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BY ANNA PATRICIA G. VALERIO
Special Features Writer, BusinessWorld
BY GIVING OFFICIALS a chance to skirt the rules, vague laws – whether in wording or intent – undermine the country’s legal system.
Loopholes in the 1987 Constitution itself, says Atty. Manuel Laserna, Jr., who specializes in the litigation of judicial and quasi-judicial cases, can invite injustice and disorder. Meanwhile, the interpretation – and misinterpretation – of ambiguous laws, he says, may rock the stability of the justice system as an institution. “It places at risk the doctrines of res judicata (which states that adjudicated issues cannot be litigated again) and stare decisis (which requires courts to adhere to principles established by decisions in earlier cases).”
An example is House Bill 6974 or the CyberCrime Prevention Act of 2009, which according to Kabataan Party-list representative Mong Palatino, is a vaguely worded measure that can be used to stifle the public’s freedom of expression and violate their right to privacy. More recent examples are the foggy election laws that allowed candidates to overspend on their campaigns for the national elections in May.
A month earlier, the hight court had been the target of widespread criticism after it permitted then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to appoint the next chief justice – despite an election ban on midnight appointments under Article VII, Section 15 of the Philippine Constitution. “The net effect is the diminution of the respect of the people in the Supreme Court as the last bulwark of Philippine democracy,” says Mr. Laserna.
Indeed, the law’s occasional obscurity shouldn’t be taken as a window for corruption. The preliminary chapter of the Civil Code, says Mr. Laserna, requires courts to settle controversies surrounding cryptic provisions. “Ignorance excuses no one from compliance with these basic tenets,” he says.
A solution to such legal puzzles may lie in the void-for-vagueness doctrine, which according to Mr. Laserna states that “a law which on its face or text is vague, undefined, and without clear standards and yet imposes a penalty, is a void law and its nullity is ab initio (from the start).” But even the clause can be subject to exploitation. “The situation gives the Judiciary a chance to adopt and create a policy – [a duty of the] legislative territory – and not simply to interpret the law,” he adds.
Moves to address these issues are already in place. “The militant civil society [as well as] the militant parts of the legal profession [and the] academe have in some instances managed to correct the debilitating effects of ambiguous laws,” says Mr. Laserna. But only the state can nip it in the bud.
In formulating new laws, the legislative body must make sure that these comply with the letter and the spirit of the Constitution. “Congress must be responsible, industrious, intelligent and selfless in the performance of its legislative duty,” says Mr. Laserna. The Executive branch, for its part, should be more vigilant in choosing which decrees should be made official. Part of this precaution lies with the President, who’s tasked with crosschecking these mandates through his veto power. Lastly, the judicial branch should interpret laws according to the intent of the Constitution. “[The Supreme Court is] the last resort to which the people can run for the fair administration of justice,” adds Mr. Laserna.
But this burden is not shouldered by the government alone. Civil society and the media must make a constant effort to question, correct and criticize the loopholes in the legal system. “Public opinion is the ultimate defense against a failed government,” says Mr. Laserna.
September 15, 2010
SPECIAL FEATURE: Top Notch RP Law Schools
Anna Patricia G. Valerio
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