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My confiteor: I was an examiner in the 2001 bar exams

(Article published in the March 19, 2002 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

Now that it is out in the open, I must publicly apologize. I was the examiner for taxation in the 2001 bar examinations; to my clients and colleagues, to my friends and family, I offer my apologies.

Double apologies to the members of the Committee formed by the UP Law Center to suggest answers to the bar questions. I attended the session to deliberately mislead you into not suspecting me to be the examiner. Over the past five months, those who were at anytime anywhere within ten feet from me, have had at one time or another and very often, to bear the brunt of my irascibility and, more frequently, obnoxiousness. Not that there was lack of genetic predisposition or environmental prodding that account for my being, to begin with, the horrible person that I am, but, without doubt, the daily grind of correcting all those examination booklets -3,852 in all, for five months - exacerbated my rough edges.

Every single day, from September 27, 2001, when bar confidant Tina Layosa delivered the first sack to February 28, 2002 when she fetched the last, I pored over, over and over again, answers handwritten, mostly in hieroglyphics a few mercifully legible, in English that ranged from Teddy Boy Locsin’s flowing flourish to Erap’s patented prose, more often wrong than right. Correcting the 250 booklets per sack and recording by hand, the results on the grading sheets in ten days and before the next bag containing the next 250 came along, required a regimen that was more taxing than my training for the five full marathons I had behind me. Wake up at early dawn to be able to finish from 20 to 25 booklets before going off to work; sleep at midnight or only after finishing another 30 to 25, which always comes later. In between, go about your day, as usual as you can, making sure nobody suspects you are on low batt because you are doing a reverse Rumpeltiltskin.

The experience –one which a lawyer willingly goes through only once in a lifetime—is, however, not without its rewards. I am most grateful to 2001 Bar Examination Committee Chairman, Justice Sabino R. De Leon, Jr. for putting me in the company of seven other examiners, whose identities I came to know only last Saturday, March 15, 2002, when I signed the Committee report, each one more worthy than myself and with careers more illustrious than mine. And even the hardest part, was not all torture. Every now and then, an unexpected titillation momentarily wiped the tedium away.

For instance, I did not expect to be confronted with so many different answers to question of how many times a domestic corporation files its income tax return for income earned during a single taxable year. The suggested answer of the committee assembled by the UP Law Center was simply, four times. But the examinees had other ideas. An examinee said "ones"; another responded, "every quarter, or three times in a single taxable year"; his fellow was not to outdone, he wrote "every quarterly". Some one answered generously, "five times"; but, another was non-committal, saying, "as often as possible". An examinee wanted to hedge his bets by answering, "every month, quarterly, or can also by twice a year as what was compensated (sic)" and a less verbose one tried to say the same thing by writing simply "more than once". Two may have had the taxpayer’s comfort in mind when one said "every four year (sic)" and the other, "every three years". The unbeatable response, however, was "the frequency of the filing of income tax return depends on the number of transactions subject to income tax". Rene Baņez would have loved that.

In another question, I wanted to find out if the examinee knew a very basic feature of the donor’s tax, namely, that it was computed on the total net gifts made during a calendar year. The problem was what advice the examinee would give an unmarried client who wanted to give P200,000 to his sister. Would he advise that the gift be given all in one year? Or split equally in two, the first half to be given on December 25 and the other on January 1 of the following year? The UP Law Center Committee suggested that the correct answer was to split the donation equally, one-half to be given on Christmas day and the other on the following New Year’s Day. Since the law provided for an annual exemption of P100,000, the client, following that advice, would end up having to pay no donor’s tax at all for the P200,000 gift.

The examinees, however, had better grasp of vernacular English. One said that he would advise his client to "give it in two gives", while another would ask his client to distribute the gift "in two givings". A third one, however, did not believe the donor could save on taxes at all. He claimed that the gift could not be exempted either way. His reason? "The donor must be dead and not alive in order to fall under the exemption enumerated under the Code." A fourth one, in contrast, was, in a sense, on the right track when he began his answer by. "First, I would have to determine how rich my client is!"

One can detect this early how the examinees will practice their profession. This one will be his client’s delight; in answer to the question of whether a taxpayer who has pending claims for VAT input credit or refund may set-off said claims against his other liabilities, he wrote: "I have two views on this matter. First, the taxpayer cannot set-off his refund against his other tax liabilities…Second, the taxpayer may set-off his refund against his other tax liabilities."

But not everyone was that lawyer-like. In response to the give-away question, what do you understand by the term "flexible tariff clause" as used in the Tariff and Customs Code, this examinee began, "Well, I’m not so familiar with this term". Another, if I am not mistaken also in response to this question, was honest enough to say, "Anyway, Madam or Sir, I really don’t know the answer to this question. I’m appealing to your emotion to please have mercy on my humble answer. I really don’t know what to write, how to attack the question to satisfy what you want to exact from us. Please help me, I really want to become a lawyer."

And this one rent my heart:"This is the first time I heard this clause, sir. Sir, this is already my 4th time. After this, I will no longer take this bar examination. I already sell (sic) all of my available properties just to take the bar hoping with God’s help, I’ll become a lawyer. Please help me if you are kind and good. God bless you, sir."

Believe me, kid, despite what my former students will tell you about me on your "if you are kind and good", I went over your exam booklet, as I did with all the rest, very carefully to make sure I gave credit for every answer where credit was due. I gave you and each of the 3,852 examinees of the 2001 Bar Examinations the benefit of the doubt, and tried my best to give everyone a fighting chance to be lawyer. Only in the most hopeless cases (where giving a higher mark would do injustice to the rest) did I give an assessment of less than 50. I hope you made it. And to those who with God’s help did make it, congratulations, you deserve it (God’s help, I mean).

I’ll see you in court.