Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Beware of Lawyers? (part 2)

Continuing from yesterday's post, we were left with the allegation of the Complainant that the Respondent lawyer obtained USD20,000 from her in the guise that it was a deposit that was required by law for the isuance of a 13(G) visa. The lawyer, meanwhile, said the money did not go to him, but to another lawyer who was already dead. The lawyer admitteed though that he signed the receipt.

The Supreme Court refused to believe the lawyer's story. The key evidence is a set of letters written by the lawyer to the Complainant, in which letters the lawyer repeatedly assures payment to the Complainant, after apparent repeated failures to pay. There was also nothing in the letters that showed the money was obtained by another lawyer who has ddied, contrary to the respondent lawyer's alibi to the Supreme Court.

Thus, the Supreme Court ordered the disbarment of the lawyer. Said the Supreme Court,

Respondent’s act of asking money from complainant in consideration of the latter’s pending application for visas is violative of Rule 1.01[17] of the Code of Professional Responsibility, which prohibits members of the Bar from engaging or participating in any unlawful, dishonest, or deceitful acts. Moreover, said acts constitute a breach of Rule 6.02[18] of the Code which bars lawyers in government service from promoting their private interest. Promotion of private interest includes soliciting gifts or anything of monetary value in any transaction requiring the approval of his office or which may be affected by the functions of his office.[19] Respondent’s conduct in office betrays the integrity and good moral character required from all lawyers, especially from one occupying a high public office. A lawyer in public office is expected not only to refrain from any act or omission which might tend to lessen the trust and confidence of the citizenry in government; he must also uphold the dignity of the legal profession at all times and observe a high standard of honesty and fair dealing. Otherwise said, a lawyer in government service is a keeper of the public faith and is burdened with high degree of social responsibility, perhaps higher than his brethren in private practice.

In a desperate attempt to put up a smoke or to camouflage his misdeed, he went on committing another by issuing several worthless checks, thereby compounding his case.

In a recent case, we have held that the issuance of worthless checks constitutes gross misconduct, as the effect “transcends the private interests of the parties directly involved in the transaction and touches the interests of the community at large. The mischief it creates is not only a wrong to the payee or holder, but also an injury to the public since the circulation of valueless commercial papers can very well pollute the channels of trade and commerce, injure the banking system and eventually hurt the welfare of society and the public interest. Thus, paraphrasing Black’s definition, a drawer who issues an unfunded check deliberately reneges on his private duties he owes his fellow men or society in a manner contrary to accepted and customary rule of right and duty, justice, honesty or good morals.”

Consequently, we have held that the act of a person in issuing a check knowing at the time of the issuance that he or she does not have sufficient funds in, or credit with, the drawee bank for the payment of the check in full upon its presentment, is also a manifestation of moral turpitude.

Respondent’s acts are more despicable. Not only did he misappropriate the money of complainant; worse, he had the gall to prepare receipts with the letterhead of the BID and issued checks to cover up his misdeeds. Clearly, he does not deserve to continue, being a member of the bar.

Time and again, we have declared that the practice of law is a noble profession. It is a special privilege bestowed only upon those who are competent intellectually, academically and morally. A lawyer must at all times conduct himself, especially in his dealings with his clients and the public at large, with honesty and integrity in a manner beyond reproach. He must faithfully perform his duties to society, to the bar, to the courts and to his clients. A violation of the high standards of the legal profession subjects the lawyer to administrative sanctions which includes suspension and disbarment. More importantly, possession of good moral character must be continuous as a requirement to the enjoyment of the privilege of law practice; otherwise, the loss thereof is a ground for the revocation of such privilege.

Indeed, the primary objective of administrative cases against lawyers is not only to punish and discipline the erring individual lawyers but also to safeguard the administration of justice by protecting the courts and the public from the misconduct of lawyers, and to remove from the legal profession persons whose utter disregard of their lawyer’s oath have proven them unfit to continue discharging the trust reposed in them as members of the bar. These pronouncement gain practical significance in the case at bar considering that respondent was a former member of the Board of Special Inquiry of the BID. It bears stressing also that government lawyers who are public servants owe fidelity to the public service, a public trust. As such, government lawyers should be more sensitive to their professional obligations as their disreputable conduct is more likely to be magnified in the public eye.

As a lawyer, who was also a public officer, respondent miserably failed to cope with the strict demands and high standards of the legal profession.

Section 27, Rule 138 of the Revised Rules of Court mandates that a lawyer may be disbarred or suspended by this Court for any of the following acts: (1) deceit; (2) malpractice; (3) gross misconduct in office; (4) grossly immoral conduct; (5) conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude ; (6) violation of the lawyer’s oath; (7) willful disobedience of any lawful order of a superior court; and (8) willfully appearing as an attorney for a party without authority to do so.

In Atty. Vitriolo v. Atty. Dasig, we ordered the disbarment of a lawyer who, during her tenure as OIC, Legal Services, Commission on Higher Education, demanded sums of money as consideration for the approval of applications and requests awaiting action by her office. In Lim v. Barcelona, we also disbarred a senior lawyer of the National Labor Relations Commission, who was caught by the National Bureau of Investigation in the act of receiving and counting money extorted from a certain person.

Respondent’s acts constitute gross misconduct; and consistent with the need to maintain the high standards of the Bar and thus preserve the faith of the public in the legal profession, respondent deserves the ultimate penalty of expulsion from the esteemed brotherhood of lawyers.

WHEREFORE, Atty. Fred L. Gutierrez is hereby DISBARRED from the practice of law and ordered to return the amount he received from the complainant with legal interest from his receipt of the money until payment. This case shall be referred to the Office of the Ombudsman for criminal prosecution for violation of Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Acts and to the Department of Justice for appropriate administrative action. Let copies of this Decision be furnished the Bar Confidant to be spread on the records of the respondent; the Integrated Bar of the Philippines for distribution to all its chapters; and the Office of the Court Administrator for dissemination to all courts throughout the country.


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