March 2014 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

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

Attorney; Disbarment cases; Initiation. Complainants who are members of the Congressional Village Homeowner’s Association, Inc. filed a Complaint for Disbarment against Atty. Jimenez for violating Rule 12.03, Canon 12, Canon 17, Rule 18.03, and Canon 18 of the Code of Professional Responsibility for his negligence in handling an appeal in a case involving the Association and willful violation of his duties as an officer of the court.

The Supreme Court held that the complainants have personality to file the disbarment case. In Heck v. Judge Santos, the Court held that “[a]ny interested person or the court motu proprio may initiate disciplinary proceedings.” The right to institute disbarment proceedings is not confined to clients nor is it necessary that the person complaining suffered injury from the alleged wrongdoing. The procedural requirement observed in ordinary civil proceedings that only the real party-in-interest must initiate the suit does not apply in disbarment cases. Disbarment proceedings are matters of public interest and the only basis for the judgment is the proof or failure of proof of the charges. Further, the Supreme Court held that a lawyer engaged to represent a client in a case bears the responsibility of protecting the latter’s interest with utmost diligence. In failing to file the appellant’s brief on behalf of his client, Atty. Jimenez had fallen far short of his duties as counsel as set forth in Rule 12.04, Canon 12 of the Code of Professional Responsibility which exhorts every member of the Bar not to unduly delay a case and to exert every effort and consider it his duty to assist in the speedy and efficient administration of justice.  However, the Supreme Court only suspended Atty. Jimenez from the practice of law for one month. Nestor Figueras and Bienvenido Victoria, Jr. v. Atty. Diosdado B. Jimenez,A.C. No. 9116, March 12, 2014.

Attorney; Fidelity to Client. Atty. Guaren was charged with violating the Canon of Professional Responsibility when he accepted the titling of complainants’ lot and despite the acceptance of P7,000, failed to perform his obligation and allowing 5 years to elapse without any progress in the titling of complainants’ lot. The Supreme Court reiterated that the practice of law is not a business.  It is a profession in which duty to public service, not money, is the primary consideration. Lawyering is not primarily meant to be a money-making venture, and law advocacy is not a capital that necessarily yields profits.  The gaining of a livelihood should be a secondary consideration.  The duty to public service and to the administration of justice should be the primary consideration of lawyers, who must subordinate their personal interests or what they owe to themselves. In this case, Atty. Guaren admitted that he accepted the amount of P7,000 as partial payment of his acceptance fee. He, however, failed to perform his obligation to file the case for the titling of complainants’ lot despite the lapse of 5 years. Atty. Guaren breached his duty to serve his client with competence and diligence when he neglected a legal matter entrusted to him. Thus, Atty. Guaren violated Canons 17 and 18 of the Code of Professional Responsibility and was suspended from the practice of law for six months.Stephan Brunet and Virginia Romanillo Brunet v. Atty. Ronald L. Guaren,A.C. No. 10164, March 10, 2014.

Attorney; Neglect of Duty. Atty. Agleron was charged with violating Rule 18.03 of the Code of Professional Responsibility when he neglected a legal matter entrusted to him. The Supreme Court held that once a lawyer takes up the cause of his client, he is duty bound to serve his client with competence, and to attend to his client’s cause with diligence, care and devotion regardless of whether he accepts it for a fee or for free. He owes fidelity to such cause and must always be mindful of the trust and confidence reposed on him.

In this case, Atty. Agleron admitted his failure to file the complaint despite the fact that it was already prepared and signed. He attributed his non-filing of the appropriate charges on the failure of complainant to remit the full payment of the filing fee and pay the 30% of the attorney’s fee. Such justification, however, is not a valid excuse that would exonerate him from liability. As stated, every case that is entrusted to a lawyer deserves his full attention whether he accepts this for a fee or free. Even assuming that complainant had not remitted the full payment of the filing fee, he should have found a way to speak to his client and inform him about the insufficiency of the filing fee so he could file the complaint. Atty. Agleron obviously lacked professionalism in dealing with complainant and showed incompetence when he failed to file the appropriate charges. A lawyer should never neglect a legal matter entrusted to him, otherwise his negligence renders him liable for disciplinary action such as suspension ranging from three months to two years. In this case, Atty. Agleron was suspended from the practice of law three months. Ermelinda Lad Vda. De Dominguez, represented by her Attorney-in-Fact, Vicente A. Pichon v. Atty. Arnulfo M. Agleron Sr.,A.C. No. 5359, March 10, 2014.

 Attorney; Notarization; Personal Appearance. A petition for disbarment was filed against Atty. Cabucana, Jr. for falsification of public document. The requirement of personal appearance of the affiant is required under the Notarial Law and Section 2 (b) of Rule IV of the Rules on Notarial Practice of 2004. The Supreme Court held that as a notary public, Atty. Cabucana, Jr. should not notarize a document unless the person who signs it is the same person executing it and personally appearing before him to attest to the truth of its contents. This is to enable him to verify the genuineness of the signature of the acknowledging party and to ascertain that the document is the party’s free and voluntary act and deed. Thus, Atty. Cabucana, Jr. was found violating Rule 1.01, Canon 1 of the Code of Professional Responsibility and suspended from the practice of law for three months. His notarial commission was revoked and he was prohibited from being commissioned as a notary public for two years. Licerio Dizon v. Atty. Marcelino Cabucana, Jr.,A.C. No. 10185, March 12, 2014.

Judge; Violation of Administrative Rules; Unprofessional Conduct. Judge Larida, Jr. was charged for committing various anomalies and irregularities. The Supreme Court held that Judge Larida, Jr. committed several lapses, specifically the non-submission to the Court of the required inventory of locally-funded employees, and his allowing Marticio to draft court orders. Such lapses manifested a wrong attitude towards administrative rules and regulations issued for the governance and administration of the lower courts, to the extent of disregarding them, as well as a laxity in the control of his Branch and in the supervision of its functioning staff. The omission to submit the inventory should not be blamed on Atty. Calma as the Branch Clerk of Court. Although it was very likely that Judge Larida, Jr. had tasked Atty. Calma to do and submit the inventory in his behalf, Judge Larida, Jr. as the Presiding Judge himself remained to be the officer directly burdened with the responsibility for doing so. Further, for knowingly allowing detailed employees to solicit commissions from bonding companies, Judge Larida, Jr. contravened the Code of Judicial Conduct, which imposed on him the duty to take or initiate appropriate disciplinary measures against court personnel for unprofessional conduct of which he would have become aware. Office of the Court Administrator v. Judge Edwin C. Larida, Jr., RTC, Branch 18, Tagaytay City,A.M. No. RTJ-08-2151, March 11, 2014.

 Judge; Gross Ignorance of the Law. An administrative complaint was filed against Judge Bitas for fixing the accused’s bail and reducing the same motu proprio. In this case, Miralles was charged with Qualified Trafficking, which under Section 10 (C) of R.A. No. 9208 is punishable by life imprisonment and a fine of not less than P2,000,000 but not more than P5,000,000.  Thus, by reason of the penalty prescribed by law, the grant of bail is a matter of discretion which can be exercised only by Judge Bitas after the evidence is submitted in a hearing. The hearing of the application for bail in capital offenses is absolutely indispensable before a judge can properly determine whether the prosecution’s evidence is weak or strong. The Supreme Court held that not only did Judge Bitas deviate from the requirement of a hearing where there is an application for bail, he also granted bail to Miralles without neither conducting a hearing nor a motion for application for bail. Judge Bitas’ acts are not mere deficiency in prudence, discretion and judgment on his part, 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. Ma. Liza M. Jorda, City Prosecutor’s Office, Tacloban City v. Judge Crisologo S. Bitas, RTC, Branch 7, Tacloban City; Prosecutor Leo C. Tabao v. Judge Crisologo S. Bitas, RTC, Branch 7, Tacloban City,A.M. No. RTJ-14-2376/A.M. No. RTJ-14-2377. March 5, 2014.

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