April 2013 Philippine Supreme Court Cases on Legal and Judicial Ethics

Here are select April 2013 rulings of the Supreme Court of the Philippines on legal and judicial ethics:

Attorney; practice of law; notary. The practice of law is imbued with public interest and “a lawyer owes substantial duties not only to his client, but also to his brethren in the profession, to the courts, and to the nation, and takes part in one of the most important functions of the State – the administration of justice – as an officer of the court.” Accordingly, ‘”lawyers are bound to maintain not only a high standard of legal proficiency, but also of morality, honesty, integrity and fair dealing.”

Similarly, the duties of notaries public are dictated by public policy and impressed with public interest. “Notarization is not a routinary, meaningless act, for notarization converts a private document to a public instrument, making it admissible in evidence without the necessity of preliminary proof of its authenticity and due execution.”

In misrepresenting himself as a notary public, respondent exposed party-litigants, courts, other lawyers and the general public to the perils of ordinary documents posing as public instruments. Respondent committed acts of deceit and falsehood in open violation of the explicit pronouncements of the Code of Professional Responsibility. Evidently, respondent’s conduct falls miserably short of the high standards of morality, honesty, integrity and fair dealing required from lawyers. Thus, he should be sanctioned. Efigenia M. Tenoso vs. Atty. Anselmo S. Echanez. A.C. No. 8384. April 11, 2013

Court personnel; dishonesty. In Civil Service Commission v. Perocho, Jr., the Court defined dishonesty as “intentionally making a false statement in any material fact, or practicing or attempting to practice any deception or fraud in securing his examination, registration, appointment or promotion. Thus, dishonesty, like bad faith, 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.” Evidence showed that respondent was not the one who took the Civil Service Sub-Professional Examinations. The Court, citing the Code of Conduct for Court Personnel, stressed that its employees should hold the highest standard of integrity for they are a reflection of the esteemed institution which they serve. It certainly cannot countenance any form of dishonesty perpetrated by its employees. Civil Service Commission vs. Merle Ramoneda-Pita. A.M. No. P-08-2531. April 11, 2013

Court Personnel; simple neglect of duty. In this case, the personnel in charge of the court records failed to elevate the case records to the Court of Appeals within the prescribed period due to the alleged “heavy workload.” The Court held that he was guilty of simple neglect of duty. Section 1, Canon IV of the Code of Conduct for Court Personnel commands court personnel to perform their duties properly and with diligence at all times. The administration of justice is an inviolable task and it demands the highest degree of efficiency, dedication and professionalism.

The Court is not unaware of the heavy workload of court personnel, given the number of cases filed and pending before it. However, unless proven to exist in an insurmountable degree, this circumstance cannot serve as an “excuse to evade administrative liability; otherwise, every government employee faced with negligence and dereliction of duty would resort to that excuse to evade punishment, to the detriment of the public service.”

Clearly, Salazar is guilty of simple neglect of duty, which is defined as the failure to give proper attention to a task expected of an employee, thus signifying a disregard of a duty resulting from carelessness or indifference.

In the determination of the penalties to be imposed, mitigating, aggravating and alternative circumstances attendant to the commission of the crime shall be considered. The Court has mitigated imposable penalties for various special reasons. It has considered length of service in the judiciary, acknowledgement of infractions, remorse and family circumstances, among others, in determining the applicable penalty. In this case, while Salazar is a second time offender for simple neglect of duty, her long years of service in the judiciary and the admission of her negligence are circumstances to mitigate her culpability. Judge Renato A. Fuentes, RTC, Br. 17, Davao City vs. Atty. Rogelio F. Fabro, etc., et al. A.M. No. P-10-2791. April 17, 2013

Judge; Court Personnel; Grave misconduct; Gross neglect of duty; Gross inefficiency. In Obañana, Jr. v. Ricafort, the court held that: Any impression of impropriety, misdeed or negligence in the performance of official functions must be avoided. This Court shall not countenance any conduct, act or omission on the part of all those involved in the administration of justice which would violate the norm of public accountability and diminish the faith of the people in the Judiciary.

First, the judges involved solemnized marriages even if the requirements submitted by the couples were incomplete and questionable. Their actions constitute gross inefficiency. In Vega v. Asdala, the Court held that inefficiency implies negligence, incompetence, ignorance, and carelessness.

Second, the judges were also found guilty of neglect of duty regarding the payment of solemnization fees. The Court, in Rodrigo-Ebron v. Adolfo, defined neglect of duty as the failure to give one’s attention to a task expected of him and it is gross when, from the gravity of the offense or the frequency of instances, the offense is so serious in its character as to endanger or threaten public welfare. The marriage documents show that official receipts for the solemnization fee were missing or payment by batches was made for marriages performed on different dates.

Third, the judges also solemnized marriages where a contracting party is a foreigner who did not submit a certificate of legal capacity to marry from his or her embassy. This irregularity displayed the gross neglect of duty of the judges.

Fourth, the judges are also guilty of gross ignorance of the law under Article 34 of the Family Code with respect to the marriages they solemnized where legal impediments existed during cohabitation such as the minority status of one party.

On the other hand, the court interpreter is guilty of grave misconduct when she said she can facilitate the marriage and the requirements on the same day. She proposed an open-dated marriage in exchange for a fee of P3,000. Section 2, Canon I of the Code of Conduct for Court Personnel prohibits court personnel from soliciting or accepting gifts, favor or benefit based on any explicit or implicit understanding that such gift, favor or benefit shall influence their official actions.

Administrative Cases in the Civil Service defines grave misconduct as “a grave offense that carries the extreme penalty of dismissal from the service even on a first offense. Office of the Court Administrator vs. Judge Anatalio S. Necessario, et al. A.M. No. MTJ-07-1691. April 2, 2013

Judge; Gross ignorance of the law.  The respondent judges violated Canons 21 and 6 of the Canons of Judicial Ethics which exact competence, integrity and probity in the performance of their duties. Ignorance of the law is a mark of incompetence, and where the law involved is elementary, ignorance thereof is considered as an indication of lack of integrity. In connection with this, the administration of justice is considered a sacred task and upon assumption to office, a judge ceases to be an ordinary mortal. He or she becomes the visible representation of the law and more importantly of justice. Office of the Court Administrator vs. Judge Anatalio S. Necessario, et al. A.M. No. MTJ-07-1691. April 2, 2013

Public officer; Presumption of regularity. In People v. Jansen, the Court held that the solemnizing officer is not duty-bound to investigate whether or not a marriage license has been duly and regularly issued by the local civil registrar. All the solemnizing officer needs to know is that the license has been issued by the competent official, and it may be presumed from the issuance of the license that said official has fulfilled the duty to ascertain whether the contracting parties had fulfilled the requirements of law. However, in Sevilla v. Cardenas, the presumption of regularity of official acts may be rebutted by affirmative evidence of irregularity or failure to perform a duty. The visible superimpositions on the marriage licenses should have alerted the solemnizing judges to the irregularity of the issuance. Office of the Court Administrator vs. Judge Anatalio S. Necessario, et al. A.M. No. MTJ-07-1691. April 2, 2013

Judge; Prohibition against private practice of law.  Section 35 of Rule 138 of the Rules of Court expressly prohibits sitting judges like Judge Malanyaon from engaging in the private practice of law or giving professional advice to clients. Section 11 Canon 4 (Propriety), of the New Code of Judicial Conduct and Rule 5.07 of the Code of Judicial Conduct reiterate the prohibition from engaging in the private practice of law or giving professional advice to clients. The prohibition is based on sound reasons of public policy, considering that the rights, duties, privileges and functions of the office of an attorney are inherently incompatible with the high official functions, duties, powers, discretion and privileges of a sitting judge. It also aims to ensure that judges give their full time and attention to their judicial duties, prevent them from extending favors to their own private interests, and assure the public of their impartiality in the performance of their functions. These objectives are dictated by a sense of moral decency and desire to promote the public interest.

Thus, an attorney who accepts an appointment to the Bench must accept that his right to practice law as a member of the Philippine Bar is thereby suspended, and it shall continue to be so suspended for the entire period of his incumbency as a judge. The term practice of law is not limited to the conduct of cases in court or to participation in court proceedings, but extends to the preparation of pleadings or papers in anticipation of a litigation, the giving of legal advice to clients or persons needing the same, the preparation of legal instruments and contracts by which legal rights are secured, and the preparation of papers incident to actions and special proceedings.

In this case, Judge Malanyaon engaged in the private practice of law by assisting his daughter at his wife’s administrative case, coaching his daughter in making manifestations or posing motions to the hearing officer, and preparing the questions that he prompted to his daughter. Sonia C. Decena and Rey C. Decena vs. Judge Nilo A. Malanyaon, RTC, Br. 32, Pili, Camarines Sur. A.M. RTJ-10-2217. April 8, 2013

Public Officers; public office is a public trust; 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. In this case, Gesultura, a Cashier II in the Office of the Clerk of Court in the RTC, was dismissed for an anomaly involving the Judiciary Development Fund and the General Fund. The Court held that public office is a public trust. 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. Those charged with the dispensation of justice, from justices and judges to the lowliest clerks, should be circumscribed with the heavy burden of responsibility. Not only must their conduct at all times be characterized by propriety and decorum but, above all else, it must be beyond suspicion.

No position demands greater moral righteousness and uprightness from the occupant than does the judicial office. The safekeeping of funds and collections is essential to the goal of an orderly administration of justice. The act of misappropriating judiciary funds constitutes dishonesty and grave misconduct which are grave offenses punishable by dismissal upon the commission of even the first offense. Time and again, we have reminded court personnel tasked with collections of court funds, such as Clerks of Courts and cash clerks, to deposit immediately with authorized government depositories the various funds they have collected, because they are not authorized to keep funds in their custody. Office of the Court Administrator vs. Develyn Gesultura. A.M. No. P-04-1785. April 2, 2013

(Mon thank Roselle Nonato for assisting in the preparation of this post.)