G. R. No. 120587 - January 20, 2004
MILAGROS M. BARCO, as the Natural Guardian and Guardian Ad Litem of MARY JOY ANN GUSTILO, Petitioner, vs. COURT OF APPEALS (SPECIAL SIXTEENTH DIVISION), REGIONAL TRIAL COURT (BR. 133-MAKATI), NCJR; THE LOCAL CIVIL REGISTRAR OF MAKATI; and NADINA G. MARAVILLA, respondents.
D E C I S I O N
The story behind the present petition is a portrait of dysfunction. The familial situation of the parties is complicated, to say the least. The judicial conferment of the status of illegitimacy on a daughter who is by law legitimate has created a tangled braid of various legal doctrines that, like the Gordian knot of yore, is in this case ultimately unbound through one fell swoop of the sword.
On 24 December 1970, private respondent Nadina Maravilla ("Nadina") married Francisco Maravilla ("Francisco"). By February of 1977, the spouses had opted to live separately,1 and in February of the following year they obtained an ecclesiastical annulment of marriage issued by the Catholic Diocese of Bacolod City.2 On 9 June 1978, Nadina gave birth to a daughter named June Salvacion ("June") in Makati, Metro Manila. Junes birth certificate listed Francisco Maravilla as the father, and Maravilla as the childs surname.3 Nadina signed the birth certificate shortly after it was accomplished.
Despite the notation in Junes birth certificate, Nadina subsequently claimed that all along, the real father of her child was Armando Gustilo ("Gustilo"), a former Congressman with whom she maintained a relationship. At the time of Junes birth, Gustilo was married to one Consuelo Caraycong, who would later perish in the MV Don Juan naval accident of 1981.4 On 21 August 1982, Nadina and Gustilo were married in the United States.5 This marriage took place two and a half years before Nadinas marriage to Francisco was alleged to have been annulled in the Philippines. On 12 March 1985, Nadina apparently was able to obtain a judicial declaration annulling her marriage to Francisco.6
On 17 March 1983, Nadina filed in her own name a Petition for Correction of Entries in the Certificate of Birth of her daughter June with the Regional Trial Court ("RTC") of Makati.7 Therein, she alleged that she had been living separately from her lawful spouse Francisco since February of 1977, and that Gustilo was the real father of June.8 She claimed that she did not allow Francisco to have any sexual congress with her within the first 20 days of the three hundred days preceding the birth of June.9 She prayed that the Local Civil Registrar of Makati be directed to correct the birth certificate of June to the effect that the latters full name be made "June Salvacion C. Gustilo," and that the name of her father be changed from "Francisco Maravilla" to "Armando Gustilo." Notably, Francisco affixed his signature to the Petition signifying his conformity thereto.10
On 20 March 1983. Gustilo filed a "Constancia," wherein he acknowledged June as his daughter with Nadina, and that he was posing no objection to Nadinas petition.11
The Petition was docketed as SP Proc. No. M-130. On 26 July 1983, the RTC, in accordance with Rule 108 of the Rules of Court, issued an Order setting the case for hearing and directing that a copy of the order be published once a week for three consecutive weeks in a newspaper of general circulation. On 7 September 1983, Nadina filed an Amended Petition,12 this time impleading Francisco and Gustilo as respondents. Correspondingly, the RTC amended the Order on 22 September 1983 to reflect the additional impleaded parties.13
The Office of the Solicitor General filed a Motion to Dismiss the petition on the ground that the RTC "had no jurisdiction over the subject matter and/or the nature of th[e] suit."14 They cited various jurisprudence holding that only innocuous or clerical errors may be corrected under a Rule 108 petition for correction of entries, and that the Petition seeks changes "are substantial and controversial in character which directly affect the filiation and legitimacy of petitioners daughter."15 On 23 February 1984, the Motion to Dismiss was denied by the RTC, which also subsequently denied a Motion for Reconsideration thereto filed by the Solicitor General.
On 7 January 1985, the RTC issued an Order ("RTC Order") granting the petition and ordering the requested corrections to be effected. The RTC considered the claim of Nadina that she had relied completely on her uncle William R. Veto16 to facilitate the preparation of Junes birth certificate, that it was through his inadvertence that the mistaken entries were made, and that she was in intense physical discomfort when she had affixed her signature to the birth certificate containing the incorrect entries.17 The RTC also noted that Francisco had signified his conformity to the action by signing the original petition, and that Gustilo had manifested through a Constancia dated 20 March 1983 that he was acknowledging June as his daughter and expressing no objection to the petition.18
Gustilo died in 19 December 1986.19 Two estate proceedings arose from his death, one lodged in Makati,20 the other in Harris County, Texas.21 Among the participants in both estate proceedings was Jose Vicente Gustilo ("Jose Vicente"), allegedly a biological child of Gustilo.22 On 5 March 1993, he filed with the Court of Appeals a Petition23 seeking the annulment of the RTC Order of 7 January 1985 which had effected changes in the civil status of June. Jose Vicente amended his Petition in July of 1993 to implead Nadina as an indispensable party.24 In her Comment, Nadina countered that Jose Vicente had not sufficiently proven that he was a child of Armando, and there was neither extrinsic fraud or lack of jurisdiction that would justify the annulment of the RTC Order.25 Nadina also pointed out that the Makati intestate court had approved a compromise agreement wherein the parties had agreed that the only heirs of the decedent Armando are "the surviving spouse, Nadina G. Gustilo, the daughter, June Salvacion G. Gustilo, the son, Jose Vicente Gustilo III, and another daughter, Mary Joy Ann Gustilo."26 However, this compromise agreement was subsequently voided on petition by Jose Vicente to the Court of Appeals, on the ground that the Civil Code prohibited compromise as to the civil status of persons.27
After the Court of Appeals commenced hearings on the petition, petitioner Milagros Barco ("Barco"), on 11 January 1994, filed in her capacity as the natural guardian and/or guardian ad litem of her daughter, Mary Joy Ann Gustilo ("Mary Joy"), a Motion for Intervention with a Complaint-in-Intervention attached thereto.28 Barco alleged that Mary Joy had a legal interest in the annulment of the RTC Order as she was likewise fathered by Gustilo. In her Complaint-in-Intervention, Barco claimed that she and Gustilo had maintained a relationship since 1967, and to them was born Mary Joy in 1977.29 Barco also alleged that she actually moved in with Gustilo after the death of the latters wife in 1980, and maintained her affair with Gustilo until 1983, when she was purportedly supplanted by Nadina as Gustilos common-law companion after Gustilo had become gravely ill.30
After the parties had filed their respective memoranda, the Court of Appeals rendered a Decision on 13 March 1995, dismissing both the Petition and the Complaint-in-Intervention.31 The appellate court held that neither Jose Vicente nor Barco were able to establish the existence of lack of jurisdiction and extrinsic fraud, the two grounds that would justify the annulment of a final judgment.32 It ruled that while Jose Vicente and Barco had not been made parties in the Petition for Correction, the subsequent notice and publication of the Order setting the case for hearing served as constructive notice to all parties who might have an interest to participate in the case. The publication of the Order conferred upon the RTC the jurisdiction to try and decide the case.33 It also found no merit in Jose Vicentes claim that he learned of the RTC Order only in November of 1992, pointing out that as early as 1987, he filed a pleading with the intestate court alleging that Junes birth certificate had been amended to record the name of her true father.34
Only the intervenor Barco filed a Motion for Reconsideration35 of the Court of Appeals Decision, which the appellate court denied on 16 May 1995.36 Thus, Barco filed the present Petition for Review on Certiorari seeking the reversal of the Court of Appeals Decision and the annulment of the 1985 RTC Order.
Before this Court, Barco assails that RTC Order on the ground of lack of jurisdiction. That was the same ground she invoked in the Court of Appeals. Specifically, she raises the following issues:
Interestingly, the questions that Barco raised would tickle the fancies of erudite civilists yearning for a challenge. However, the ultimate resolution of this case hinges on whether the de rigueur requirements of the extraordinary remedy of annulment of judgment have been satisfied.
First, a brief revisit of the action to annul judgment.
The recourse is equitable in character, allowed only in exceptional cases, as where there is no available or other adequate remedy. Annulment of judgments is a remedy long authorized and sanctioned in our jurisdiction.38 As far back as 1918, this Court in Banco Español-Filipino v. Palanca39 recognized the availability of a direct attack of a final judgment on the ground that it is void for want of jurisdiction. In Reyes v. Datu40 we held that the validity of a final judgment or order of the court may be attacked only by a direct action or proceeding or by motion in another case on the ground of lack of jurisdiction.
Yet, it was only in the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure that for the first time the procedure for the annulment of judgments or final orders and resolutions in civil cases of regional trial courts, through a petition before the Court of Appeals, was formally provided. Rule 47 thereof under which the procedure was integrated incorporates settled jurisprudence on annulment of judgment.
Statutory basis for the remedy was laid way back in 1980, with the enactment of The Judiciary Reorganization Act of 1980.41 Section 9 thereof vests in the Court of Appeals exclusive original jurisdiction over actions for annulment of judgments of the lower courts.
Section 2, Rule 47 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure explicitly provides only two grounds for annulment of judgment, namely: extrinsic fraud and lack of jurisdiction. This express limitation is significant since previous jurisprudence recognized other grounds as well.42 The underlying reason is traceable to the notion that annulling final judgments goes against the grain of finality of judgment. Litigation must end and terminate sometime and somewhere, and it is essential to an effective administration of justice that once a judgment has become final the issue or cause involved therein should be laid to rest. The basic rule of finality of judgment is grounded on the fundamental principle of public policy and sound practice that at the risk of occasional error, the judgment of courts and the award of quasi-judicial agencies must become final at some definite date fixed by law.43 Even if the rule on annulment of judgment is grounded on equity, the relief is of an extraordinary character, and not as readily available as the remedies obtaining to a judgment that is not yet final.
There are two aspects of jurisdiction which are vital for disposition of this case - jurisdiction over the nature of the action or subject matter, and jurisdiction over the parties.44 Barco claims that the RTC failed to satisfy both aspects of jurisdiction. She opines that the RTC did not acquire jurisdiction over the parties due to the failure to implead her as a party to the petition for correction. On the other hand, the remaining issues that she raises as errors put into question whether the RTC had jurisdiction over the subject matter of Nadinas petition.
We shall first tackle the question of whether the RTC had acquired jurisdiction over Barco and all other indispensable parties to the petition for correction.
The essential requisite for allowing substantial corrections of entries in the civil registry is that the true facts be established in an appropriate adversarial proceeding. This is embodied in Section 3, Rule 108 of the Rules of Court, which states:
The Court of Appeals held that jurisdiction over the parties was properly acquired through the notice by publication effected in conformity with Section 4 of Rule 108. Barco assails this holding and claims that the failure to implead her as a party to the petition for correction deprived the RTC of jurisdiction.
Undoubtedly, Barco is among the parties referred to in Section 3 of Rule 108. Her interest was affected by the petition for correction, as any judicial determination that June was the daughter of Armando would affect her wards share in the estate of her father. It cannot be established whether Nadina knew of Mary Joys existence at the time she filed the petition for correction. Indeed, doubt may always be cast as to whether a petitioner under Rule 108 would know of all the parties whose interests may be affected by the granting of a petition. For example, a petitioner cannot be presumed to be aware of all the legitimate or illegitimate offsprings of his/her spouse or paramour. The fact that Nadina amended her petition to implead Francisco and Gustilo indicates earnest effort on her part to comply with Section 3 as quoted above.
Yet, even though Barco was not impleaded in the petition, the Court of Appeals correctly pointed out that the defect was cured by compliance with Section 4, Rule 108, which requires notice by publication, thus:
Section 4. Upon the filing of the petition, the court shall, by order, fix the time and place for the hearing of the same, and cause reasonable notice thereof to be given to the persons named in the petition. The court shall also cause the order to be published once a week for three (3) consecutive weeks in a newspaper of general circulation in the province.
The purpose precisely of Section 4, Rule 108 is to bind the whole world to the subsequent judgment on the petition. The sweep of the decision would cover even parties who should have been impleaded under Section 3, Rule 108, but were inadvertently left out. The Court of Appeals correctly noted:
Verily, a petition for correction is an action in rem, an action against a thing and not against a person.46 The decision on the petition binds not only the parties thereto47 but the whole world.48 An in rem proceeding is validated essentially through publication.49 Publication is notice to the whole world that the proceeding has for its object to bar indefinitely all who might be minded to make an objection of any sort against the right sought to be established.50 It is the publication of such notice that brings in the whole world as a party in the case and vests the court with jurisdiction to hear and decide it.51
Since the RTC properly acquired jurisdiction over the parties, what remains for determination is whether it had acquired jurisdiction over Nadinas cause of action. It should be emphasized that jurisdiction over the nature of the action or the subject matter is conferred by law. This Courts recent holding in Durisol Philippines, Inc. v. Court of Appeals52 is instructive in this regard:
The question of whether a court has jurisdiction over the subject matter can be answered simply by determining if on the basis of the complaint or petition the court has, under the law, the power to hear and decide the case. Barcos remaining arguments are to be tested against this standard.
One of Barcos striking assertions is that the general rule still is that the jurisdiction of the court in the correction of entries in the civil register is limited to innocuous or clerical mistakes, as what she insinuates as the apparent contrary holding in Republic v. Valencia54 applies only to citizenship cases.
Since the promulgation of the Valencia ruling in 1986 the Court has repeatedly ruled that even substantial errors in a civil registry may be corrected through a petition filed under Rule 108, with the true facts established and the parties aggrieved by the error availing themselves of the appropriate adversarial proceeding. Barco, by seeking to limit the application of the Valencia doctrine to citizenship cases, is flogging a dead horse. This argument was debunked in subsequent cases,55 notably the recent case of Lee v. Court of Appeals.56 The exhaustive disquisition therein of Justice Sabino de Leon should preclude any further arguments on the scope of Rule 108.
The Court in Lee acknowledged that there existed a line of decided cases, some of them decided after Valencia, stating that Rule 108 cannot be used to effect substantial corrections in entries of the civil register.57 The doctrine was traced back to the 1954 case of Ty Kong Tin v. Republic,58 the rationale of which the Court reevaluated in Lee:
Lee also points out that Republic Act No. 9048, enacted in 2001, has effectively changed the nature of a proceeding under Rule 108. Under this new law, "clerical or typographical errors and change of first name or nickname" may now be corrected or changed by the concerned city or municipal registrar or consul general, without need of any judicial order. The obvious effect is to remove from the ambit of Rule 108 the correction or changing of such errors in entries of the civil register. Hence, what is left for the scope of operation of Rule 108 are substantial changes and corrections in entries of the civil register.60
Republic Act No. 9048 may not find application in this case, yet it is clearly another indicium of how entrenched the Valencia ruling is today. With the enactment of the law, the legislature acknowledged the potency of the ruling. To repeat, substantial corrections to the civil status of persons recorded in the civil registry may be effected through the filing of a petition under Rule 108. Any further attempt to limit the scope of application of Rule 108 runs against the wall of judicial precedent cemented by legislative affirmation.
Next, Barco argues that the petition for correction had prescribed under the Civil Code; and that the petition for correction should be treated as a petition for change of name which can only be filed by the person whose name is sought to be changed. These arguments can be decided jointly. They both are not well taken as they cannot allude to a lack of jurisdiction that would render the RTC Order subject to annulment.
Assuming arguendo that Nadinas petition for correction had prescribed and/or that the action seeking the change of name can only be filed by the party whose name is sought to be changed, this does not alter the reality that under the law the Makati RTC had jurisdiction over the subject matter of the petition for correction. The Judiciary Reorganization Act of 1980, the applicable law at the time, clearly conferred on the Makati RTC exclusive original jurisdiction in all civil actions in which the subject of the litigation is incapable of pecuniary estimation.62 In complementation of grant of jurisdiction, Section 1 of Rule 108 provides that the verified petition to the cancellation or correction of any entry relating thereto should be filed with the Court of First Instance (now Regional Trial Court) of the province where the corresponding civil registry is located.
Prescription and lack of capacity to bring action cannot be ignored by a court of law in properly resolving an action, to the extent that a finding that any of these grounds exist will be sufficient to cause the dismissal of the action.63 Yet, the existence of these grounds does not oust the court from its power to decide the case. Jurisdiction cannot be acquired through, waived, enlarged or diminished by any act or omission of the parties.64 Contrariwise, lack of capacity to sue and prescriptions as grounds for dismissal of an action may generally be rendered unavailing, if not raised within the proper period.65
It thus follows that assuming that the petition for correction had prescribed, or that Nadina lacked the capacity to file the action which led to the change of her daughters name, the fact that the RTC granted the Order despite the existence of these two grounds only characterizes the decision as erroneous. An erroneous judgment is one though rendered according to the course and practice of the court is contrary to law.66 It is not a void judgment.67
As for Barcos remaining arguments, they similarly fail, as the worst they could establish is that the RTC Order is an erroneous judgment.
Barco correctly notes, however, that the RTC erred in directing that the name of Nadinas daughter be changed from "June Salvacion Maravilla" to "June Salvacion Gustilo." Following the trial courts determination that Gustilo was the father of June, but prescinding from the conclusive presumption of legitimacy for the nonce assuming it could be done, the child would obviously be illegitimate. The applicable laws mandate that June, as an illegitimate child, should bear the surname of her mother, and not the father.68 From another perspective, the RTCs error in ordering the change of name is merely an error in the exercise of jurisdiction which neither affects the courts jurisdiction over Nadinas petition nor constitutes a ground for the annulment of a final judgment. As the seminal case of Herrera v. Barretto69 explains:
In the same vein, it is of no moment that the RTC Order contravenes the legal presumption accorded June of being the legitimate child of Francisco and Nadina.71 A review of the records does indicate the insufficiency of the evidence offered to defeat the presumption, against which the only evidence admissible is the physical impossibility of the husbands having access to his wife within the first one hundred and twenty days of the three hundred which preceded the birth of the child.72 It seems that the RTC relied primarily on the testimony of Nadina in adjudging that Gustilo, and not Francisco, was the father of June. Yet, Article 256 of the Civil Code renders ineffectual any pronouncement against legitimacy made by the mother.73 The testimony proffered by the mother has no probative value as regards Junes paternity. The RTCs cognizance of Gustilos Constancia might likewise be subject to critical scrutiny.74 But the Court is now precluded from reviewing the RTCs appreciation of the evidence, however erroneous it may be, because the Order is already final. The RTCs possible misappreciation of evidence is again at most, an error in the exercise of jurisdiction, which is different from lack of jurisdiction. These purported errors do not extend to the competence of the RTC to decide the matter and as such does not constitute a valid ground to annul the final order.
The law sanctions the annulment of certain judgments which, though final, are ultimately void. Annulment of judgment is an equitable principle not because it allows a party-litigant another opportunity to reopen a judgment that has long lapsed into finality but because it enables him to be discharged from the burden of being bound to a judgment that is an absolute nullity to begin with. The inevitable conclusion is that the RTC Order, despite its apparent flaws, is not null and void, and thus cannot be annulled. Consequently, the Court of Appeals committed no reversible error in issuing the assailed decision.
This Court has been constrained in the past to leave erroneous decisions as they were.75 Our fealty to justice in its pristine form the upholding of "right" over "wrong" is equipoised with our adherence to due process, and the rules that emanate from that principle. The Court takes great care in drafting rules of procedure so that the axioms that govern the legal battleground may live up to Justice Frankfurters approximation of due process as "the embodiment of the sporting idea of fair play."76 Due process dictates that litigants be afforded a reasonable opportunity to attack erroneous judgments and be shielded from the adverse effects of void judgments. Due process likewise demands that a party, after trekking the long road of litigation should be permitted to enjoy the fruits of an auspicious final judgment. Absent any convincing demonstration that the RTC Order is patently null and void, there is no reason under law and jurisprudence to upset it, given the reality that it has long become final.
WHEREFORE, the above premises considered, the Petition is hereby dismissed for lack of merit. Costs against petitioner.
Puno, (Chairman), Quisumbing, Austria-Martinez, and Callejo, Sr., JJ., concur.
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