Saturday, July 30, 2011

Docket fees; liberal rule - G.R. No. 116121

G.R. No. 116121


"The Court finds merit in the petition.

The rule is that payment in full of the docket fees within the prescribed period is mandatory.[8] In Manchester v. Court of Appeals,[9] it was held that a court acquires jurisdiction over any case only upon the payment of the prescribed docket fee. The strict application of this rule was, however, relaxed two (2) years after in the case of Sun Insurance Office, Ltd. v. Asuncion,[10]wherein the Court decreed that where the initiatory pleading is not accompanied by the payment of the docket fee, the court may allow payment of the fee within a reasonable period of time, but in no case beyond the applicable prescriptive or reglementary period. This ruling was made on the premise that the plaintiff had demonstrated his willingness to abide by the rules by paying the additional docket fees required.[11] Thus, in the more recent case of United Overseas Bank v. Ros,[12] the Court explained that where the party does not deliberately intend to defraud the court in payment of docket fees, and manifests its willingness to abide by the rules by paying additional docket fees when required by the court, the liberal doctrine enunciated in Sun Insurance Office, Ltd., and not the strict regulations set in Manchester, will apply. It has been on record that the Court, in several instances, allowed the relaxation of the rule on non-payment of docket fees in order to afford the parties the opportunity to fully ventilate their cases on the merits. In the case of La Salette College v. Pilotin,[13] the Court stated:

Notwithstanding the mandatory nature of the requirement of payment of appellate docket fees, we also recognize that its strict application is qualified by the following: first, failure to pay those fees within the reglementary period allows only discretionary, not automatic, dismissal; second, such power should be used by the court in conjunction with its exercise of sound discretion in accordance with the tenets of justice and fair play, as well as with a great deal of circumspection in consideration of all attendant circumstances.[14]

While there is a crying need to unclog court dockets on the one hand, there is, on the other, a greater demand for resolving genuine disputes fairly and equitably,[15] for it is far better to dispose of a case on the merit which is a primordial end, rather than on a technicality that may result in injustice.

In this case, it cannot be denied that the case was litigated before the RTC and said trial court had already rendered a decision. While it was at that level, the matter of non-payment of docket fees was never an issue. It was only the CA which motu propio dismissed the case for said reason.

Considering the foregoing, there is a need to suspend the strict application of the rules so that the petitioners would be able to fully and finally prosecute their claim on the merits at the appellate level rather than fail to secure justice on a technicality, for, indeed, the general objective of procedure is to facilitate the application of justice to the rival claims of contending parties, bearing always in mind that procedure is not to hinder but to promote the administration of justice.[16]

The Court also takes into account the fact that the case was filed before the Manchester ruling came out. Even if said ruling could be applied retroactively, liberality should be accorded to the petitioners in view of the recency then of the ruling. Leniency because of recency was applied to the cases of Far Eastern Shipping Company v. Court of Appeals[17] and Spouses Jimmy and Patri Chan v. RTC of Zamboanga.[18] In the case of Mactan Cebu International Airport Authority v. Mangubat (Mactan),[19] it was stated that the “intent of the Court is clear to afford litigants full opportunity to comply with the new rules and to temper enforcement of sanctions in view of the recency of the changes introduced by the new rules.” In Mactan, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) also failed to pay the correct docket fees on time.

We held in another case:

x x x It bears stressing that the rules of procedure are merely tools designed to facilitate the attainment of justice. They were conceived and promulgated to effectively aid the court in the dispensation of justice. Courts are not slaves to or robots of technical rules, shorn of judicial discretion. In rendering justice, courts have always been, as they ought to be, conscientiously guided by the norm that, on the balance, technicalities take a backseat against substantive rights, and not the other way around. Thus, if the application of the Rules would tend to frustrate rather than promote justice, it is always within the power of the Court to suspend the Rules, or except a particular case from its operation.[20]

The petitioners, however, are liable for the difference between the actual fees paid and the correct payable docket fees to be assessed by the clerk of court which shall constitute a lien on the judgment pursuant to Section 2 of Rule 141 which provides:

SEC. 2. Fees in lien. – Where the court in its final judgment awards a claim not alleged, or a relief different from, or more than that claimed in the pleading, the party concerned shall pay the additional fees which shall constitute a lien on the judgment in satisfaction of said lien. The clerk of court shall assess and collect the corresponding fees.

As the Court has taken the position that it would be grossly unjust if petitioners’ claim would be dismissed on a strict application of the Manchester doctrine, the appropriate action, under ordinary circumstances, would be for the Court to remand the case to the CA. Considering, however, that the case at bench has been pending for more than 30 years and the records thereof are already before this Court, a remand of the case to the CA would only unnecessarily prolong its resolution. In the higher interest of substantial justice and to spare the parties from further delay, the Court will resolve the case on the merits."