Wednesday, September 7, 2011

COSLAP; jurisdiction; laches - G.R. No. 170251

G.R. No. 170251

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"x x x.

The main issue for our resolution is whether the COSLAP has jurisdiction to decide the question of ownership between the parties.

The petition is meritorious.

The COSLAP was created by virtue of Executive Order (E.O.) No. 561, issued on September 21, 1979 by then President Ferdinand E. Marcos. It is an administrative body established as a means of providing a mechanism for the expeditious settlement of land problems among small settlers, landowners and members of the cultural minorities to avoid social unrest.

Section 3 of E.O. No. 561 specifically enumerates the instances when the COSLAP can exercise its adjudicatory functions:

Section 3. Powers and Functions. - The Commission shall have the following powers and functions:

x x x x

2. Refer and follow up for immediate action by the agency having appropriate jurisdiction any land problem or dispute referred to the Commission: Provided, That the Commission may, in the following cases, assume jurisdiction and resolve land problems or disputes which are critical and explosive in nature considering, for instance, the large number of the parties involved, the presence or emergence of social tension or unrest, or other similar critical situations requiring immediate action:

(a) Between occupants/squatters and pasture lease agreement holders or timber concessionaires;

(b) Between occupants/squatters and government reservation grantees;

(c) Between occupants/squatters and public land claimants or applicants;

(d) Petitions for classification, release and/or subdivision of lands of the public domain; and

(e) Other similar land problems of grave urgency and magnitude.[7]

Administrative agencies, like the COSLAP, are tribunals of limited jurisdiction that can only wield powers which are specifically granted to it by its enabling statute.[8] Under Section 3 of E.O. No. 561, the COSLAP has two options in acting on a land dispute or problem lodged before it, to wit: (a) refer the matter to the agency having appropriate jurisdiction for settlement/resolution; or (b) assume jurisdiction if the matter is one of those enumerated in paragraph 2 (a) to (e) of the law, if such case is critical and explosive in nature, taking into account the large number of parties involved, the presence or emergence of social unrest, or other similar critical situations requiring immediate action. In resolving whether to assume jurisdiction over a case or to refer the same to the particular agency concerned, the COSLAP has to consider the nature or classification of the land involved, the parties to the case, the nature of the questions raised, and the need for immediate and urgent action thereon to prevent injuries to persons and damage or destruction to property. The law does not vest jurisdiction on the COSLAP over any land dispute or problem.[9]

In the instant case, the COSLAP has no jurisdiction over the subject matter of respondents' complaint. The present case does not fall under any of the cases enumerated under Section 3, paragraph 2 (a) to (e) of E.O. No. 561. The dispute between the parties is not critical and explosive in nature, nor does it involve a large number of parties, nor is there a presence or emergence of social tension or unrest. It can also hardly be characterized as involving a critical situation that requires immediate action.

It is axiomatic that the jurisdiction of a tribunal, including a quasi-judicial officer or government agency, over the nature and subject matter of a petition or complaint is determined by the material allegations therein and the character of the relief prayed for, irrespective of whether the petitioner or complainant is entitled to any or all such reliefs.[10]

Respondents' cause of action before the COSLAP pertains to their claim of ownership over the subject property, which is an action involving title to or possession of real property, or any interest therein,[11] the jurisdiction of which is vested with the Regional Trial Courts or the Municipal Trial Courts depending on the assessed value of the subject property.[12]

The case of Banaga v. Commission on the Settlement of Land Problems,[13] applied by the CA and invoked by the respondents, is inapplicable to the present case. Banaga involved parties with conflicting free patent applications over a parcel of public land and pending with the Bureau of Lands. Because of the Bureau of Land's inaction within a considerable period of time on the claims and protests of the parties and to conduct an investigation, the COSLAP assumed jurisdiction and resolved the conflicting claims of the parties. The Court held that since the dispute involved a parcel of public land on a free patent issue, the COSLAP had jurisdiction over that case. In the present case, there is no showing that the parties have conflicting free patent applications over the subject parcel of land that would justify the exercise of the COSLAP's jurisdiction.

Since the COSLAP has no jurisdiction over the action, all the proceedings therein, including the decision rendered, are null and void.[14] A judgment issued by a quasi-judicial body without jurisdiction is void. It cannot be the source of any right or create any obligation.[15] All acts performed pursuant to it and all claims emanating from it have no legal effect.[16] Having no legal effect, the situation is the same as it would be as if there was no judgment at all. It leaves the parties in the position they were before the proceedings.[17]

Respondents’ allegation that petitioner is estopped from questioning the jurisdiction of the COSLAP by reason of laches does not hold water. Petitioner is not estopped from raising the jurisdictional issue, because it may be raised at any stage of the proceedings, even on appeal, and is not lost by waiver or by estoppel.[18] The fact that a person attempts to invoke unauthorized jurisdiction of a court does not estop him from thereafter challenging its jurisdiction over the subject matter, since such jurisdiction must arise by law and not by mere consent of the parties.[19]

In Regalado v. Go,[20] the Court held that laches should be clearly present for the Sibonghanoy[21] doctrine to apply, thus:

Laches is defined as the "failure or neglect for an unreasonable and unexplained length of time, to do that which, by exercising due diligence, could or should have been done earlier, it is negligence or omission to assert a right within a reasonable length of time, warranting a presumption that the party entitled to assert it either has abandoned it or declined to assert it.”

The ruling in People v. Regalario that was based on the landmark doctrine enunciated in Tijam v. Sibonghanoy on the matter of jurisdiction by estoppel is the exception rather than the rule. Estoppel by laches may be invoked to bar the issue of lack of jurisdiction only in cases in which the factual milieu is analogous to that in the cited case. In such controversies, laches should have been clearly present; that is, lack of jurisdiction must have been raised so belatedly as to warrant the presumption that the party entitled to assert it had abandoned or declined to assert it.

In Sibonghanoy, the defense of lack of jurisdiction was raised for the first time in a motion to dismiss filed by the Surety almost 15 years after the questioned ruling had been rendered. At several stages of the proceedings, in the court a quo as well as in the Court of Appeals, the Surety invoked the jurisdiction of the said courts to obtain affirmative relief and submitted its case for final adjudication on the merits. It was only when the adverse decision was rendered by the Court of Appeals that it finally woke up to raise the question of jurisdiction.[22]

The factual settings attendant in Sibonghanoy are not present in the case at bar that would justify the application of estoppel by laches against the petitioner. Here, petitioner assailed the jurisdiction of the COSLAP when she appealed the case to the CA and at that time, no considerable period had yet elapsed for laches to attach. Therefore, petitioner is not estopped from assailing the jurisdiction of the COSLAP. Additionally, no laches will even attach because the judgment is null and void for want of jurisdiction.[23]

Anent the issuance of OCT No. M-10991 in favor of petitioner’s husband Alfredo Herrerra in 2002, respondents alleged that there was fraud, misrepresentation and bad faith in the issuance thereof. Thus, respondents are now questioning the legality of OCT No. M-10991, an issue which this Court cannot pass upon in this present petition. It is a rule that the validity of a Torrens title cannot be assailed collaterally.[24] Section 48 of Presidential Decree No. 1529 provides that:

Certificate not Subject to Collateral Attack. − A certificate of title shall not be subject to collateral attack. It cannot be altered, modified, or canceled, except in a direct proceeding in accordance with law.

The issue of the validity of the Title was brought only during the proceedings before this Court as said title was issued in the name of petitioner's husband only during the pendency of the appeal before the CA. The issue on the validity of title, i.e., whether or not it was fraudulently issued, can only be raised in an action expressly instituted for that purpose[25] and the present appeal before us, is simply not the direct proceeding contemplated by law.

x x x."