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FLEA MARKET OF IDEAS

Blame the lawyer

There’s a rule followed by judges which amounts to a dogma of injustice for people who go to court. It’s the principle that “the negligence or mistakes of counsel bind the client.”

Because human life has become so complex, it has led to the necessity of having rules that govern every aspect of our myriad relationships with people, the government, work, environment, and properties. The loss of palabra de honor (word of honor) as a societal value and the resulting escalation of mistrust have further worsened the need for rules and for agreements to be made in writing.

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The invention of rules governing every facet of our existence has made the services of lawyers indispensable in our lives. People put their life, liberty and property in the hands of lawyers, especially when they seek the law’s protection from our courts.

When people get involved in court cases, they become dependent entirely on lawyers because of the daunting task of facing two sets of complicated rules—one substantive and the other technical.

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The substantive rules are found in our laws, and they define the existence or absence of a client’s rights and obligations. Substantive rules essentially define when a person is entitled to civil damages or liable criminally for imprisonment.

On the other hand, the technical rules are found in the rules of court, and they define the procedures to be followed during trial. Technical rules specify the kind of case to file, the correct way of presenting evidence, the proper way to file an appeal, and similar procedural matters.

When a lawyer commits an error on a substantive matter — by invoking the wrong law, for example — the judge can disregard the error and proceed to altogether apply the correct substantive rule.

However, when a lawyer commits an error on a purely technical matter — by filing an appeal beyond the number of days allowed by the rules of court, for example — trial judges suddenly fall into a trance by reciting this incantation of injustice: “Negligence or mistakes of counsel bind the client.” As a result, the client loses the case by the sheer negligence or mistake of his or her lawyer.

Trial judges feel they have no choice but to strictly enforce the technical rules, regardless of the substantive merits, because they will be accused of being biased if they rule otherwise, and administrative complaints may even be filed against them. Trial judges advise losing parties to appeal and plead for the Supreme Court to apply its discretionary powers to make an exception to the general rule on the strict application of technicalities.

As a result, the party that loses by technical default is forced to appeal all the way up to the Supreme Court. To the high court’s credit, on several occasions it has reversed rulings based on technical default by declaring that the general rule that the negligence of counsel binds the client “admits of exceptions,” and that exceptions should be made “where reckless or gross negligence of counsel deprives the client of due process of law,” or when the application of technical rules “will result in outright deprivation of the client’s liberty or property.”

This practice of leaving it up to the Supreme Court to declare that an exception to the general rule is merited by the case is grossly unfair for clients who are forced to appeal. It causes unnecessary expenses and unwarranted delay for clients whose only fault is to trust a person licensed by the high court as a legal expert, who turns out to be otherwise.

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It is high time the Supreme Court issued rules declaring that a counsel’s gross negligence will result in the immediate imposition of substantial fines on him or her, and instant suspension from the practice of law. The case should continue to be decided on substantial merits by allowing the client to hire another lawyer.

It is the height of injustice for our courts of justice to blame the lawyer, but to make the blameless litigant suffer the consequences.

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TAGS: court proceedings, court rules, Flea Market of Idea, Inquirer Opinion, Joel Ruiz Butuyan, Lawyers, Supreme Court, trial judges
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