By Marlon Ramos
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Registered owners of more than half of the land in Metro Manila may lose their properties as a result of a recent Supreme Court ruling that the “sale certificates” of former friar lands that lacked the signatures of prewar government officials should be deemed void, a senior justice of the court said.
In a 23-page dissenting opinion, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said the Supreme Court’s March 6 decision in the ownership dispute involving the Manotoks and Barques over the P4-billion Piedad Estate in Quezon City would render millions of residents homeless.
“This is a disaster waiting to happen—a blow to the integrity of our Torrens system [of titles] and the stability of land titles in this country,” Carpio said.
“Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of landowners would surely be dispossessed of their lands in these areas,” he said.
With a split vote of 8-7, the tribunal upheld its Aug. 24, 2010, decision that awarded the ownership of the 1,282-hectare of lands to the national government.
Chief Justice Renato Corona, who is facing impeachment in the Senate, agreed with the majority ruling written by Associate Justice Martin Villarama Jr.
Corona votes twice
Curiously, Corona virtually participated twice in the decision as he also voted with the winning bloc on behalf of Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo, who was supposed to be on sick leave when the court voted on the matter.
On the signature page of the 32-page decision, Corona wrote on top of Del Castillo’s name, “I certify that J. del Castillo sent his vote concurring with Justice Villarama.”
Like the Chief Justice, Del Castillo is also facing impeachment in the House of Representatives for allegedly plagiarizing the works of two international legal scholars in a ruling he wrote in 2010 junking the claims suit of World War II comfort women.
Sought for comment on Friday, Corona said there was nothing irregular in his signing for Del Castillo, who reported back to work only this week after he went under the knife for a heart ailment last month.
Corona dismissed speculations that he could have influenced his fellow justice in voting for the majority, saying he “never [discussed] cases with justices outside our sessions.”
He said he did not really sign the ruling for Del Castillo. “That’s not true,” the Chief Justice told reporters after attending the daily noon Mass at the Supreme Court. “I did not sign for him. I only certified what his vote was.”
Corona added: “He sent [in] his vote. That’s a long-standing practice [on] the court.”
In denying with finality the opposing appeals of the Manotok and Barque families, the court argued that its previous ruling in the case of Alonso vs Cebu Country Club Inc. would best settle the issue.
Absence of signatures
Reiterating its decision in the Alonso case, which covered the sprawling Banilad Estates in Cebu, the tribunal argued that documents showing purchase and ownership of former friar lands must have the “approval by the Secretary of Agriculture and Commerce.”
It said that “no valid titles can be issued … due to the absence of the signatures of the [then] Director of Lands and the Secretary of the Interior.”
The court said that these signatures were “indispensable” proof of the authenticity of the land titles and that the “absence of such approval” made the sale void from the start.
“The prospect of litigants losing friar lands they have possessed for years or decades had never deterred courts from upholding the stringent requirements of the law for a valid acquisition of these lands,” the court said, adding:
“The court’s duty is to apply the law. Petitioner’s concern for other landowners [who] may be similarly affected by our ruling is, without doubt, a legitimate one.”
The court said the solution for the concern of the Manotoks “lies … in the legislature” as in the Alonso case, which, it noted, resulted in the enactment of Republic Act No. 9443.
Equal protection clause
That law upheld the validity of the land titles of former friar lands covered by the Banilad Estates that did not bear the signature of the prewar secretary of the interior.
But Carpio said it was wrong for the court to apply RA 9443 only to the Banilad Estates since it would “result in class legislation.”
“RA 9443 should be extended to lands similarly situated. [O]therwise, there will be violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution,” Carpio said.
Save for their location, Carpio insisted that “there is no substantial distinction between the lands in the Banilad Estates and the other friar lands all over the country.”
“Since the lack of signatures and absence of approval … were cured with the passage of RA 9443, the benefits of the law should also apply to other lands similarly situated,” he said.
Carpio also noted that former Environment Secretary Michael Defensor signed an affidavit on Nov. 11, 2010, stating that he had issued Memorandum Order 1605 on Oct. 27, 2005, to deal with the question of the authenticity of land titles of former friar lands.
To preserve Torrens’ integrity
In his order, Defensor said all deeds of conveyance of friar estates that did not have the signatures of concerned prewar government officials “are deemed signed or otherwise ratified.”
Defensor said the order was “intended to preserve the integrity of the Torrens system and affirm the government’s obligation” as seller of the vast tracts of land.
The former environment secretary also attested that all documents pertaining to the sale of friar estates in the records of the Land Management Bureau (LMB), the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office and the National Archives “did not have the signature” of the secretary of the interior.
“To repeat, [Defensor] states that upon examination, all deeds of conveyance involving friar lands did not have the signature of the secretary [of the interior],” Carpio said.
If the majority ruling would be implemented, Carpio said, more than half of Metro Manila’s 63,600-hectare area may be affected since these used to be friar estates.
“If the Torrens titles to these lands are declared void … then hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of landowners would be rendered homeless or propertyless by the majority decision,” he said.
He said the court should not fault the Manotoks for their failure to present the original copy of the “assignment of sale certificate” since the safekeeping of those documents “is the responsibility of the government.”
“It is only the option for the landowners to keep them. How many landowners can present copies of their original sale certificates?” he said.
“As long as landowners can show other evidence to prove their ownership, they should not be dispossessed of their titles,” he said.
Carpio said that while the Manotoks failed to present the original sale certificate of the property, the petitioners were able to provide “three incontrovertible documents” pertaining to their ancestors’ purchase of the lands.
These included the original copy of the March 11, 1919, “Assignment of Sale Certificate No. 1054” from the records of the LMB, a subsequent sale certificate dated June 7, 1920, culled from the National Archives and another similar document dated June 23, 1923.
The third document, which Carpio noted was verified to be authentic by LMB records divisions chief Fe Tuanda in 2009, showed that the Manotoks had acquired the former friar lands.
He said the petitioners were able to prove that their family settled the full payment of P2,362 to the government on Dec. 7, 1932, as shown in the “acknowledged receipt” to Severino Manotok.
“Thus, the Manotoks had already acquired ownership [of the lot]. The only resolutory condition … can no longer happen because the full purchase price had already been paid,” Carpio said.
“There is nothing more that is required to be done as the title already passes to the purchaser.”