Prime duty of lawyers, prosecutors, judges | Inquirer Opinion
With Due Respect

Prime duty of lawyers, prosecutors, judges

Reviewing a decision rendered by the Court of Appeals (CA), Cagayan de Oro, that affirmed an earlier judgment of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of the same city, the Supreme Court—in People v. XXX (prom. on July 25, 2023, but released only recently)—patiently stressed the importance of precision and clarity and sternly reminded prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges of their prime duty “to see that justice is done.” (Note: the accused was named “XXX” to comply with laws prohibiting the use of language that may identify the victims of certain crimes.)

JURISPRUDENCE STATES THAT SIMPLE RAPE IS COMMITTED by “(1) the offender who had carnal knowledge of the victim … (2) through force or intimidation; or when the victim is deprived of reason or otherwise unconscious; or when the victim is under 12 years of age.”

Under our Revised Penal Code (Article 266-B-1), simple rape becomes QUALIFIED rape, a more serious offense, “[w]hen it is committed by a relative by consanguinity or affinity within the third civil degree of a victim below the age of 18. Both qualifying circumstances of minority and relationship should be alleged in the information.”

During “the pre-trial, the parties stipulated [among others, that] … the accused-appellant is a relative within the third civil degree of consanguinity of the [victim] …” After conducting trial on the merits, the RTC convicted the accused of qualified rape and imposed “the penalty of reclusion perpetua, in consonance with (Republic Act No. 9346) which prohibits the imposition of the death penalty.” The CA affirmed the trial court’s decision in toto.THE SUPREME COURT UPHELD THE CONVICTION OF THE ACCUSED FOR SIMPLE RAPE ONLY, not for qualified rape, because of the erroneous use of the word “or” in the wordings of the information (or charge sheet) filed by the prosecutors, an error carried on mindlessly by both the RTC and the CA in their respective decisions.


The information alleged that the “accused, knowing full[y] well the minority of his first cousin OR relative within the third civil degree of consanguinity through force and intimidation and through grave abuse of authority … feloniously insert[ed] his penis into the vagina of” the victim. (All caps on “OR” supplied.)

The victim’s minority was proven by the presentation of a certified copy of her birth certificate, showing she was merely 15 when she was ravished. And to prove her relationship to the accused, the prosecutors relied on the stipulation during the pre-trial that the accused was the victim’s “relative within the third civil degree.”

The Court held that, “as a general rule, when the terms that come before and after the disjunctive word ‘or’ are different from each other, the intention is to provide an alternative option. The exception, however, is that—based on the context of its usage—the terms may refer to the same thing or be similar in interpretation.”

Per the general rule in statutory construction on the use of the word “or,” the terms “first cousin” and “relatives within the third civil degree of consanguinity” should be accorded different, distinct, and separate meanings. This point is crucial given that a first cousin is beyond the third degree of consanguinity, hence, “first cousin” and “third degree relative by consanguinity” refer to different relationships.


Moreover, “the use of the word ‘or’ allowed the prosecution an opportunity to indict the accused in the alternative, either as a first cousin or a relative within the third civil degree of consanguinity …” thereby illegally giving it a choice “to … elevate the crime to qualified rape which merits a heavier penalty.”

A GROSS AND PALPABLE MISTAKE IT WAS FOR THE APPELLANT’S COUNSEL to stipulate that the victim was a relative within the third civil degree of consanguinity, because the naked truth is that the appellant was only a first cousin, a relative of the fourth degree. Surely, the fault cannot be attributed to the appellant himself because the determination of relationship by civil degree involves an application of the Civil Code. Rather, the Court emphasized that “the determination of the relationship by civil degree is basic which every lawyer ought to know. As such, the admission by the accused-appellant’s counsel during pre-trial cannot be admitted, it being made through palpable mistake, bordering on recklessness and utter incompetence.” Indeed, while parties are allowed to stipulate facts under Section 1, Rule 118 of the Rules of Criminal Procedure, they cannot agree on an erroneous application of the law.


Pertinently, the Court sternly reminded (1) prosecutors that their primary duty under the newly promulgated Code of Professional Responsibility and Accountability “is not to convict, but to see that justice is done;” (2) “counsels of the accused…, (to) constantly be aware of their fiduciary duty to be competent and diligent in representing their clients;” and, (3) “the members of the bench … cannot stipulate for the parties;” nonetheless, they should intervene when the parties’ stipulation “contravenes law, morals, good customs, public order, or public policy.”

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TAGS: judges, Lawyers, prosecutors, With Due Respect

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