February 2014 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

Here are select February 2014 rulings of the Supreme Court of the Philippines on legal and judicial ethics:

Attorney; Notarization; Importance. An administrative case was filed against Atty. Rinen for falsification of an Extra Judicial Partition with Sale which allowed the transfer to Spouses Durante of a parcel of land. In Bautista v. Atty. Bernabe, the Court held that “[a] notary public should not notarize a document unless the persons who signed the same are the very same persons who executed and personally appeared before him to attest to the contents and truth of what are stated therein. The presence of the parties to the deed will enable the notary public to verify the genuineness of the signature of the affiant.” Notarization is not an empty, meaningless, routinary act. It is invested with substantive public interest, such that only those who are qualified or authorized may act as notaries public. It converts a private document into a public one, making it admissible in court without further proof of its authenticity. Thus, notaries public must observe with utmost care the basic requirements in the performance of their duties. Otherwise, the confidence of the public in the integrity of public instruments would be undermined.

In this case, Atty. Rinen did not deny his failure to personally verify the identity of all parties who purportedly signed the subject document and whom, as he claimed, appeared before him on April 7, 1994. Such failure was further shown by the fact that the pertinent details of the community tax certificates of Wilberto and his sister, as proof of their identity, remained unspecified in the deed’s acknowledgment portion. Clearly, there was a failure on the part of Atty. Rinen to exercise the due diligence that was required of him as a notary public ex–officio. Thus, Atty. Rinen’s notarial commission as revoked and he was disqualified from being commissioned as a notary public for one year. Wilberto C. Talisic v. Atty. Primo R. Rinen, A.C. No. 8761, February 12, 2014.

Attorney; Notarization not an empty act. Complainant charged Atty. Gupana of forgeries and falsifications in the notarization of certain documents. The Supreme Court found Atty. Gupana administratively liable under Section 1 of Public Act No. 2103, otherwise known as the Notarial Law, for violation of his notarial duties when he failed to require the personal presence of Candelaria Magpayo when he notarized the Affidavit of Loss which Candelaria allegedly executed on April 29, 1994.

Under the law, the party acknowledging must appear before the notary public or any other person authorized to take acknowledgments of instruments or documents. In this case, the jurat of the Affidavit of Loss stated that Candelaria subscribed to the affidavit before Atty. Gupana on April 29, 1994, at Mandaue City. Candelaria, however, was already dead since March 26, 1991. Hence, it is clear that the jurat was made in violation of the notarial law. The notarization of a document is not an empty act or routine. A notary public’s function should not be trivialized and a notary public must discharge his powers and duties which are impressed with public interest, with accuracy and fidelity. As a lawyer commissioned as notary public, Atty. Gupana is mandated to subscribe to the sacred duties appertaining to his office, such duties being dictated by public policy impressed with public interest. Thus, the Supreme Court held that Atty. Gupana’s revocation of his notarial commission, disqualification from being commissioned as a notary public for a period of two years and suspension from the practice of law for one year are in order. Carlito Ang v. Atty. James Joseph GupanaA.C. No. 4545. February 5, 2014.

Court Personnel; Dishonesty and Conduct Prejudicial to the Best Interest of Service. An administrative complaint was filed against Salamanca, Clerk III of a Metropolitan Trial Court for unauthorized/unexplained absences and other infractions: (1) failure to account for and turn over the partial settlement amount of a civil obligation; and (2) failure to account for and turn over the payment for legal fees she received in a case. The Supreme Court held that the acts of Salamanca constitute dishonesty and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service.

Dishonesty is defined as a disposition to lie, cheat, deceive, or defraud. It implies untrustworthiness, lack of integrity, lack of honesty, probity or integrity in principle on the part of the individual who failed to exercise fairness and straightforwardness in his or her dealings. Conduct prejudicial to the best interest of service, on the other hand, pertains to any conduct that is detrimental or derogatory or naturally or probably bringing about a wrong result; it 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.

However, Salamanca’s dishonesty does not consist of her failure to remit court funds because the money she received from the litigants did not acquire the status of court funds as no official receipt therefor was issued by her. While Salamanca’s complained acts involved technically private money, the deceit she pulled off disrupted the public’s faith in the integrity of the judiciary and its personnel.  Her conduct tarnished the image and integrity of her public office and violated the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, Section 4(c) which 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. Executive Judge Ma. Ofelia S. Contreras-Soriano v. Clerk III Liza D. Salamanca, Metropolitan Trial Court, Branch 55, Malabon CityA.M. No. P-13-3119. February 10, 2014.

Court Personnel; Duty to Submit Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN). Sheriff Collado was charged with failing to disclose in her SALN for the years 2004 and 2005 certain time deposits, among others. The Supreme Court cited Section 8 of RA 6713 which requires all public officials and employees to accomplish and submit declarations under oath of their assets and liabilities. The requirement of SALN submission is aimed at curtailing and minimizing the opportunities for official corruption, as well as at maintaining a standard of honesty in the public service. With such disclosure, the public would, to a reasonable extent, be able to monitor the affluence of public officials, and, in such manner, provides a check and balance mechanism to verify their undisclosed properties and/or sources of income.

The Supreme Court held that based on Section 8 of RA 6713, “all other assets such as investments, cash on hand or in banks, stocks, bonds, and the like”, should be declared by the public official in his or her SALN. In this case, however, it was established that she only declared the original amount of her time deposits in her SALN for the years 2004 and 2005, and did not disclose the interests which had eventually accrued on the same. Accordingly, Collado fell short of the legal requirement stated under Section 8 of RA 6713 and thus should be held administratively liable for said infraction. Angelito R. Marquez, et al. v. Judge Venancio M. Ovejera, etc., et al.A.M. No. P-11-2903, February 5, 2014.

Court Personnel; Grave Misconduct. A complaint was filed against Susbilla-De Vera for soliciting money to supposedly facilitate a legal proceeding in court. The court held Susbilla-De Vera guilty of the most serious administrative offense of grave misconduct. To deserve the trust and confidence of the people, Susbilla-De Vera was expected to have her dealings with the public to be always sincere and above board. She should not lead others to believe that despite her status as a minor court employee she had the capacity to influence the outcomes of judicial matters. Her acts did not live up to the expectation, for the records unquestionably showed how she had deliberately and fraudulently misrepresented her ability to assist the complainant in the adoption of her niece and nephew. Section 2, Canon 1 of the Code of Conduct for Court Personnel has enjoined all court personnel from soliciting or accepting any gift, favor or benefit based on any or explicit understanding that such gift, favor or benefit shall influence their official actions. The Court thus warranted her dismissal from service. Veronica F. Galindez v. Zosima Susbilla-De Vera, A.M. No. P-13-3126, February 4, 2014.

Court Personnel; Grave Misconduct. An administrative case was filed against respondents who are employees of the Court of Appeals for “transacting” with party–litigants with a pending case before the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court held that the court personnel’s act of soliciting or receiving money from litigants constitutes grave misconduct. The sole act of receiving money from litigants, whatever the reason may be, is antithesis to being a court employee. The Code of Conduct for Court Personnel requires that court personnel avoid conflicts of interest in performing official duties. It mandates that court personnel should not receive tips or other remunerations for assisting or attending to parties engaged in transactions or involved in actions or proceedings with the judiciary. Further, court personnel cannot take advantage of the vulnerability of party–litigants. In this case, respondents were found guilty of grave misconduct and thus, dismissed from service with forfeiture of retirement benefits and perpetual disqualification from holding public office in any branch or instrumentality of the government, including government–owned or controlled corporations. Anacleto O. Villahermosa, Sr., et al. v. Victor Sacia, Executive Assistant IV and Efren R. Rivamonte, etc.A.M. No. CA-14-28-P, February 11, 2014.

Judge; Notarization; Prohibition. An administrative complaint was filed against Judge Rojo for notarizing affidavits of cohabitation of parties whose marriage he solemnized, in violation of Circular No. 1–90 dated February 26, 1990. Circular No. 1–90 allows municipal trial court judges to act as notaries public ex officio and notarize documents only if connected with their official functions and duties.

The Supreme Court held Judge Rojo guilty of violating the New Code of Judicial Conduct and Circular No. 1–90, and of gross ignorance of the law. Judge Rojo notarized affidavits of cohabitation, which were documents not connected with the exercise of his official functions and duties as solemnizing officer. He also notarized affidavits of cohabitation without certifying that lawyers or notaries public were lacking in his court’s territorial jurisdiction. As a solemnizing officer, the judge’s only duty involving the affidavit of cohabitation is to examine whether the parties have indeed lived together for at least five years without legal impediment to marry. The Guidelines does not state that the judge can notarize the parties’ affidavit of cohabitation. Notarizing affidavits of cohabitation is inconsistent with the duty to examine the parties’ requirements for marriage. If the solemnizing officer notarized the affidavit of cohabitation, he cannot objectively examine and review the affidavit’s statements before performing the marriage ceremony. Thus, Judge Rojo was suspended for six months from office.Rex M. Tupal v. Judge Remegio V. Rojo, etc., A.M. No. MTJ-14-1842. February 24, 2014.

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