Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lawyer disbarred for deceit and falsification as notary public.

In LUSTESTICA vs. ATTY. BERNABE, AC No. 6258, En Banc, Aug. 24, 2010, the Supreme Court declared the respondent Atty. Sergio E. Bernabe liable for gross negligence, in the performance of his duties as notary public, and for his deceitful and dishonest attestation, in the course of administering the oath taken before him. Atty. Sergio E. Bernabe was DISBARRED from the practice of law and his name ordered STRICKEN from the Roll of Attorneys. He waa also PERPETUALLY DISQUALIFIED from being commissioned as a notary public. The Court ordered that a copy of the Decision be attached to Atty. Sergio E. Bernabe’s record, as a member of the bar, and copies furnished to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and the Office of the Court Administrator for circulation to all courts. In view of the notarization of a falsified deed whose purported parties were already dead at the time of notarization, the Court ordered that a copy of the Decision be furnished the Office of the Prosecutor General, Department of Justice for whatever action, within its jurisdiction, it may deem appropriate to bring against Atty. Sergio E. Bernabe. The doctrinal pronouncements of the Court are as follows:

1. IMPORTANCE OF NOTARY PUBLIC. - We cannot overemphasize the important role a notary public performs. In Gonzales v. Ramos,[11] we stressed that notarization is not an empty, meaningless routinary act but one invested with substantive public interest. The notarization by a notary public converts a private document into a public document, making it admissible in evidence without further proof of its authenticity.[12] A notarized document is, by law, entitled to full faith and credit upon its face.[13] It is for this reason that a notary public must observe with utmost care the basic requirements in the performance of his duties; otherwise, the public’s confidence in the integrity of a notarized document would be undermined.[14]

2. GROSS NEGLIGENCE. - The records undeniably show the gross negligence exhibited by the respondent in discharging his duties as a notary public. He failed to ascertain the identities of the affiants before him and failed to comply with the most basic function that a notary public must do, i.e., to require the parties’ presentation of their residence certificates or any other document to prove their identities. Given the respondent’s admission in his pleading that the donors were already dead when he notarized the Deed of Donation, we have no doubt that he failed in his duty to ascertain the identities of the persons who appeared before him as donors in the Deed of Donation.

3. DOUBLE VIOLATIONS. - Under the circumstances, we find that the respondent should be made liable not only as a notary public but also as a lawyer. He not only violated the Notarial Law (Public Act No. 2103), but also Canon 1 and Rule 1.01 of the Code of Professional Responsibility.

Section 1 of Public Act No. 2103 (Old Notarial Law)[15] states:

(a) The acknowledgment shall be made before a notary public or an officer duly authorized by law of the country to take acknowledgments of instruments or documents in the place where the act is done. The notary public or the officer taking the acknowledgment shall certify that the person acknowledging the instrument or document is known to him and that he is the same person who executed it, and acknowledged that the same is his free act and deed. The certificate shall be made under his official seal, if he is by law required to keep a seal, and if not, his certificate shall so state.

In turn, Canon 1 of the Code of Professional Responsibility provides that “[a] lawyer shall uphold the Constitution, obey the laws of the land and promote respect for law and legal processes.” At the same time, Rule 1.01 of the Code of Professional Responsibility prohibits a lawyer from engaging in unlawful, dishonest, immoral or deceitful conduct.

4. PRECEDENTS. - In Maligsa v. Cabanting,[19] we disbarred a lawyer for failing to subscribe to the sacred duties imposed upon a notary public. In imposing the penalty of disbarment, the Court considered the lawyer’s prior misconduct where he was suspended for a period of six (6) months and warned that a repetition of the same or similar act would be dealt with more severely.[20]

In Flores v. Chua,[21] we disbarred the lawyer after finding that he deliberately made false representations that the vendor appeared before him when he notarized a forged deed of sale. We took into account that he was previously found administratively liable for violation of Rule 1.01 of the Code of Professional Responsibility (for bribing a judge) and sternly warned that a repetition of similar act or acts or violation committed by him in the future would be dealt with more severely.[22]

In Traya v. Villamor,[23] we found the respondent notary public guilty of gross misconduct in his notarial practice for failing to observe the proper procedure in determining that the person appearing before him is the same person who executed the document presented for notarization. Taking into account that it was his second offense, he was perpetually disqualified from being commissioned as a notary public.[24]

In Social Security Commission v. Coral,[25] we suspended indefinitely the notarial commission of the respondent lawyer who was found to have prepared, notarized and filed two complaints that were allegedly executed and verified by people who have long been dead. We also directed him to show cause why he should not be disbarred.[26]

5. DISBARRED. - Considering these established rulings, read in light of the circumstances in the present case, we find that Atty. Bernabe should be disbarred from the practice of law and perpetually disqualified from being commissioned as a notary public. We emphasize that this is respondent’s second offense and while he does not appear to have any participation in the falsification of the Deed of Donation, his contribution was his gross negligence for failing to ascertain the identity of the persons who appeared before him as the donors. This is highlighted by his admission[27] in his Answer that he did not personally know the parties and was not acquainted with them. The blank spaces in the Acknowledgment indicate that he did not even require these parties to produce documents that would prove that they are the same persons they claim to be. As we emphasized in Maligsa:

A lawyer shall at all times uphold the integrity and dignity of the legal profession. The bar should maintain a high standard of legal proficiency as well as honesty and fair dealing. A lawyer brings honor to the legal profession by faithfully performing his duties to society, to the bar, to the courts and to his clients. To this end a member of the legal fraternity should refrain from doing any act which might lessen in any degree the confidence and trust reposed by the public in the fidelity, honesty and integrity of the legal profession.[28]