December 2013 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

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

Attorney; Applicability of the Code of Professional Responsibility to lawyers in government service in the discharge of their official tasks. Private respondents were charged before the Court of Tax Appeals for violation of the Tariff and Customs Code of the Philippines, as amended. However, the CTA dismissed the case since the prosecution failed to present certified true copies of the documentary evidence submitted contrary to Section 7, Rule 130 and Section 127, Rule 132 of the Rules of Court. The Run After the Smugglers (RATS) Group, Revenue Collection Monitoring Group (RCMG), as counsel for the BOC, filed a petition for certiorari but the petition was filed beyond the reglementary period.

The Supreme Court held that the display of patent violations of even the elementary rules shows that the case against respondents was doomed by design from the start. This stance taken by the lawyers in government service rouses the Court’s vigilance against inefficiency in the administration of justice. Verily, the lawyers representing the offices under the executive branch should be reminded that they still remain as officers of the court from whom a high sense of competence and fervor is expected. The Court will not close its eyes to this sense of apathy in RATS lawyers, lest the government’s goal of revenue enhancement continues to suffer the blows of smuggling and similar activities. The Court reminded the lawyers in the BOC that the canons embodied in the Code of Professional Responsibility equally apply to lawyers in government service in the discharge of their official tasks. Thus, RATS lawyers should exert every effort and consider it their duty to assist in the speedy and efficient administration of justice. People of the Philippines v. The Hon. Juanito C. Castaneda, Jr., et al., G.R. No. 208290, December 11, 2013.

Attorney; Champertous contract. Complainants engaged the legal services of Atty. Bañez, Jr. in connection with the recovery of their properties from Fevidal. Complainants signed a contract of legal services, where they would not pay acceptance and appearance fees to Atty. Bañez Jr., but that the docket fees would instead be shared by the parties. Under the contract, complainants would pay him 50% of whatever would be recovered of the properties. Later, however, complainants terminated his services and entered into an amicable settlement with Fevidal. Atty. Bañez, Jr. opposed the withdrawal of their complaint in court. Thus, complainants filed a case against him alleging that the motion of Atty. Baez, Jr. for the recording of his attorney’s charging lien was the “legal problem” preventing them from enjoying the fruits of their property.

Section 26, Rule 138 of the Rules of Court allows an attorney to intervene in a case to protect his rights concerning the payment of his compensation. According to the discretion of the court, the attorney shall have a lien upon all judgments for the payment of money rendered in a case in which his services have been retained by the client. In this case, however, the contract for legal services is in the nature of a champertous contract – an agreement whereby an attorney undertakes to pay the expenses of the proceedings to enforce the client’s rights in exchange for some bargain to have a part of the thing in dispute. Such contracts are contrary to public policy and are thus void or inexistent. They are also contrary to Canon 16.04 of the Code of Professional Responsibility, which states that lawyers shall not lend money to a client, except when in the interest of justice, they have to advance necessary expenses in a legal matter they are handling for the client. Thus, the Court held that Atty. Bañez, Jr. violated Canon 16.04 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. Conchita Baltazar,et al. v. Atty. Juan B. Bañez, Jr., A.C. No. 9091, December 11, 2013.

Attorney; Disbarment proceedings. A disbarment case was filed against Atty. Macapagal. He was charged with dishonesty (1) when he stated in the defendants’ Answer in Civil Case No. A-95-22906 that the parties therein are strangers to each other; (2) when he introduced a falsified Certificate of Marriage as part of his evidence in Civil Case No. A-95-22906; and (3) when he knowingly filed a totally baseless pleading captioned as Urgent Motion to Recall Writ of Execution of the Writ of Preliminary Injunction in the same case. The Supreme Court held that these issues are proper subjects of and must be threshed out in a judicial action. However, since Atty. Macapagal failed to file a comment and his position paper despite his receipt of Notice, he was reprimanded for failing to give due respect to the Court and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines. Nestor V. Felipe, et al. v. Atty. Ciriaco A. MacapagalA.C. No. 4549, December 2, 2013.

Attorney; Disobedience to court directives. Complainant Sy charged Respondent Esponilla, Legal Researcher and then Officer-In-Charge of Br. 54 of RTC Manila, and Atty. Buendia, clerk of court and ex-officio sheriff of RTC Manila with Gross Misconduct, Negligence and Dishonesty. The complaint was in connection with the irregular withdrawal of deposits for monthly rentals in a civil case based on a purported Ex-Parte Motion to Withdraw Rental Deposits filed by Atty. Bayhon in the civil case. The Supreme Court held that Atty. Bayhon violated the Lawyer’s Oath and Canon 10, Rule 10.01 of the Code of Professional Responsibility for failing to explain, in good faith the circumstances surrounding the filing of the Ex-Parte Motion which he himself filed, for proffering misleading claims in the course of the subject administrative investigation, and for not having shown and proved that he exerted his best efforts to secure and submit a copy of the Ex-Parte Motion – all in violation of the resolutions issued by the Court. Atty. Bayhon was suspended for six (6) months from the practice of law. Elpidio Sy, President, Systems Realty Development Corporation v. Edgar Esponilla, Legal Researcher and Officer-in-Charge, et al., A.M. No. P-06-2261, December 11, 2013.

Attorney; Due diligence in handling client’s case. Respondents were charged for gross negligence in handling the labor complaints of complainant. The Supreme Court held that the relationship between a lawyer and his client is one imbued with utmost trust and confidence. In this regard, 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. For his part, the lawyer is required 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. He is likewise expected to act with honesty in all his dealings, especially with the courts. These principles are embodied in Rule 1.01 of Canon 1, Rule 10.01 of Canon 10, Canon 17 and Rule 18.03 of Canon 18 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. In this case, Atty. Quesada’s failure to attend the scheduled conference hearings, despite due notice and without any proper justification, exhibits his inexcusable lack of care and diligence in managing his client’s cause in violation of Canon 17 and Rule 18.03, Canon 18 of the Code. Felipe C. Dagala v. Atty. Jose C. Quesada, Jr. and Atty. Amado T. AdquilenA.C. No. 5044, December 2, 2013.

Attorney; Duty to represent a client must be within the bounds of law. The Supreme Court issued a Resolution dismissing the administrative complaint of Tomas Merdegia against Court of Appeals Justice Veloso. The Resolution directed Atty. Adaza II, Merdegia’s counsel, to show cause why he should not be cited for contempt. The Supreme Court held Atty. Adaza II guilty of indirect contempt. Atty. Adaza prepared the administrative complaint after Justice Veloso refused to inhibit himself from a case he was handling. The complaint and the motion for inhibition were both based on the same main cause: the alleged partiality of Justice Veloso during the oral arguments of Merdegia’s case. The resolution dismissing the motion for inhibition should have disposed of the issue of Justice Veloso’s bias. If they doubted the legality of the Resolution, they could have filed a petition for certiorari.

Administrative complaints against justices cannot and should not substitute for appeal and other judicial remedies against an assailed decision or ruling. While a lawyer has a duty to represent his client with zeal, he must do so within the bounds provided by law. He is also duty-bound to impress upon his client the propriety of the legal action the latter wants to undertake, and to encourage compliance with the law and legal processes. Atty. Adaza failed to impress upon his client the features of the Philippine adversarial system, the substance of the law on ethics and respect for the judicial system, and his own failure to heed what his duties as a professional and as an officer of the Court demand of him in acting for his client before the courts. Re: Verified Complaint of Tomas S. Merdegia against Hon. Vicente S.E. Veloso, etc./Re: Resolution dated October 8, 2013 in OCA IPI No. 12-205-CA-J against Atty. Homobono Adaza IIIPI No. 12-205-CA-J/A.C. No. 10300, December 10, 2013.

Attorney; Gross misconduct. Heenan filed a complaint against Atty. Espejo for violation of the Lawyer’s Oath due to the latter’s failure to pay a loan. The Supreme Court found Atty. Espejo guilty of gross misconduct. The deliberate failure to pay just debts and the issuance of worthless checks constitute gross misconduct, for which a lawyer may be sanctioned. Verily, lawyers must at all times faithfully perform their duties to society, to the bar, to the courts and to their clients. The prompt payment of financial obligations is one of the duties of a lawyer. The fact that Atty. Espejo obtained the loan and issued the worthless checks in her private capacity and not as an attorney of Heenan is of no moment. A lawyer may be disciplined not only for malpractice and dishonesty in his profession but also for gross misconduct outside of his professional capacity. While the Court may not ordinarily discipline a lawyer for misconduct committed in his non-professional or private capacity, the Court may be justified in suspending or removing him as an attorney where his misconduct outside of the lawyer’ professional dealings is so gross in character as to show him morally unfit and unworthy of the privilege which his licenses and the law confer. Thus, Atty. Espejo was suspended from the practice of law for two (2) years. Victoria C. Heenan v. Atty. Erlinda Espejo, A.C. No. 10050, December 3, 2013.

Judge; Gross Ignorance of the Law. Complainant claimed that since Judge Cajigal’s appointment as presiding judge of RTC, Branch 96, Quezon City, the latter has displayed gross inefficiency by failing to resolve within the prescribed period a number of incidents. Moreover, complainant questions the propriety of the Judge’s decision in a case he is involved in. The Supreme Court held that the charges of ignorance of the law are bereft of merit. Judge Cajigal’s order was issued in the proper exercise of his judicial functions, and as such, is not subject to administrative disciplinary action; especially considering that the complainant failed to establish bad faith on the part of the judge. Well entrenched is the rule that a judge may not be administratively sanctioned for mere errors of  judgment in the absence of showing of any bad faith, fraud, malice, gross ignorance, corrupt purpose, or a deliberate intent to do an injustice on his or her part. Moreover, as a matter of public policy, a judge cannot be subjected to liability for any of his official acts, no matter how erroneous, as long as he acts in good faith. To hold otherwise would be to render judicial office untenable, for no one called upon to try the facts or interpret the law in the process of administering justice can be infallible in his judgment. Narciso G. Dulalia v. Judge Afable E. Cajigal, RTC, Br. 96, Quezon City, A.M. No. OCA IPI No. 10-3492-RTJ, December 4, 2013.

Judge; Voluntary inhibition. Rallos charges Justice Hernando with bias because he voluntarily inhibited himself in CA-G.R. CEB SP. No. 06676 only after the promulgation of the March 28, 2012 and April 13, 2012 resolutions. The Supreme Court held that the fact that Justice Hernando voluntarily inhibited himself after writing the assailed resolutions did not establish his bias against Rallos and her co-heirs considering that the inhibition was for the precise objective of eliminating suspicions of undue influence. The justification of Justice Hernando was commendable, and should be viewed as a truly just and valid ground for his self-disqualification as a judicial officer in a specific case. Further, Rallos insists that she was entitled to be informed about the inhibitions of the Justices and about their reasons for the inhibitions. The Court held that there is nothing in Rule V or in any other part of the Internal Rules of the Court of Appeals that specifically requires that the party-litigants be informed of the mandatory or voluntary inhibition of a Justice. Nevertheless, a party-litigant who desires to be informed of the inhibition of a Justice and of the reason for the inhibition must file a motion for inhibition in the manner provided under Section 3, Rule V of the Internal Rules of the Court of Appeals.

However, the Court held that henceforth all the parties in any action or proceedings should be immediately notified of any mandatory disqualification or voluntary inhibition of the Justice who has participated in any action of the court, stating the reason for the mandatory disqualification or voluntary inhibition. The requirement of notice is a measure to ensure that the disqualification or inhibition has not been resorted to in order to cause injustice to or to prejudice any party or cause. Re: Letters of Lucena B. Rallos, for alleged acts/incidents/occurences relative to the resolutions(s) issued in CA-G.R. SP No. 06676 by Court of Appeals Executive Justice Pampio Abarintos and Associate Justices Ramol Paul Hernando and Victoria Isabel Paredes/Re: Complaint filed by Lucena B. Rallos against Justices Gabriel T. Ingles, Pamela Ann Maxino, and Carmelita S. ManahanIPI No. 12-203-CA-J/A.M. No. 12-9-08-CA, December 10, 2013.

(Mon thanks Ros Nonato for her assistance in the preparation of this post.)