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K. Adequate legal assistance and free access to courts

1. CONCEPT

Free access to the courts and quasi-judicial bodies and adequate legal assistance shall not be denied to any person by reason of poverty. (Section 11, Article III, 1987 Constitution)

a. Right of access to justice

Free access to the courts and adequate legal assistance are among the fundamental rights which the Constitution extends to the less privileged. The Constitution affords litigants – moneyed or poor – equal access to the courts; moreover, it specifically provides that poverty shall not bar any person from having access to the courts. Accordingly, laws and rules must be formulated, interpreted, and implemented pursuant to the intent and spirit of this constitutional provision. (Re: Letter dated April 18, 2011 of Chief Public Attorney Persida Rueda-Acosta Requesting Exemption from the Payment of Sheriff’s Expenses, En Banc, A.M. No. 11-10-03-0, 30 July 2013)

The Court recognizes the right of access to justice as the most important pillar of legal empowerment of the marginalized sectors of our society. Among others, it has exercised its power to “promulgate rules concerning the protection and enforcement of constitutional rights” to open the doors of justice to the underprivileged and to allow them to step inside the courts to be heard of their plaints. In particular, indigent litigants are permitted under Section 21, Rule 315 and Section 19, Rule 14116 of the Rules of Court to bring suits in forma pauperis. (Re: Request of National Committee on Legal Aid to Exempt Legal Aid Clients from Paying Filing, Docket and Other Fees, En Banc, A.M. No. 08-11-7-SC, 28 August 2009)

2. JUDICIAL BRANCH

a. Duty on the judicial branch

The constitutional right of access to justice imposes a duty on the judicial branch of the government which can cannot be taken lightly. (People v. Rio, G.R. No. 90294, 24 September 1991)

b. Indigent Party

1) Exemption from Fees and Costs of the Suit

A party may be authorized to litigate his action, claim or defense as an indigent if the court, upon an ex parte application and hearing, is satisfied that the party is one who has no money or property sufficient and available for food, shelter and basic necessities for himself and his family. (Section 21, Rule 3, Rules of Court)

Such authority shall include an exemption from payment of docket and other lawful fees, and of transcripts of stenographic notes which the court may order to be furnished him. The amount of the docket and other lawful fees which the indigent was exempted from paying shall be a lien on any judgment rendered in the case favorable to the indigent, unless the court otherwise provides. (Paragraph 2, Section 21, Rule 3, Ibid.)

Any adverse party may contest the grant of such authority at any time before judgment is rendered by the trial court. If the court should determine after hearing that the party declared as an indigent is in fact a person with sufficient income or property, the proper docket and other lawful fees shall be assessed and collected by the clerk of court. If payment is not made within the time fixed by the court, execution shall issue or the payment thereof, without prejudice to such other sanctions as the court may impose. (Paragraph 3, Section 21, Rule 3, Ibid.)

a) Threshhold income

Indigent litigants (a) whose gross income and that of their immediate family do not exceed four thousand (P4,000.00) pesos a month if residing in Metro Manila, and three thousand (P3,000.00) pesos a month if residing outside Metro Manila, and (b) who do not own real property with an assessed value of more than fifty thousand (P50,000.00) pesos shall be exempt from the payment of legal fees. (Section 18, Rule 141, Rules of Court)

The legal fees shall be a lien on any judgment rendered in the case favorably to the indigent litigant, unless the court otherwise provides. (Paragraph 2, Section 18, Rule 141, Ibid.)

To be entitled to the exemption herein provided, the litigant shall execute an affidavit that he and his immediate family do not earn a gross income abovementioned, nor they own any real property with the assessed value aforementioned, supported by an affidavit of a disinterested person attesting to the truth of the litigant’s affidavit. (Paragraph 2, Section 18, Rule 141, Ibid.)

Any falsity in the affidavit of a litigant or disinterested person shall be sufficient cause to strike out the pleading of that party, without prejudice to whatever criminal liability may have been incurred. (Paragraph 2, Section 18, Rule 141, Ibid.)

b) PAO clients

The clients of the PAO shall exempt from payment of docket and other fees incidental to instituting an action in court and other quasi-judicial bodies, as an original proceeding or on appeal. (Section 16-D, Chapter 5, Title III, Book IV of Executive Order No. 292)

Section 6 of R.A. No. 9406 exempts PAO’s clients from the payment of “docket and other fees incidental to instituting an action in court and other quasi-judicial bodies” is beyond cavil. (Re: Letter dated April 18, 2011 of Chief Public Attorney Persida Rueda-Acosta Requesting Exemption from the Payment of Sheriff’s Expenses, supra.)

The term “fees” is defined as a charge fixed by law or by an institution for certain privileges or services. Viewed from this context, the phrase “docket and other fees incidental to instituting an action” refers to the totality of the legal fees imposed under Rule 141 of the Rules of Court. In particular, it includes filing or docket fees, appeal fees, fees for issuance of provisional remedies, mediation fees, sheriff’s fees, stenographer’s fees and commissioner’s fees. These are the fees that are exacted for the services rendered by the court in connection with the action instituted before it. (Ibid.)

2) Excluded: Sheriff’s fee

Sheriff’s expenses, however, cannot be classified as a “fee” within the purview of the exemption granted to PAO’s clients. (Ibid.)

The exemption granted to PAO’s clients cannot be extended to the payment of sheriff’s expenses; the exemption is specifically limited to the payment of fees, i.e., docket and other fees incidental to instituting an action. (Ibid.)

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