(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
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
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.
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.”
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.