MANILA, Philippines – Bribery and corruption in so-called “annulment mills” have been reported in a number of courts.
In 2008, then Chief Justice Reynato Puno received a letter from a group calling itself “Trial Lawyers of Cagayan”. They alleged that Judge Lyliha Aquino of Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 4 in Tuguegarao City asked for P150,000 per case to hear an adoption case, annulment case, or nullity of marriage case.
The letter also cited certain attorneys as being favored by Aquino, saying that cases under these lawyers were all “lutong Macau” or rigged.
The Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) found that Aquino heard and decided 41 annulment cases from June 2003 to January 2009. These cases were all decided without a non-collusion report and pre-trial.
(In an annulment proceeding, a pre-trial is required to record evidence that is to be presented to the court. A non-collusion investigation is required to make sure that the husband and wife do not agree to end their marriage.)
Aquino admitted that she proceeded to try some cases despite non-compliance with certain requirements but denied that she did not order non-collusion investigations. In its November 2012 decision, the Court found that Aquino “did not act in bad faith, malice and caused no harm to any litigant” and decided to impose a fine of P10,000 along with a stern warning that a repetition of similar acts would be dealt with more severely.
The Court report was silent on corruption but ordered further investigation. (READ the court document here.)
Close-open cases in Olongapo
In 2009, Judge Renato Dilag of Olongapo City was accused of collecting between P30,000 to P40,000 in exchange for a favorable decision on annulment cases. Two anonymous letters to the Supreme Court asserted that Dilag would initially dismiss an annulment case then re-open it and grant a favorable decision when payment was made.
However, the administrative charges of graft and corruption were dismissed because these were “not sufficiently established” and Dilag was punished based on violations of the judicial code of conduct.
Dilag was dismissed from service for gross misconduct, ignorance of the law and negligence and inefficiency.
Court stenographer Concepcion Pascua, the named fee collector, was also dismissed from service, her retirement benefits were forfeited and she was perpetually disqualified from government reemployment. (READ the full decision here.)
Most recently, in 2015, Alan Flores, presiding judge of Tubod, Lanao del Norte RTC Branch 7 was found guilty of gross ignorance of the law and misconduct and dismissed from service.
The investigation of Flores was triggered by an anonymous letter accusing Flores of rendering favorable annulment decisions in exchange for money. Another complaint-affidavit penned by prosecutor Diosdado Cabrera alleged that Flores rendered favorable annulment decisions on numerous cases even if the parties did not reside in an area within his court’s territorial jurisdiction, also in exchange for money. Flores was purportedly employing the services of errand boys to collect his fees. (READ the court document here.)
The beginnings of the annulment mills can be traced before this millennium.
It was in November 2000 when Emil Jurado, writing in the Manila Standard, identified an RTC in Guagua, Pampanga as “using syndicated efforts involving court personnel and a public assistance lawyer in the improper disposal of annulment cases” in the 1990s.
A court insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity remembered those days.
“Many of the court officers were involved,” said our source.
Like the annulment mills of this millennium, there are several similarities: decisions are copy-pasted, addresses of petitioners are not within the jurisdiction of the province of Pampanga and decisions are quickly issued.
“Novel-style became a fad,” said our source. Court stenographers, ears trained and sharpened in hearing the testimonies of petitioners about their bad marriages, would grab portions from various cases and draft a “testimony”.
“Then they would cut and paste. With those many cases, why make up a story for each one of them?” the court officer said, referring to template testimonies.
For example, in 1999, prosecutor Vivian Dabu filed a case against Judge Eduardo Roden Kapunan of RTC Branch 51 in Guagua. Included in her complaint were court stenographers Leila Gallo and Ma. Theresa Cortez and legal researcher Suzette Tiongco.
Dabu had just transferred to Branch 51 and was baffled as to why she was not being called on to investigate annulment cases. Dabu’s own investigation revealed that records were being falsified to show that prosecutors had appeared during hearings when in fact they had been re-assigned to another court or were on leave.
Kapunan denied the charges, saying his signature on the annulment cases was forged and that Galo acted on her own in falsifying annulment decisions.
A look at the inventory of annulment cases under Kapunan for the period 1994-2000 showed that cases were decided in as fast as 3 to 4 weeks.
In 2011, the Court declared the case against Kapunan as moot because of his untimely demise. Kapunan died of cardiac arrest in 2001. Galo was found guilty of falsification of official documents and dishonesty while Tiongco was exonerated. (READ the full decision here.)
Intolerant of ‘irregularities’
“Definitely, we are not tolerating these kinds of irregularities. We cannot allow these,” said a ranking Supreme Court official who requested not to be named. “We get letters or complaints [about certain courts] and act on these provided there is some evidence provided.”
Some complaints are from parties themselves who “get the surprise of their lives that their marriages are annulled without them knowing.”
“There are some enterprising court personnel but they can only do so much unless it known to the judge because the buck stops with the judge. Everybody [in the court] has a role to play so if the judge allows some shenanigans in his court then that means he’s aware of that,” the Court official said. (READ: Gov’t warning: Make sure annulment documents are real)
Just like in court, everyone has a role in the system that is riddled with irregularities. He added: “It’s not entirely our courts or our personnel who should be blamed because the parties themselves mislead the courts and unfortunately our lawyers have taught them how to go about it.” – Rappler.com
(Also, LISTEN to: Marital purgatory, an interview with a woman who remains married only on paper.)
This story is part of the series, “The annulment business”, on annulment mills and annulment scams. Reporting for this project was supported with a grant from the Journalism for Nation Building Foundation.