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A Christmas gift from the Supreme Court 

(Article published in the Dec 20, 2006 issue of Manila Standard Today)

         “Free access to the courts and quasi-judicial bodies and adequate legal assistance,” says Section 11 of Article III, known as the Bill of Rights of the Constitution, “shall not denied to any person by reason of poverty.”  This pro-poor provision is a very old precept and dates back to the 1935 Constitution. Only the phrase “and quasi-judicial bodies and adequate legal assistance” was added by the 1987 Constitution.

        But, how can the poor have access to the courts and the rest of the judicial system when filing fees, which have gone up recently, the latest increase being on 16 August 2004 under A.M. No. 04-2-04-SC, stand in the way? 

       The remedial response of the Supreme Court is found in two provisions of the Rules of Court.  The first is Section 21 of Rule 3.  It permits a person “to litigate his action, claim, or defense an indigent if the court…is satisfied that the party is one who has no money or property sufficient and available for food, shelter and basic necessities for himself and his family.”  Once found to be an indigent, the party is exempt from the payment of docket and other lawful fees, and of transcript of stenographic notes which the court may order to be furnished him.  Of course, if the case eventually results in the party’s recovering something, the docket and other lawful fees constitute a lien on the money he receives under a favorable judgment.


      The second is Section 19 of Rule 141.  This rule provides numbers to the subjective test in Section 21 of Rule 3 with respect to the docket and other legal fees.  To qualify as a pauper or indigent litigant, the party must show that he and his immediate family’s gross income does not exceed the amount equivalent to double the monthly minimum wage of an employee nor does he own real property with a market value of more than PhP300,000.” 

       By ordinary standards construction, it seems to be implied, since Section 19 of Rule 141 is both a subsequent rule, i.e. it is juxtaposed after, and specific rule, i.e. it refers specially to docket and legal fees only, vis-à-vis Section 3 of Rule 21, then Section 19 of Rule 141 is taken to be a limitation of the generality in Section 3 of Rule 212. 

      Not quite, says the Supreme Court, in the case of the Spouses Algura v. The City of Naga, G.R. No. 150135, decided on 30 October 2006. 

     The spouses Algura on 01 September 1999 filed a case in the regional trial court for damages against the City of Naga for the alleged demolition of their residence and boarding house and for payment of lost income derived from fees paid by the boarders.  They simultaneously filed, in accordance with standard procedure, an ex parte motion to litigate as indigents.  Initially, the motion was initially granted by the lower court; however, upon objection by the City of Naga, the judge disqualified the Alguras from so litigating and required them to pay the requisite filing fees.  The usual ceremony of motion for reconsideration having resulted in the same ruling, the Alguras raised the issue to the Supreme Court.

      To resolve the question of whether or not the Alguras should be permitted to be considered as indigent litigants who qualify for the exemption from paying filing fees, the Supreme Court went through two stages of reasoning. 

      To lay out clearly the policy of suits in forma pauperis, as the Arguras seek to bring, the Supreme Court reviewed the history of the rule as it evolved in through the years in the Rules of Court.  The Supreme Court observed, in the end, that, as I pointed out above, that as of 01 March 2000, there were two rules on indigent ligitants.  Of these two rules, the court further noted that the specific rule in Rule 141 was inserted without any indication of revoking or amending the broad rule in Rule 3.  Even the amendments of Rule 141 in the four years later did not touch Rule 3. 

       Admittedly, therefore, there is a conflict of rules, indicating that Congress is not the only agency given, at times, to inconsistency.  But, unlike Congress, the Supreme Court is always disposed to harmonize and harmony, in this season of reconciliation, was arrived at in an elegant manner.

      First, the Supreme Court, based on the historical review of the rule, maintained that it really had no intention of revising Rule 3, despite the many instances of changes in the docket fees as found in Rule 141.

      What I had earlier referred to as the ordinary rule of construction implying an amendment by Rule 141 of Rule 3, says the Supreme Court, does not apply.  “Implied repeals are frowned upon unless the intent of the framers of the rules is unequivocal.”  Hence, the issue boiled down to whether the two rules could stand side by side.  And the Supreme Court said, “of course.”

      The court ruled: “When an application to litigate as an indigent litigant is filed, the court shall scrutinize the affidavits and supporting documents…to determine if the applicant complies with the income and property standards prescribed in Section 19 of Rule 141….If the trial court finds that the applicant meets the income and property requirements, the authority to litigate as indigent litigant is automatically granted and the grant is a matter of right.”

        “However, if the trial court finds that one or both requirements have not been met, then it would set a hearing to enable the applicant to prove that the applicant has “no money or property sufficient and available for food, shelter and basic necessities for himself and his family.” 

       To recapitulate, “if the applicant for exemption meets the salary and property requirements under Section 19 of Rule 141, then the grant of the application is mandatory.  On the other hand, when the application does not satisfy one or both requirements, then the application should not be denied outright; instead, the court should apply the “indigency test” under Section 21 of Rule 3 and use its sound discretion in determining the merits of the prayer for exemption.” Thus, if the numbers of Rule 141 are met there is no need for further proof of indigency.  If they are not, then, the court must look and see.

       The court took pains to end with the note that its being ninong to the poor is not a newfound attitude.  “The Action Program for Judicial Reforms (APJR) itself initiated by former Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide, Jr. placed prime importance on ‘easy access to justice by the poor’ as one of its six major components.  Likewise, the judicial philosophy of Liberty and Property of Chief Justice Artemio V. Panganiban makes it imperative that the courts shall not only safeguard but also enhance the rights of individuals—which are considered sacred under the 1987 Constitution.  Without doubt, one of the most precious rights which must be shielded and secured is the unhampered access to the justice system by the poor, the underprivileged, and the marginalized.”

       Yeah,  sure.  And might I add, in a realistic and not in a cynical way, please note that what was given by the Constitution to the poor is just “access”.  There is no guarantee that the poor will actually get justice.  Very much like the promise of a fair hearing.  There is no assurance that you will be listened to.