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Congressional Comedy of Errors
(Article published in the May 21, 2001 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

First-term Congressmen, wanting to prove to their constituents that they are not slated to be members of the House Committee on Silence, should consider delivering their maiden privilege speech on Republic Act No. 9048.

This newly signed law authorizes the city or municipal civil registrar or the consul general, upon petition and payment of fees by an interested party, to correct a clerical or typographical error in an entry in the civil registry and change the first name or nickname of a person without need of judicial authorization.

This magnificent demonstration of legislative deep thinking seeks to fix what ain’t broke.

Before its effectivity (R.A. No. 9048 was approved by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on March 22, 2001), corrections of entries in the civil registry, that record of everyone’s births, death, marriages, and similar tearful occasions, cannot be made without a judicial order (Art. 412, Civil Code) issued under Rule 108 of the Rules of Court. Similarly, no person can change his name or surname without judicial authority (Art. 376, Civil Code) which one can get under Rule 103.










 

The Supreme Court reminds everyone that the change of name is not to be confused with the correction of typographical errors (Republic v. C.A. & Wong, 209 SCRA 189). One was east, the other was west. However, under R.A. No. 9048, the twain were made to meet. The new law removed the need for a judicial process to correct errors and change first names and nicknames. In lieu of judicial authority, only the favorable action of the civil registrar is required.

The immediate effect of this innovation is to remove a veritable training ground for new lawyers in the Solicitor General’s office.

All new attorneys in the SolGen’s team start their illustrious careers with a assignment to appear for the Republic of the Philippines in cases involving corrections of entry in the civil registry and petitions for change of name. In these cases, which they are expected to handle as if they were the most important cases of their lives (obviously because if they were to bungle cases like these, they are certain to be kicked out, unless their padrino is the Chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means). Their mission is to oppose.

Never mind that the case is meritorious. What is important is that the new lawyers learn that they are not expected to do a high five when the Judge says, "Appearances?", that they prove to their supervising solicitors that they can file a respectable motion for postponement without bursting into laughter when they aver (in layman’s language, say) that the motion is not intended for delay, and that they say with conviction, along other things they will later on have to say contrary to their heart of hearts, "Your Honor" when addressing the bench. On this solid foundation shall be built careers that would lead to the judiciary, to corporate board rooms, and, for the select few, to jail.

The law offers many features to criticize. For the moment, it is sufficient to focus on the definition of "clerical or typographical" error, which according to Section 2(3) "refers to a mistake committed in the performance of clerical work in writing, copying, transcribing or typing an entry in the civil register that is harmless and innocuous, such as misspelled name or misspelled place of birth or the like, which is visible to the eyes or obvious to the understanding, and can be corrected or changed only by reference to other existing record or records".

Previous to R.A. No. 9048, jurisprudence was careful to point out that the correctible errors must be "harmless or innocuous" (Republic v. Court of Appeals & Wong, 209 SCRA 189). The new law, however, insists that it be "harmless and innocuous".

The intellectual challenge therefore is to find out what is "harmless" but not "innocuous", and vice versa, so as to have both instead of only either of them. Otherwise, the civil registrar, in true bureaucrat fashion, is liable to throw out the petition.

The Wong case also states that the error must be one that is "visible to the eye". The new law, on the other hand, is not satisfied with just one eye. It requires that the error be "visible to the eyes", without stating how many eyes would be sufficient. Obviously, lawyers can comply with this new requirement by showing visibility to only two eyes, even if the pair of eyes does not belong to the same person. Both one-eyed witness must, of course, testify that they see the error with their good eye, not the bad eye.

There is also this disastrous warning in Section 3 that petitions for correction of clerical or typographical errors may be availed of only once. Now that is a real problem. Clerical or typographical errors are obviously committed in the first instance by the civil registrar himself or persons under his supervision. He did not see what was "visible to the eyes" and did not appreciate what was "obvious to the understanding". Prescinding from the suggestion that he should therefore be hailed to the graft court for being in reckless negligence, what is there to prevent him, or his people, from making the same mistake when the corrections are made? When they err the second time, it would be a serious travesty of justice and grave violation of the human rights of the unfortunate petitioner to deprive him of the opportunity to correct them once again.

As it stands, the law unfairly binds the civil registrars to a standard way higher than that expected of the electorate. The civil registrars cannot make mistakes twice. The rest of us, election after election, merrily go our way sending back to Congress the folks we love to hate.

Finally, one must be aware that Section 2 (3) of R.A. No. 9048 has the requirement that the error "can be corrected or changed only by reference to other existing record or records". Under the old law, the Supreme Court decided that correctible errors are only those which are "capable of being corrected by reference to the record alone" (Republic v. Belmonte & Po, 158 SCRA 173). The legislators were obviously not satisfied with that.

Unlike the Belmonte case that required the error to jump out of the page of the record itself, R.A. No. 9048, permits correction only if the error can be shown from other existing record or records. What ought to be the sole source of proving the error under Belmonte, which is record itself, has become under R.A No. 9048 incompetent evidence. One must refer only to other records.

For the singular achievement of cramming so much nonsense in a one law, R.A. No. 9048 should land in Guinness’ book.

 

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