July 2013 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

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

Attorney; Attorney-client relationship. Respondent Atty. Ramon SG Cabanes, Jr. was charged for gross negligence in violation of Canon 17, and Rules 18.03 and 18.04 of Canon 18 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. The Supreme Court held him guilty of gross negligence. The relationship between an attorney and his client is one imbued with utmost trust and confidence. In this light, clients are led to expect that lawyers would be ever-mindful of their cause and accordingly exercise the required degree of diligence in handling their affairs. Verily, a lawyer is expected to maintain at all times a high standard of legal proficiency, and to devote his full attention, skill, and competence to the case, regardless of its importance and whether he accepts it for a fee or for free. A lawyer’s duty of competence and diligence includes not merely reviewing the cases entrusted to the counsel’s care or giving sound legal advice, but also consists of properly representing the client before any court or tribunal, attending scheduled hearings or conferences, preparing and filing the required pleadings, prosecuting the handled cases with reasonable dispatch, and urging their termination without waiting for the client or the court to prod him or her to do so. While such negligence or carelessness is incapable of exact formulation, the Court has consistently held that the lawyer’s mere failure to perform the obligations due his client is per se a violation. Thus, the court suspended respondent for six (6) months. Josefina Caranza Vda de Saldivar v. Atty. Ramon SG Cabanes, Jr., A.C. No. 7749, July 8, 2013

Attorney; Conflict of interest. The rule prohibiting conflict of interest was fashioned to prevent situations wherein a lawyer would be representing a client whose interest is directly adverse to any of his present or former clients. In the same way, a lawyer may only be allowed to represent a client involving the same or a substantially related matter that is materially adverse to the former client only if the former client consents to it after consultation. The rule is grounded in the fiduciary obligation of loyalty. Throughout the course of a lawyer-client relationship, the lawyer learns all the facts connected with the client’s case, including the weak and strong points of the case. Knowledge and information gathered in the course of the relationship must be treated as sacred and guarded with care. It behooves lawyers not only to keep inviolate the client’s confidence, but also to avoid the appearance of treachery and double-dealing, for only then can litigants be encouraged to entrust their secrets to their lawyers, which is paramount in the administration of justice. The nature of that relationship is, therefore, one of trust and confidence of the highest degree.

Contrary to Atty. Era’s ill-conceived attempt to explain his disloyalty to Samson and his group, the termination of the attorney-client relationship does not justify a lawyer to represent an interest adverse to or in conflict with that of the former client. The spirit behind this rule is that the client’s confidence once given should not be stripped by the mere expiration of the professional employment. Even after the severance of the relation, a lawyer should not do anything that will injuriously affect his former client in any matter in which the lawyer previously represented the client. Nor should the lawyer disclose or use any of the client’s confidences acquired in the previous relation. Thus, Atty. Era was found guilty of Rule 15.03 of Canon 15 and Canon 17 of the Code of Professional Responsibility and was suspended from the practice of law for two (2) years. Ferdinand A. Samson v. Atty. Edgardo O. Era, A.C. No. 6664, July 16, 2013.

Attorney; Disbarment and suspension of lawyers; Burden of proof. The burden of proof in disbarment and suspension proceedings always rests on the shoulders of the complainant. The Court exercises its disciplinary power only if the complainant establishes the complaint by clearly preponderant evidence that warrants the imposition of the harsh penalty. As a rule, an attorney enjoys the legal presumption that he is innocent of the charges made against him until the contrary is proved. An attorney is further presumed as an officer of the Court to have performed his duties in accordance with his oath. In this case, complainants failed to discharge their burden of proving that respondents ordered their secretary to stamp a much later date instead of the actual date of receipt for the purpose of extending the ten-day period within which to file a Motion for Reconsideration under the NLRC Rules of Procedure. Such claim is merely anchored on speculation and conjecture and not backed by any clear preponderant evidence necessary to justify the imposition of administrative penalty on a member of the Bar. Jaime Joven and Reynaldo C. Rasing v. Atty. Pablo R. Cruz and Frankie O. Magsalin III, A.C. No. 7686, July 31, 2013.

Attorney; Honesty; Practice of law is not a right but a privilege. Lawyers are officers of the court, called upon to assist in the administration of justice. They act as vanguards of our legal system, protecting and upholding truth and the rule of law. They are expected to act with honesty in all their dealings, especially with the court. Verily, the Code of Professional Responsibility enjoins lawyers from committing or consenting to any falsehood in court or from allowing the courts to be misled by any artifice. Moreover, they are obliged to observe the rules of procedure and not to misuse them to defeat the ends of justice. Indeed, the practice of law is not a right but merely a privilege bestowed upon by the State upon those who show that they possess, and continue to possess, the qualifications required by law for the conferment of such privilege. One of those requirements is the observance of honesty and candor. Candor in all their dealings is the very essence of a practitioner’s honorable membership in the legal profession. Lawyers are required to act with the highest standard of truthfulness, fair play and nobility in the conduct of litigation and in their relations with their clients, the opposing parties, the other counsels and the courts. They are bound by their oath to speak the truth and to conduct themselves according to the best of their knowledge and discretion, and with fidelity to the courts and their clients. Sonic Steel Industries, Inc. v. Atty. Nonnatus P. Chua, A.C. No. 6942, July 17, 2013.

Court personnel; Gross dishonesty; Misrepresentation of eligibility; Penalty. Respondent, a court stenographer III, was charged with gross dishonesty in connection with her Civil Service eligibility where she was accused of causing another person to take the Civil Service Eligibility Examination in her stead. Before the Decision was imposed, however, respondent already resigned. The Supreme Court held that the respondent’s resignation from the service did not cause the Court to lose its jurisdiction to proceed against her in this administrative case. Her cessation from office by virtue of her intervening resignation did not warrant the dismissal of the administrative complaint against her, for the act complained of had been committed when she was still in the service. Nor did such cessation from office render the administrative case moot and academic. Otherwise, exacting responsibility for administrative liabilities incurred would be easily avoided or evaded.

Respondent’s dismissal from the service is the appropriate penalty, with her eligibility to be cancelled, her retirement benefits to be forfeited, and her disqualification from re-employment in the government service to be perpetual. Her intervening resignation necessarily means that the penalty of dismissal could no longer be implemented against her. Instead, fine is imposed, the determination of the amount of which is subject to the sound discretion of the Court. Concerned Citizen V. Nonita v. Catena, Court Stenographer III, RTC, Br. 50, Puerto Princesa, Palawan, A.M. OCA IPI No. 02-1321-P, July 16, 2013.

Court personnel; Misconduct; Penalty under the Revised Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service; Effect of death in an administrative case. Misconduct is “a transgression of some established and definite rule of action, a forbidden act, a dereliction from duty, unlawful behavior, wilful in character, improper or wrong behavior.” A misconduct is “grave” or gross” if it is “out of all measure; beyond allowance; flagrant; shameful” or “such conduct as is not to be excused.” Respondent Ong’s and Buencamino’s acts of using the levied car for personal errands and losing it while under their safekeeping constitute grave misconduct and gross neglect of duty. These are flagrant and shameful acts and should not be countenanced. Respondents’ acts warrant the penalty of dismissal as provided in Rule 10, Section 46 of the Revised Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service. As for respondent Buencamino, his death is not a ground for the dismissal of the Complaint against him. Respondent Buencamino’s acts take away the public’s faith in the judiciary, and these acts should be sanctioned despite his death.

Sheriffs are reminded that they are “repositories of public trust and are under obligation to perform the duties of their office honestly, faithfully, and to the best of their abilities.” Being “frontline officials of the justice system,” sheriffs and deputy sheriffs “must always strive to maintain public trust in the performance of their duties.” Office of the Court Administrator v. Noel R. Ong, Deputy Sheriff, Br. 49, et al., A.M. No. P-09-2690, July 9, 2013.

Court personnel; Simple neglect of duty; Penalty under the Uniform Rules on Administrative Cases; Mitigating circumstances. The Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) charged respondent Sheriff lV Famero with Gross Neglect of Duty amounting to Gross Misconduct for refusing to implement the Writ of Execution issued in a civil case involving DBP. The Supreme Court held that the respondent cannot fully be excused for his failure to make periodic reports in the proceedings taken on the writ, as mandated by Section 14, Rule 39 of the Rules of Court.

For the respondent’s lapses in the procedures in the implementation of the writ of execution, he was found guilty of simple neglect of duty, defined as the failure of an employee to give attention to the task expected of him. Under Section 52(B)(1) of the Uniform Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service, simple neglect of duty is a less grave offense  punishable by suspension from office for one (1) month and one (1) day to six (6) months for the first offense, and dismissal for the second offense. In the imposition of the appropriate penalty, Section 53 of the same Rules allows the disciplining authority to consider mitigating circumstances in favor of the respondent. The court considered his length of service in the Judiciary, acknowledgment of infractions, remorse and other family circumstances, among others, in determining the proper penalty. He was also found to be entitled to the following mitigating circumstances: (1) his more than 24 years of service in the Judiciary; (2) a clear record other than for the present infraction which is his first offense, (3) the resistance of the informal settlers to leave the property; (4) fear for his life; and (5) his well-grounded recognition that he could not undertake any demolition without the appropriate court order. After considering the attendant facts and the mitigating circumstances, the court also considered that the efficiency of court operations may ensue if the respondent’s work were to be left unattended by reason of his suspension. Thus, he was imposed the penalty of fine instead of suspension from service. Development Bank of the Philippines, etc. Vs. Damvin V. Famero, Sheriff IV, RTC, Br. 43, Roxas, Oriental Mindoro, A.M. No. P-0-2789, July 31, 2013.

Judge; Gross Inefficiency; Duties include prompt disposition or resolution of cases. As a frontline official of the Judiciary, a trial judge should always act with efficiency and probity. He is duty-bound not only to be faithful to the law, but also to maintain professional competence. The pursuit of excellence ought always to be his guiding principle. Such dedication is the least that he can do to sustain the trust and confidence that the public have reposed in him and the institution he represents.

The Court cannot overstress its policy on prompt disposition or resolution of cases. Nonetheless, the Court has been mindful of the plight of our judges and understanding of circumstances that may hinder them from promptly disposing of their businesses. Hence, the Court has allowed extensions of time to decide cases beyond the 90-day period. All that a judge needs to do is to request and justify an extension of time to decide the cases, and the Court has almost invariably granted such request. Judge Carbonell’s failure to decide several cases within the reglementary period, without justifiable and credible reasons, constituted gross inefficiency. Considering that Judge Carbonell has retired due to disability, his poor health condition may have greatly contributed to his inability to efficiently perform his duties as a trial judge. That mitigated his administrative liability, for which reason the Court reduced the recommended penalty of fine from P50,000 to P20,000. Re: Failure of Former Judge Antonio A. Carbonell to Decide Cases Submitted for Decision and Resolve Pending Motions in the RTC, Branch 27, San Fernando, La Union, A.M. No. 08-5-305-RTC, July 9, 2013.

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