Form over substance

By Isagani Cruz
Inquirer
Last updated 08:27am (Mla time) 07/08/2007

MANILA, Philippines—In my column last week, I deplored the often rigid application in judicial cases of procedural rules that prevent the enforcement of substantive rights. including those guaranteed and protected by the Bill of Rights.

 

I cited the case of Ilagan v. Enrile, 139 SCRA 349, where three lawyers were arrested by the military during the dictatorship and the IBP and two other law organizations filed a petition for habeas corpus on their behalf. The Supreme Court ordered their temporary release to their principal counsel, former Chief Justice Roberto Concepcion and retired Justice JBL Reyes. The respondents moved for reconsideration, invoking a presidential detention order issued by Marcos against the detainees and an information for rebellion that had subsequently been filed against them before a regional trial court that had issued a warrant for their arrest. All this, it was claimed, had made the petition for habeas corpus moot and academic.

 

The Supreme Court agreed on the basis of Rule 102, Sec. 4 of the Rules of Court providing that “if it appears that the person alleged to be restrained of his liberty is in the custody of an officer under process issued by a court or judge or by virtue of a judgment or order issued by a court of record, and that the court or judge had jurisdiction to issue the process, render the judgment, or make the order, the writ shall not be allowed…”

 

The majority opinion supported by 10 members of the Court declared:

 

“As contended by respondents, the petition herein has been rendered moot and academic by virtue of the filing of an Information against them for Rebellion, a capital offense, before the Regional Trial Court of Davao City and the issuance of a Warrant of Arrest against them. The function of the special proceeding of habeas corpus is to inquire into the legality of one’s detention. Now that the detained attorneys’ incarceration is by virtue of a judicial order in relation to criminal cases subsequently filed against them before the Regional Trial Court of Davao City, the remedy of habeas corpus no longer lies. The Writ had served its purpose.”

 

Justices Claudio Teehankee, Hermogenes Concepcion, Vicente Abad Santos and Lino Patajo dissented. I will quote here the dissenting opinion of Justice Abad Santos as especially relevant to my suggestion last week for the need to reexamine the Rules of Court to reduce the force and insistence of procedural rules when they tend to militate against substantive rights, particularly the right to be heard under the due process clause.

 

Justice Abad Santos, one of my professors in the UP College of Law and later my chairman in the First Division of the Supreme Court, said:

 

“It was Holmes who said that the life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience. Thus the Roman law was ritualistic and highly formal. Gradually, however, it evolved and form was replaced by substance. The development of the law did not stop there. The Roman praetorian law enlarged, supplemented and overrode law which had become narrow and rigid in scope. Finally common law produced equity jurisprudence. It is a formal set of legal and procedural rules and doctrines to aid and even override common and statute law in order to protect rights and enforce duties fixed by substantive law.

 

“The majority opinion appeals to the mind for it appears to be logically constructed. It leans heavily on the letter of the law. Upon the other hand, the dissenting opinion of Justice Teehankee which is his article of faith appeals to the mind and the heart for it is based not only on law but on equity also.

 

“I believe that Justice Teehankee’s opinion better serves the ends of justice and I gladly subscribe to it. I also subscribe to Justice Concepcion’s separate opinion.”

 

As a member of the Supreme Court, I had on several occasions recognized the importance of correct procedures for the orderly adjudication of substantive rights by the courts of justice. Litigations are after all not barroom brawls with no holds barred but civilized discussions of conflicting positions.

 

Even so, I had also deplored the practice of courts, including the Supreme Court, to apply technicalities as an excuse for not offending the political departments or, worse, to escape responsibility to decide serious constitutional questions urgently requiring their attention. A case in point is Guazon v. De Villa, 181 SCRA 623, where the Supreme Court refused to rule directly on the legality of the “zona” because it had not been raised by the alleged victims but by their civic leaders who, the Court said, were not the proper parties.

 

I argued that where a house is on fire, it is not only the owner who can call the firemen but any member of the community where the fire may spread. So too where the Constitution is violated and the liberty of all citizens is diminished, making every one of them a proper party. But my objection was as usual ignored by my colleagues (except Justice Abraham F. Sarmiento, who also dissented) in idolatrous deference to the ersatz rule of form over substance.

 

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