Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Price of Justice

I was in the office of the Clerk of Court last Friday, supervising the filing of a complaint, which prayed for PHP 2.2 million in damages. My client and I were a bit shocked when we got the assessment for the docket fees. The figure was PHP 42,000. I asked the cashier if the amount was based only on the PHP 2.2 million, and she confirmed that indeed the basis was the amount stated in our camplaint, PHP 2. 2 million. We paid the docket fee, and filed the complaint. My client then figured out that the ratio appears to be for every one million pesos in dispute, the filing fee is PHP 20,000.

This means that for small amounts, say a million or two, the twenty thousand per million appears to be manageable. But when the figures in dispute reach PHP 50 million, the filing fees could actually hit a whopping one million pesos! Considering, however, that there are other costs of litigation, it's easy to imagine why people would find filing a court case a tough route to take to run after Shylock's proverbial pound of flesh, as it were.

Sometime ago we opened a branch of our law office in Cabanatuan City, a rich little city up north about three hours away from our Quezon City office. One of our prospective clients who was married to a deceased lawyer warned me that they don't have much need for lawyers there, because assassins were cheaper. I was a bit amused, and took her advice as a joke. Two years after, I remembered what she said as my partners and I decided to close the branch, and focus our practice elsewhere. The branch was self-sustaining, but it didn't meet our projections. Perhaps, it has indeed something to do with the high costs of lawyers and filing fees.

Today, again I am reminded of what that client told me in Cabanatuan City two years ago. If somebody ran away with my PHP 50 million, I would seriously hesitate on filing a case, as it would entail an additional cost of PHP 1 million just to get it to the court docket. It's just like throwing good money after bad, so to speak. Meanwhile, an assassin's services costs only PHP 15,000. I am not endorsing their services. All that I am saying is they must be enjoying good business these days.

For all his lofty achievements as Chief Justice, Hilario Davide would go down in history as the Chief Justice under whose administration the price of obtaining justice tremendously increased. And while he could argue that the increase in court fees would translate into better motivated and efficient people working on the judiciary, the bottomline is still by raising the court docket fees to unprecedented levels, he actually made the PHP 15000 option on an assassin an easier choice for the prospective litigant seeking relief for payment of just debts. Thus, the increase in docket fees is a myopic approach to the problem of improving the quality of justice in this country.

The better approach should have been to maintain low docket fees and to push the Executive and Legislative Departments to increase the Judiciary's budget, considering that government money is being wasted by the Executive and Legislative on soft coups and soft projects, where the S.O.P. is at least 30 percent kickback! By pricing docket fees at such a steep price, the former Chief Justice might as well tell the people to consider chaos instead. If every prospective litigant is driven to take the cheaper services of an assassin instead of going through the costly and slow motion of court litigation, it would actually cause the collapse of the justice system as we know it. Man's thirst for justice is primal. Price it too high, and people will find a way to get it, faster and cheaper in one way or another.

9 comments:

Dirk Pitt said...

Bravo!!!

Major Tom said...

Hi Marvin...I don't know if I was just being to out-dated about the court processes but the high cost of docket fees, as you mentioned, sounds scandfalous to me. I wonder if a an average guy could suit for millions of damages in cases like crminal negligence and yet he couldn't claim indigence. This makes the wheel of justice harder to proceed. I wonder why the high docket fees wasn't wasn't "certioraried" for being unconstitutional, where our constitution provides that the application of law should not only be speedy but also affordable to all. I can't see in my mind how cases can be "speedy" at all with this scandalous filing fees.

marvin said...

Hi Major Tom,

A case in point is a friend of mine who was scandalously mistaken for a swindler by a shop at SM Megamall and made to go thorugh the embarassment of being picked by three policemen and held by SM guards for three hours in public. The SM shop soon realized they had the wrong man and apologized. Now, my friend is contemplating on filing a case for damages, but he learned of the filing fees, and decided to think it over. I want to ask Hilario Davide now, sir what options can you give my friend?

"Certioraried"? Sadly, the Supreme Court cannot certiorari itself.

Good day Major Tom!

Major Tom said...

Oh, I didn't realized there that it was the Supreme Court itself who had schemed the new higher docket rates. I just couldn't fathom the fact that they are supposed to be a state functionary that should make the processing of every case or the resolution of every grievances more efficient and snag-free. Sana this unideal situation could be remedied by the new SC Chief Justice, otherwise I would really worry about the law being too inaccessible to many Filipinos.

Happy Valentines to you Attorney..

Arbet said...

I suspect some of the docket fees went to the JDF.

Davide is not my idol. He fumbled in a lot of issues, and this is just one of them.

Senor Enrique said...

Hi Marvin,

Speaking of docket fees, a fellow balikbayan filed a real estate-related civil suit late last year here in Quezon City in which he seeks a million pesos in damages.

His attorney wasn't sure about the exact amount of the fees but figured it out to be P10,000. My friend issued him a check for the said amount. However, when my friend asked for a statement from the law firm a couple of months later, the docket fees only amounted to P933.00 as indicated by the photocopies of receipts, and etc.

Now here's our question: Isn't it only ethical that the law firm involved should have immediately issued a refund of his overpayment; not after he discovered and asked for it?

Thanks Marv!

Eric

Senor Enrique said...

Correction: P9330.00, not 933.00.

marvin said...

Senor Enrique,

Normally, if a client's engagement is over, law firms should liquidate all deposits of clients. But in the case of your friend, they were just starting with the case. So it is understandable that the excess in filing fees were kept by the lawyers until they were asked to liquidate. The reason for this is that there are many incidental expenses in the course of any legal engagement, and most of the time the lawyers would find themselves advancing for the client's expenses. That's why client deposits for out of pocket expenses are not liquidated unless asked or unless the engagement is through.

Edwin Lacierda said...

Marvin,

Excellent suggestion! I could not agree with you more.