July 2012 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

Here are select July 2012 rulings of the Supreme Court of the Philippines on legal and judicial ethics:

Attorney; bigamy; gross immorality. A disbarment case is sui generis. Its focus is on the qualification and fitness of a lawyer to continue membership in the bar and not the procedural technicalities in filing the case.Respondent’s regard for marriage contracts as ordinary agreements indicates either his wanton disregard of the sanctity of marriage or his gross ignorance of the law on what course of action to take to annul a marriage under the old Civil Code provisions. Respondent entered into marriage twice while his first marriage was still subsisting. He exhibited a deplorable lack of that degree of morality required of him as a member of the bar. He made a mockery of marriage, a sacred institution demanding respect and dignity.His acts of committing bigamy twice constituted grossly immoral conduct and are grounds for disbarment under Section 27, Rule 138 of the Revised Rules of Court. Manuel G. Villatuya vs. Atty. Bede S. Tabalingcos A.C. No. 6622, July 10, 2012.

Attorney; conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude is a ground for disbarment. Conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude is a ground for disbarment. Moral turpitude is defined as an act of baseness, vileness, or depravity in the private duties which a man owes to his fellow men, or to society in general, contrary to justice, honesty, modesty, or good morals.Section 27, Rule 138 provides that “a member of the bar may be disbarred or suspended from his office as attorney by the Supreme Court  for  any deceit,  malpractice,  or  other  gross  misconduct  in  such  office,  grossly immoral conduct, or  by reason of his conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude, or for any violation of the oath which he is required to take before admission to practice, or for a willful disobedience of any lawful order of a superior court, or for corruptly or willfully appearing as an attorney for a party to a case without authority so to do. The practice of soliciting cases at law for the purpose of gain, either personally or through paid agents or brokers, constitutes malpractice.”

In a disbarment case, the Court   will no longer review a final judgment of conviction. The crime of direct bribery is a crime involving moral turpitude. The lawyer’s final conviction of the crime of direct bribery clearly falls under one of the grounds for disbarment under Section 27 of Rule 138. Disbarment follows as a consequence of the lawyer’s conviction of the crime. Atty. Policarpio I. Catalan, Jr. vs. Atty. Joselito M. Silvosa. A.C. No. 7360, July 24, 2012.

Attorney; inexcusable negligence. The failure of counsel to file the requisite appellant’s brief amounted to inexcusable negligence in violation of the Code of  Professional Responsibility. In Perla Compania de Seguros, Inc. v. Saquilabon, it was held that an attorney is bound to protect his client’s interest  to the best of his ability and with utmost diligence. On account of respondent’s failure to protect the interest of complainant, respondent indeed violated Rule 18.03, Canon 18 of the Code of Professional Responsibility.

The practice of law is a special privilege bestowed only upon those who are competent intellectually, academically and morally. This Court has been exacting in its expectations for the members of the Bar to always uphold the integrity and dignity of the legal profession and refrain from any act or omission which might lessen the trust and confidence of the public. Isaac C. Basilio, Perlita Pedrozo and Jun Basilio vs. Atty. Virgil R. Castro A.C. No. 6910. July 11, 2012

Attorney; representation of conflicting interest. Atty. Silvosa violated Rule 6.03. Rule  15.03 also provides that “A lawyer shall not represent conflicting interests except by written consent of all concerned given after a full disclosure of facts.” in  Hilado v. David, the Court held that “an attorney  is  employed  — that  is,  he  is  engaged  in  his professional capacity as a lawyer or counselor — when he is listening to his client’s preliminary statement of his case, or when he is giving advice thereon, just as truly as when he is drawing his client’s pleadings, or advocating his client’s pleadings, or advocating his client’s cause in open court.”  Hence the necessity of setting   down the existence of the bare relationship of attorney and client  as  the  yardstick  for  testing incompatibility  of  interests.   This stern rule is designed not alone to prevent the dishonest practitioner from fraudulent conduct, but as well to protect the honest lawyer from unfounded suspicion of unprofessional practice.  It is founded on principles of public policy, on good taste. The question is not necessarily one of the rights of the parties, but as to whether the attorney has adhered to proper professional standard.  With these thoughts in mind, it behooves attorneys, like Caesar’s wife, not only to keep inviolate the client’s confidence, but also to avoid the appearance of treachery and double-dealing.  Only thus can litigants be encouraged to entrust their secrets to their attorneys which is of paramount importance in the administration of justice. The prohibition against representation of conflicting interests applies although the attorney’s intentions were honest and he acted in good faith. Atty. Policarpio I. Catalan, Jr. vs. Atty. Joselito M. Silvosa. A.C. No. 7360, July 24, 2012.

Attorney; sharing of fees. A lawyer is proscribed by Rule 9.02 of the Code of Professional Responsibility to divide or agree to divide the fees for legal services rendered with a person not licensed to practice law. In Tan Tek Beng v. David , it was rule that an agreement between a lawyer and a layperson to share the fees collected from clients secured by the layperson is null and void, and that the lawyer involved may be disciplined for unethical conduct. Manuel G. Villatuya vs. Atty. Bede S. Tabalingcos A.C. No. 6622, July 10, 2012.

Attorney; solicitation of clients. Based on the facts of the case, respondent violated Rule 2.03 of the Code, which prohibits lawyers from soliciting cases for the purpose of profit. A lawyer is not prohibited from engaging in business or other lawful occupation. Impropriety arises, though, when the business is of such a nature or is conducted in such a manner as to be inconsistent with the lawyer’s duties as a member of the bar. This inconsistency arises when the business is one that can readily lend itself to the procurement of professional employment for the lawyer; or that can be used as a cloak for indirect solicitation on the lawyer’s behalf; or is of a nature that, if handled by a lawyer, would be regarded as the practice of law

Rule 15.08 of the Code mandates that the lawyer is mandated to inform the client whether the former is acting as a lawyer or in another capacity. This duty is a must in those occupations related to the practice of law. The reason is that certain ethical considerations governing the attorney-client relationship may be operative in one and not in the other. Manuel G. Villatuya vs. Atty. Bede S. Tabalingcos A.C. No. 6622, July 10, 2012.

Court Personnel; conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service. Conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service refers to acts or omissions that violate the norm of public accountability and diminish – or tend to diminish – the people’s faith in the Judiciary.  If an employee’s questioned conduct tarnished the image and integrity of his public office, he is liable for conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service. The basis for his liability is Republic Act (R.A.) No. 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees. The Code, particularly its Section 4(c), commands that public officials and employees shall at all times respect the rights of others, and shall refrain from doing acts contrary to public safety and public interest.

The strictest standards have always been valued in judicial service. Everyone involved in the dispensation of justice, from the presiding judge to the lowliest clerk, is expected to live up to the strictest norm of competence, honesty and integrity in the public service.  The conduct of every court personnel must be beyond reproach and free from suspicion that may cause to sully the image of the Judiciary. They must totally avoid any impression of impropriety, misdeed or misdemeanor not only in the performance of their official duties but also in conducting themselves outside or beyond the duties and functions of their office. Court personnel are enjoined to conduct themselves toward maintaining the prestige and integrity of the Judiciary for the very image of the latter is necessarily mirrored in their conduct, both official and otherwise. They must not forget that they are an integral part of that organ of the government sacredly tasked in dispensing justice. Their conduct and behavior, therefore, should not only be circumscribed with the heavy burden of responsibility but at all times be defined by propriety and decorum, and above all else beyond any suspicion. The Court does not hesitate to condemn and sanction such improper conduct, act or omission of those involved in the administration of justice that violates the norm of public accountability and diminishes or tends to diminish the faith of the public in the Judiciary. Filomena B. Consolacion vs. Lydia S. Gambito, Court Stenographer, MCTC, Binalonan, Pangasinan/Judge Emma S. Ines-Parajas vs. Lydia S. Gambito, Court Stenographer, MCTC, Binalonan, Pangasinan A.M. No. P-06-2186 & A.M. No. P-12-3026. July 3, 2012

Court personnel; dishonesty and grave misconduct.  In Alenio v. Cunting, the Court defined dishonesty and grave misconduct as the “disposition to lie, cheat, deceive, defraud or betray; untrustworthiness; lack of integrity; lack of honesty, probity, or integrity in principle; and lack of fairness and straightforwardness.” Misconduct, on the other hand, is a transgression of some established and definite rule of action, more particularly, unlawful behavior or gross negligence by the public officer.  To warrant dismissal from the service, the misconduct must be grave, serious, important, weighty, momentous, and not trifling.   The misconduct must imply wrongful intention and not a mere error of judgment.  The misconduct must also have a direct relation to and be connected with the performance of the public officer’s official  duties  amounting  either  to maladministration or willful, intentional neglect, or failure to discharge the duties of the office.

Taking monetary evidence without proper authority constitutes theft. In Judge San Jose, Jr. v. Camurongan, the Court held that, “The act of taking monetary exhibits without authority from their custodian constitutes theft.  Thievery, no matter how petty, has no place in the judiciary.” Office of the Court Administrator vs. Ma. Irissa G. Musni, Court Legal Researcher II RTC, Judicial Region III, Branch 36, Gapan City, Nueva Ecija A.M. No. P-11-3024, July 17, 2012.

Court personnel; dishonesty, gross neglect, grave misconduct. Section 1, Article XI of the Constitution declares that a public office is a public trust, and all public officers and employees must at all times be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency, act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives. The demand for moral uprightness is more pronounced for the members and personnel of the judiciary who are involved in the dispensation of justice. The conduct of court members and personnel must not only be characterized with propriety and   decorum but must also be above suspicion, for any act of impropriety ca seriously erode or diminish the people’s confidence in the judiciary. As frontliners in the administration of justice, they should live up to the strictest standards of honesty and integrity in the public service.

Clerks of Court act as custodians of the court’s funds, revenues, records, property and premises and are thus, liable for any loss, shortage, destruction or impairment of such funds and property. In Re: Report on the Judicial and Financial Audit of RTC-Br. 4, Panabo, Davao Del Norte, it was held that the failure of the Clerk of Court to remit the court funds constitutes gross neglect of duty, dishonesty, and grave misconduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service. In this case, Peradilla is guilty of dishonesty, gross neglect of duty, and grave misconduct for her: (1) non-remittance of collections of judiciary funds; (2) non-issuance of official receipts and non reporting in the Monthly Reports and  Collections  and  Deposits of  some  of  the  collections;  and (3)  erroneous  reporting    in  the  Monthly  Reports  and  Collections  and Deposits of some of the collections. Office of the Court Administrator vs. Lunalinda M. Peradilla, Clerk of Court II, MCTC, E1 Nido-Linapacan, Palawan A.M. No. P-09-2647, July 17, 2012.

Court personnel; simple misconduct. The Sheriff disregarded the procedure for the execution of judgments as mandated by Section 10, Rule 141 of the Rules of Court. A sheriff is mandated to make an estimate of the expenses which shall be approved by the court. It is only after the approval of the court that an interested party shall deposit the amount with the clerk of court. Upon the return of the writ, the sheriff must submit a liquidation and return to the interested party any unspent amount. The Sheriff’s act of receiving money from the party for the expenses to be incurred in the execution of the writs, without first making an estimate and securing prior approval from the MTCC, as well as his failure to render accounting after its execution, are clear violations of the rule. Even if conceding that the sum demanded by Sheriff is reasonable, this does not justify his deviation from the procedure laid down by the rule. Neither the acquiescence nor consent of the complainant, before or after the implementation of the writ will absolve him from liability. The mere act of receiving the money without the prior approval of the court and without him issuing a receipt therefor is considered as a misconduct in office.

Sheriffs are reminded that they are not allowed to receive any voluntary payments from parties in the course of the performance of their duties.   Corollarily, a sheriff cannot just unilaterally demand sums of money from a party-litigant without observing the proper procedural steps.  Even assuming that such payments were indeed given and received in good faith, such fact alone would not dispel the suspicion that such payments were made for less than noble purposes. Sheriffs and their deputies are the front-line representatives of the justice system, and if, through their lack of care and diligence in the implementation of judicial writs, they lose the trust reposed on them, they inevitably diminish the faith of the people in the Judiciary.  The image of a court of justice is mirrored in the conduct, official and otherwise, of the personnel who work there, from the judge to the lowest employee. As such, the Court will not tolerate or condone any conduct of judicial agents or employees which would tend to or actually diminish the faith of the people in the Judiciary. Lambayong Teachers and Employees Cooperative, represented in this act by its Manager, Gudelio S. Valeroso vs. Carlos P. Diaz, in his capacity as Sheriff IV, RTC, Branch 20, Tacurong City A.M. No. P-06-2246, July 11, 2012.

Court personnel; simple neglect of duty. The manner in which a writ of execution is to be returned to the court, as well as the requisite reports to be made by the sheriff or officer, is explicitly outlined in Section 14, Rule 39 of the Rules of Court. In accordance with this rule, periodic reporting must be done by the sheriff regularly and consistently every thirty (30) days until the judgment is fully satisfied. It is mandatory for the sheriff to make a return of the writ of execution, so that the court and the litigants may be apprised of the proceedings undertaken in the enforcement of the writ. The return will enable the courts to take the necessary steps to ensure the speedy execution of decisions. The failure of a sheriff to make periodic reports on the status of a writ of execution warrants administrative liability.

The Court faults respondent for not submitting his periodic reports on the progress of his implementation of the writ. He is guilty of simple neglect of duty, defined as “the failure of an employee to give one’s attention to a task expected of him, and signifies a disregard of a duty resulting from carelessness or indifference.”As officers of the court, sheriffs are charged with the knowledge of what proper action to take in case there are questions on the writ needing to be clarified; they are charged as well with the knowledge of what they are bound to comply with.Sheriffs are expected to know the rules of procedure pertaining to their functions as officers of the court,relative to the implementation of writs of execution, and should at all times show a high degree of professionalism in the performance of their duties. Any act deviating from the procedure laid down by the Rules of Court is misconduct that warrants disciplinary action.
Rhea Airene P. Katague, et al. vs. Jerry A. Ledesma, Sheriff IV, RTC, Br. 48, Bacolod City A.M. No. P-12-3067. July 4, 2012.

Court personnel; simple neglect of duty. The duty of a process server is vital to the administration of justice.  A process server’s primary duty is to serve court notices which precisely requires utmost care on his part by ensuring that all notices assigned to him are duly served on the parties. Unjustified delay in performing this task constitutes neglect of duty and warrants the imposition of administrative sanctions. All employees in the judiciary should be examples of responsibility, competence and efficiency. It is through the process server that defendants learn of the action brought against them by the complainant. It is also through the service of summons by the process server that the trial court acquires jurisdiction over the defendant.  It is therefore important that summonses, other writs and court processes be served expeditiously.

Heavy workload is not an adequate excuse to be remiss in the diligent performance of one’s public duties as a public servant.  Otherwise, every government employee charged with negligence and dereliction of duty will always use this as a convenient excuse to escape punishment to the great prejudice of public service

The Court has defined dishonesty as the ‘disposition to lie, cheat, deceive, or defraud; untrustworthiness; lack of integrity; lack of honesty, probity or integrity in principle; lack of fairness and straightforwardness; disposition to defraud, deceive or betray.’ Dishonesty is not simply bad judgment or negligence.  Dishonesty is a question of intention.  In ascertaining the intention of a person accused of dishonesty, consideration must be taken not only of the facts and circumstances which gave rise to the act committed by the respondent, but also of his state of mind at the time the offense was committed, the time he might have had at his disposal for the purpose of meditating on the consequences of his act, and the degree of reasoning he could have had at that moment. It was never alleged, much less established, that Dela Cruz was impelled by some evil design or corrupt motives to commit said errors or to favor any party or litigant.  Hence, he was found guilty only of negligence in the performance of his tasks, and not of dishonesty.  Simple neglect of duty is defined as “the failure of an employee to give proper attention to a required task or to discharge a duty due to carelessness or indifference.” Judge Pelagia Dalmacio-Joaquin vs. Nicomedes Dela Cruz, Process Server, Municipal Trial Court in Cities, San Jose del Monte, Bulacan. A.M. No. P-06-2241. July 10, 2012

Judge; gross ignorance of the law. Judge Clapis is also liable for gross ignorance of the law for conducting bail hearings without a petition for  bail  being  filed  by  the accused and without affording the prosecution an opportunity to prove that the guilt of the accused is strong. His Order granting bail indicates that he merely used as basis the affidavit of one prosecution witness that was submitted earlier.  Clearly, he failed to observe the proper procedure in granting bail. His act is not a mere deficiency in prudence, discretion and judgment but a patent disregard of well-known rules. When an error is so gross and patent, such error produces an inference of bad faith, making the judge liable for gross ignorance of the law.

If judges are allowed to wantonly misuse the powers vested in them by the law, there will not only be confusion in the administration of justice but also oppressive disregard of the basic requirements of due process. Judges are reminded that having accepted the exalted position of a judge, they owe it to the public to uphold the exacting standard of conduct demanded from them. Criselda C. Gacad vs. Judge Hilarion P. Clapis, Jr., RTC, Br. 3, Nabunturan, Compostela Valley A.M. No. RJ-10-2257. July 17, 2012

Judge; gross misconduct. In Kaw v. Osorio, the Court held that while the respondent judge, in that case, may not be held liable for extortion and corruption as it was not substantially proven, he should be made accountable for gross misconduct. The acts of the Judge in meeting a litigant in a case pending before his sala, and telling her, “Sige, kay ako na bahala gamuson nato ni sila” (Okay, leave it all to me, we shall crush them) constitute gross misconduct. Misconduct means intentional wrongdoing or deliberate violation of a rule of law or standard of behavior in connection with one’s performance of official functions and duties. For grave or gross misconduct to exist, the judicial act complained of should be corrupt or inspired by the intention to violate the law, or a persistent disregard of well-known rules. The misconduct must imply wrongful intention and not a mere error of judgment. The arbitrary actions of respondent judge, taken together, give doubt as to his impartiality, integrity and   propriety.  His acts amount to gross misconduct constituting violations of the New Code of Judicial Conduct, particularly Sections 1 and 2 of Canon 2 and Sections 2 and 4 of Canon 3 and Section 1 of Canon 4

It is an ironclad principle that a judge must not only be impartial; he must also appear to be impartial at all times. Being in constant scrutiny by the public, his language, both written and spoken, must be guarded and measured lest the best of intentions be misconstrued. Needless to state, any gross misconduct  seriously  undermines  the  faith  and  confidence  of  the people in the judiciary. Criselda C. Gacad vs. Judge Hilarion P. Clapis, Jr., RTC, Br. 3, Nabunturan, Compostela Valley A.M. No. RJ-10-2257. July 17, 2012

Judge; undue delay. The Revised Rules on Summary Procedure was promulgated to achieve an expeditious and inexpensive determination of the cases that it covers. The respondent failed to abide by this purpose in the way that he handled and acted on the subject unlawful detainer case. Under Section 7 of the 1991 Revised Rules on Summary Procedure, a preliminary conference should be held not later than thirty (30) days after the last answer is filed. The respondent set the case for preliminary conference at a time way beyond the required thirty (30)-day period.   Another of the respondent’s procedural lapses relates to the frequent resetting of the date of the preliminary conference. Clearly, the respondent failed to exert his authority in expediting the proceedings of the unlawful detainer case. Sound practice requires a judge to remain, at all times, in full control of the proceedings in his court and to adopt a firm policy against unnecessary postponements.

In numerous occasions, the Court admonished judges to be prompt in the performance of their solemn duty as dispensers of justice because undue delay in the administration of justice erodes the people’s faith in the judicial system.  Delay not only reinforces the belief of the people that the wheels of justice in this country grind slowly, it also invites suspicion, however unfair, of ulterior motives on the part of the Judge.  Judges should always be mindful of their duty to render justice within the periods  prescribed  by law. Murphy Chu, et al. vs. Hon. Mario B. Capellan, Assisting Judge, MeTC, Br. 40, Quezon City. A.M. No. MTJ-11-1779, July 16, 2012.

(Mon thanks Jennifer Go for assisting in the preparation of this post.)