilaterally demand sums of money from a party-litigant without observing the proper procedural steps; otherwise, it would amount to dishonesty or extortion.

The duty of sheriffs to promptly execute a writ is mandatory and ministerial. Sheriffs have no discretion on whether or not to implement a writ. There is no need for the litigants to “follow-up” its implementation. Unless restrained by a court order, they should see to it that the execution of judgments is not unduly delayed. When respondent took it upon himself to mediate between litigants and even provided an extension of the implementation of the writ, he appeared to be lacking in the amount of diligence required of him in the performance of his duties. Atty. Rutillo B. Pasok vs. Carlos P. Diaz, Sheriff IV, RTC Br 20, Tacurong City. A.M. No. P-07-2300. December 12, 2011

Court personnel; grave misconduct.  All officials and employees involved in the administration of justice, from judges to the lowest rank and file employees, bear the heavy responsibility of acting with strict propriety and decorum at all times in order to merit and maintain the public’s respect for, and trust in, the Judiciary. Respondent’s use of the letterhead of the court and of her official designation in the demand letters she prepared hardly meets the foregoing standard. Despite her good intentions, she gave private individuals an unwarranted privilege at the expense of the name of the court. Clerks of Court are notaries public ex officio. They may notarize documents or administer oaths only when the matter is related to the exercise of their official functions. Thus, in their ex-officio capacity, clerks of court should not take part in the execution of private documents bearing no relation at all to their official functions. Arthur M. Gabon vs. Rebecca P. Merka, Clerk of Court II, Municipal Trial Court, Liloan, Southern Leyte. A.M. No. P-11-3000. December 14, 2011

Court personnel; gross negligence in the performance of duty.   Respondent clerk of court assigned to a cash clerk the collections, remittances, financial reports and accountable forms. He later found out that some are already missing. The clerk of court is the court’s accountable officer, not the cash clerk. He is the court’s chief administrative officer. No amount of good faith can relieve him of his duty to properly administer and safeguard the court’s funds. Clerks of court are officers of the law who perform vital functions in the prompt and sound administration of justice. They are designated custodians of the court’s funds, revenues, records, properties and premises. They are liable for any loss, shortage, destruction or impairment of such funds and property.Respondent is liable for gross neglect of duty. Office of the Court Administrator vs. Clerk of Court Hermenegildo I. Marasigan, RTC Kabacan, North Cotabato  A.M. No. P-05-2082. December 12, 2011

Court personnel; immoral conduct.  Respondent’s act of maintaining an illicit relationship with a married man comes within the purview of disgraceful and immoral conduct, which is classified as a grave offense. The image of a court of justice is mirrored in the conduct of the official and personnel who work thereat. Court employees have been enjoined to adhere to the exacting standards of morality and decency in their professional and private conduct in order to preserve the good name and integrity of courts of justice. This Court has thus consistently penalized court personnel who had been found wanting of such standards, even if they have precipitately resigned from their positions. Resignation should not be used either as an escape or as an easy way out to evade an administrative liability or an administrative sanction. Evelina C. Banaag vs. Olivia C. Espeleta, Interpreter III, Branch 82, RTC. Quezon City. A.M. No. P-11-3011. December 16, 2011

Court personnel; leave for foreign travel without authority. The exercise of one’s right to travel or the freedom to move from one place to another is not absolute. Section 5 (6), Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution provides that the “Supreme Court shall have administrative supervision over all courts and the personnel thereof.” This provision empowers the Court to oversee all matters relating to the effective supervision and management of all courts and personnel under it. Pursuant to this, the Court issued OCA Circular No. 49-2003 to regulate their foreign travel in an unofficial capacity.  Such regulation is necessary for the orderly administration of justice. If judges and court personnel can go on leave and travel abroad at will and without restrictions or regulations, there could be a disruption in the administration of justice. A situation where the employees go on mass leave and travel together, despite the fact that their invaluable services are urgently needed, could possibly arise. Thus, judges and personnel who shall leave the country without travel authority issued by the Office of the Court Administrator shall be subject to disciplinary action. A judge or a member of the Judiciary, who is not being restricted by a criminal court or any other agency pursuant to any statutory limitation, can leave for abroad without permission but he or she must be prepared to face the consequences for his or her violation of the Court’s rules and regulations. OCA-OAS vs. Wilma Salvacion P. Heusdens, etc. A.M. No. P-11-2927. December 13, 2011

Court personnel; unreasonable delay in remitting cash receipts. As custodian of court funds and revenues, it is the duty of a clerk of court to immediately deposit the various funds received by them to the authorized government depositories for they are not supposed to keep funds in their custody. Atty. Cruz’ belated turnover of cash deposited with him is inexcusable and will not exonerate him from liability. His failure to remit his cash collections on time is violative of Administrative Circular No. 3-2000 which mandates that all fiduciary collections shall be deposited immediately by the Clerk of Court concerned, upon receipt thereof, with the Land Bank of the Philippines, the authorized government depository bank. Office of the Court Administrator vs. Atty. Teotimo D. Cruz A.M. No. P-11-2988. December 12, 2011

Presumption of innocence in disbarment proceedings; burden of proof; quantum of proof. The Court has consistently held that in suspension or disbarment proceedings against lawyers, the lawyer enjoys the presumption of innocence, and the burden of proof rests upon the complainant to prove the allegations in his complaint. The evidence required in suspension or disbarment proceedings is preponderance of evidence. In case the evidence of the parties are equally balanced, the equipoise doctrine mandates a decision in favor of the respondent. Siao Aba, et al. vs. Attys. Salvador De Guzman, Jr., et al. A.C. No. 7649. December 14, 2011

(Mon thanks Leanne Herschel Que for her assistance in the preparation of this post.)