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361 Phil. 186

SECOND DIVISION

[ G.R. No. 123997, January 20, 1999 ]

REPUBLIC OF THE PHILIPPINES, PETITIONER, VS. SANDIGANBAYAN AND BRIG. GEN. PEDRO R. BALBANERO, RESPONDENTS.

D E C I S I O N

BELLOSILLO, J.:

This case emphasizes with great force the awesome responsibility of counsel to represent a client’s cause with due diligence and zeal which necessarily excludes improvident and unreasonable requests for postponement of hearings that only serve to impede the speedy and inexpensive administration of justice.

The Republic of the Philippines, in this special civil action for certiorari, mandamus and prohibition, assails the Order of the Sandiganbayan, First Division, dated 19 October 1995, in “Republic of the Philippines v. Brig. Gen. Pedro Balbanero,” Civil Case No. 0053, denying petitioner’s oral motion for postponement of the 19 and 20 October 1995 hearings and requiring it instead to submit a written offer of evidence, as well as the Resolution of 3 January 1996 denying consideration thereof.  Petitioner therefore prays that it be allowed to present documentary and testimonial evidence in a formal trial and that public respondent be prevented from conducting further proceedings pursuant to its questioned Orders.

Civil Case No. 0053 is an action for forfeiture under RA No. 1379[1] instituted on 14 October 1988 by the Republic of the Philippines against retired Brig. Gen. Pedro R. Balbanero alleging that the latter acquired funds, real properties and other assets amounting to P10.5 million manifestly out of proportion to his total salary and emoluments as an Army Officer and as income from business and other legitimately acquired properties.

On 22 March 1989 private respondent filed his answer with counterclaim to which the Republic filed a reply with motion to dismiss counterclaim.  After the submission by private respondent of documentary evidence and in view of the manifestation of Solicitor Felipe Magat, Colonel Ernesto Punzalan and Captain Samuel Padilla of the AFP Anti-Graft Board representing the Government that P8.4 million of the alleged over P10 million unexplained wealth had been clarified, the Sandiganbayan in its order dated 19 February 1990 required private respondent to prove the legal source of the remaining “P1.3 million.”  The parties were required to meet to resolve the matter before trial.  On the basis of a “Complete Report” dated 2 August 1990 submitted by Capt. Padilla, at the amount of respondent’s wealth deemed to be still unexplained dwindled to P165,043.00.  Thus the OSG in behalf of petitioner asked that a decision be rendered forfeiting the amount in its favor.

To prove the legal source of the remaining P165,043.00, private respondent submitted a document titled “Real Estate Mortgage Loan” purporting to show that the amount was the purchase price he received for real estate sold to Ms. Iluminada S. Salvador et al.  when he failed to pay his mortgage indebtedness.  In his Manifestation and Motion dated 7 December 1990 private respondent moved that the complaint against him be dismissed on the ground that he had explained to the government’s satisfaction the legal source of all his alleged unexplained wealth.

In its answer to the foregoing Manifestation and Motion the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) denied that private respondent had satisfactorily explained the legitimate source of his wealth and added that the “Complete Report” submitted by the AFP Anti-Graft Board was without its approval, hence, it did not bind the Republic.

On 28 June 1991, without resolving private respondent’s Manifestation and Motion of 7 December 1990, public respondent Sandiganbayan allowed the Republic to present oral and documentary evidence to support its complaint for forfeiture.

On 7 June 1994 private respondent moved that petitioner be bound by the Solicitor General’s previous admission that only P165,043.00 had not been satisfactorily explained, hence, the remaining issue to be resolved by the Sandiganbayan should be limited to the amount.  But Sandiganbayan denied the motion.  Hence, on 3 May 1995 private respondent elevated the matter to this Court by way of a petition for certiorari, prohibition and mandamus in “Pedro R. Balbanero v. the Hon. Sandiganbayan and the Republic of the Philippines,” docketed as G.R. No. 119633.

In view of the pendency of his petition, private respondent moved that the hearings on 18, 19, and 20 October 1995 be canceled and that no further schedule be set.  Public  respondent denied the cancellation unless a restraining order was issued by this Court in G.R. No. 119633, citing petitioner’s readiness to present on the scheduled hearings Major Samuel Padilla (earlier referred to as Captain Padilla) who purportedly conducted the audit examination of the accounts of private respondent.

Upon urgent motion dated 5 October 1995 the Sandiganbayan granted private respondent’s request for cancellation of the 18 October 1995 hearing on the allegation that his counsel was scheduled to attend an election case before the RTC of Gapan, Nueva Ecija, but stressing that the cancellation was without prejudice to the settings on 19 and 20 October 1995.[2]

On 19 October 1995 Associate Solicitor Rodolfo Tagapan, Jr., and Assistant Solicitor General Cesario del Rosario manifested during the hearing that they had been relieved from the case and that ASG Romeo C. de la Cruz and Solicitor Karl B. Miranda had been designated in their stead.  However, since the latter two were in the United Arab Emirates attending to the case of convicted Filipina overseas contract worker Sarah Balabagan, Associate Solicitor Tagapan asked that the hearing be reset, to which the Sandiganbayan reacted adversely with its now assailed Order of 19 October 1995 which we quote hereunder for a better appreciation of the factual milieu –
When this case was called for hearing x x x respondent appeared x x x while the petitioner Republic appeared through Associate Solicitor Rodolfo Tagapan together with Atty. Cresencio Jaso of the PCGG.  Associate Solicitor Tagapan informed the Court that he had been relieved x x x from this case and in his stead Solicitor Karl B. Miranda had been designated x x x but that Solicitor Miranda was x x x in Abu Dhabi on official mission, while Atty. Jaso x x x informed this Court that this was his first appearance x x x and was, therefore, not ready to be of assistance.  Additionally, no witness had appeared allegedly upon advice of Associate Solicitor Tagapan precisely because of this (sic) re-assignments relying on the postponement to be granted by this Court.

x x x Solicitor Rodolfo Reodica had been appearing until suddenly at the hearing on May 10, 1995 Associate Solicitor Tagapan appeared and had expressed his unreadiness to proceed at that time.  The petition for postponement was granted x x x over the objection of the respondent, notwithstanding the pendency of a petition for certiorari, prohibition and mandamus already filed by the respondent to dispute a prior denial of his motion to dismiss by reason of x x x the petitioner’s earlier repeated failure to proceed x x x said petition x x x now docketed as G.R. No. 119633.  On September 22, 1995 x x x Associate Solicitor Tagapan informed the court that he would be ready to present Major Samuel Padilla on October 18, 19 and 20, 1995.  Today, the Court is faced with the situation as above stated.

This case had been pending not only for a very long time but despite many false starts from the petitioner.  While indeed the court has reacted negatively to the difficult situations created by the assignment of young Solicitors such as Solicitor Reodica now Solicitor Tagapan on short notice, the Court can not accept a rotation of young and inexperienced Solicitors who are uninformed of the details of this case by reason of their assignment on short notice as reasons for postponing this case on top of their informal complaints of lack of cooperation from or coordination with the PCGG much less can the Court accept the last minute substitutions of Solicitors with others who are not in this country.

In view hereof, the petitioner is given ten (10) days from today within which to formally offer whatever evidence exist (sic) on record with the respondent being given a like period to comment thereon and to state his disposition on this matter with respect to the presentation of his own evidence.

The setting for tomorrow is necessarily cancelled under the circumstances.
Petitioner moved that this Order be reconsidered and that it be allowed to present evidence in a formal trial.  The motion was denied by public respondent in its assailed Resolution of 3 January 1996 thus –
The ‘MOTION FOR RECONSIDERATION’ dated 7 December 1995 of the Plaintiff is Denied.

It is true that this Court expressed its impatience and disapproval over the practice of the Office of the Solicitor General of passing on, actually ‘dumping’ of a certain cases such as these to a succession of young inexperienced lawyers on short notice.  This, however, is not cured by transferring a long standing case to probably experienced lawyers who are not available and on short notice.

The point of this Court’s impatience on the transferring of cases to inexperienced lawyers on short notice is that cases are unduly delayed and, perhaps, prejudiced by the inexperienced; in fact, more than anything, the practice has demonstrated an apparent low regard  of Solicitors and Assistant Solicitors General for many ‘PCGG cases.’

Assigning this case, which has suffered long and innumerable postponements attributable to plaintiff, to lawyers of the Office of the Solicitor General who are not even in the country at the time of the setting neither responds to the problem nor demonstrates appropriate concern for the case.

The petitioner is given fifteen (15) days to submit its written offer of evidence after which the case of the plaintiff will be deemed submitted, with or without the offer.
Hence, this special civil action for certiorari, prohibition and mandamus.

The OSG contends that the Sandiganbayan gravely abused its discretion when it deprived the Republic of its right to present evidence in a full-blown hearing amounting to a violation of its right to due process.  Counsel contends that the reason given for the requested resettings of the 19 and 20 October 1995 hearings were meritorious grounds which were not intended to delay the case nor violate private respondent’s right to a speedy trial.  The OSG further contends that public respondent should not have taken against the Republic the fact that Major Samuel Padilla was indisposed on the day of the hearing as it was a circumstance beyond its control while the re-assignment of the case to Solicitor Miranda and Atty. Jaso was effected only in response to public respondent’s plaintive about the assignment of the case to young and untrained solicitors.

On 17 April 1996 we required respondents to file their respective comments on the petition without granting the TRO sought by the petitioner.  Private respondent’s Comment and petitioner’s Reply thereto were noted on 8 July 1996 and 4 February 1998, respectively.  On 6 July 1998 we considered this case submitted for decision without public respondent’s comment when it failed to file the required pleading for more than two (2) years from the time it was first required to do so and despite our Resolution of 4 February 1998 reiterating our Resolution of 17 April 1996.

Plainly stated, the issue before us is whether  public respondent Sandiganbayan committed grave abuse of discretion in denying the Republic’s oral motion  for postponement of the 19 and 20 October 1995 hearings and in requiring it to just formally offer its evidence within fifteen (15) days from notice.

It is well-settled that motions for continuance or deferment of hearings are granted only upon meritorious grounds[3] and that the grant or denial thereof is addressed to the sound discretion of the court[4]the exercise of which will not be disturbed except on a showing of a patent and grave abuse of discretion.

Petitioner failed to show such patent and grave abuse of discretion on the part of public respondent in denying its oral motion for postponement.  Records show that the 18, 19 and 20 October hearings were scheduled some five (5) months earlier, or on 10 May 1995, for several reasons among which was to give Associate Solicitor Tagapan of the OSG, who appeared for the first time vice Solicitor Reodica, an opportunity to study the case.[5] In addition, on 13 October 1995 when public respondent Sandiganbayan canceled the 18 October hearing, it cautioned the parties that such cancellation was without prejudice to the settings on 19 and 20 October 1995.[6]

However, on 19 October 1995, Solicitor Tagapan appeared only to manifest that he had just been relieved from the case and that other solicitors were assigned to take over but unfortunately they were not then available.  The OSG explains that the re-assignment was effected in response to public respondent’s complaint about the assignment of many PCGG cases to young and inexperienced solicitors.  But a careful reading of the questioned Order of 19 October 1995 shows that public respondent objected not so much on the assignment of the case to young and inexperienced solicitors but that such re-assignment was done on short notice and very close to the date of scheduled hearings.  The excuse given by the OSG completely failed to justify why the re-assignment had to be done so near to the scheduled hearing of 19 October 1995 and, worse, to solicitors who were not even present.

Furthermore, it has not been shown that some other urgent circumstance prompted the re-assignment to justify the OSG’s non-compliance with the requisites of motions in general set out in Rule 15[7] of the Rules of Court[8] Sec. 2 of which provides that “[a]ll motions shall be in writing except motions for continuance made in the presence of the adverse party, or those made in the course of a hearing or trial.”  A motion for postponement should not be filed at the last hour[9] and that judges are cautioned against granting improvident postponements.[10] Thus when the reason adduced in support of a motion for postponement was not unavoidable or could have been foreseen but was presented only on the day of the trial although there was no apparent reason why it could not have been presented earlier, thus, avoiding inconvenience to the adverse party, it is proper for the court to deny postponement.[11]

What exacerbates the case for the OSG is the fact that it appeared in the 19 October 1995 hearing without its promised witness, apparently expecting that public respondent would just benevolently grant its precipitate oral motion for postponement.  While the OSG now claims that Major Padilla was “indisposed” for which reason he was not presented, public respondent’s factual conclusion to which this court is bound in a certiorari proceeding is that no witness appeared allegedly upon advice of Associate Solicitor Tagapan relying on the postponement to be granted by public respondent precisely because of the reassignment of solicitors.[12]

The rule that a party asking for postponement has absolutely no right to assume that its motion would be granted, especially on less than three (3) days’ notice, and must be in court prepared on the day of the hearing[13] applies with greater force in this case where the OSG had in fact more reason not to presume a grant of its motion for postponement considering that Major (formerly Captain) Samuel Padilla had already been previously warned by public respondent thus –
Capt.  Samuel Padilla is given five (5) days from receipt hereof to show why he should not be held disciplinary accountable for his failure to appear x x x when he knew as a matter of fact that this case wherein he appears to be the  principal government witness has been pending since 1988 and that his testimony was suspended as far back as February 15, 1990, precisely by reason of the unorganized state of evidence of the petitioner at the time so that all of the proceedings thereafter had been precisely to clarify and organize whatever evidence the parties might have thereon.  It is a cause of great wonder to the Court what urgent meeting could have befallen Capt.  Padilla resulting to his failure to appear in Court today.[14]
Under the circumstances, it cannot rightly be said that the OSG was not guilty of inexcusable carelessness, presumptiousness, indifference to and neglect of duty in assuming that public respondent would grant its oral motion for postponement, coming to court unprepared and without a witness.  Hence public respondent was well within its authority to deny the Republic’s oral motion for postponement of the hearings set on 19 and 20 October 1995 and require it, instead, to just formally offer its evidence within fifteen (15) days from notice.  Petitioner is not guilty of abuse of discretion, much less grave, nor can it be charged by petitioner with denial of due process.[15]

WHEREFORE, the instant petition for certiorari, prohibition and mandamus is DENIED.  The questioned Order of public respondent Sandiganbayan dated 19 October 1995 denying the oral motion of petitioner Republic of the Philippines for the postponement of the 19 and 20 October 1995 hearings as well as the Resolution dated 3 January 1996 denying petitioner’s motion for reconsideration, is AFFIRMED.

SO ORDERED.

Puno, Mendoza, Quisumbing, and Buena, JJ., concur.




[1] An Act Declaring Forfeiture in Favor of the State Any Property Found to have been Unlawfully Acquired by any Public Officer or Employee and Providing for the Proceedings therefor.

[2]  Petition, p. 19; Rollo, p. 20.

[3] Padua v. Ericta, No. L-38570, 24 May 1988, 161 SCRA 458, 459.

[4] People v. Remorosa, G.R. No. 81768, 7 August 1991, 200 SCRA 350, 356; Belstar Transportation, Inc. v. Board of Transportation, No. L-47663, 22 January 1990, 181 SCRA 209, 213.

[5] See Order dated 10 May 1995; Rollo, p. 59.

[6]  See Note 2.

[7] As now amended by the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure.

[8] Agravante v. Patriarca, No. L-48324, 14 March 1990, 183 SCRA 113.

[9]  Cañete v. Judge, Court of First Instance of Zamboanga del Sur, No. L-21743, 4 May 1968, 23 SCRA 543.

[10]  Hernandez v. De Guzman, A.M. No. RTJ-93-1064, 22 January 1996, 252 SCRA 64.

[11]  Hap Hong Hardware Co., Inc., v. Philippine Milling Co., No. L-16778, 23 May 1961, 2 SCRA 68.

[12] Order dated 19 October 1995, p. 1; Rollo, p. 37.

[13]  Republic v. Gumayan, No. L-16780, 31 May 1961, 2 SCRA 580.

[14]  Order dated 19 May 1994, G.R. No. 119633; Rollo, p. 257.

[15]  See Auyong Hian v. Court of Tax Appeals, No. L-28782, 12 September 1974, 59 SCRA 110, 119, citing Sarreal v. Hon. Tan, 92 Phil. 689, 692.

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