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PROPERTY RULES

No preferential treatment this time

Way back in 1948, Uela sold to Centa an unregistered land. The written instrument of sale was in Tagalog and notarized.

Prior to the sale, Centa was in possession of the property conveyed where her dwelling and a movie house she owned stood.

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In 1958, Uela applied for the registration of three parcels of land located with a total area of 2 ha, which included the property sold in 1948 to Centa. To expedite the proceedings and issuance of the decree of registration, Uela dissuaded Centa from pursuing her opposition with expressed commitment to convey what was already sold to her.

Accordingly, an original certificate of title was issued in the name of Uela in 1972.

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By a bizarre twist of events, Uela reneged to honor her promise to reconvey the portion she sold to Centa. In 1973, Centa sued Uela for specific performance or reconveyance of the portion the latter sold in 1948.

Uela countered that the sale is a nullity of the contract of sale because as a member of the Blaan cultural community, the sale of her land should have been pre-approved by Commission on National Integration (CNI) as mandated by Sections 145 and 146 of the Administrative Code of Mindanao and Sulu.

Q: Is the sale between Uela and Centa valid?

A: Yes, it is valid. Uela is estopped from assailing, on the basis of her membership in a cultural minority, the validity of the sale to Centa; and from invoking Sections 145 and 146 of the Administrative Code of Mindanao and Sulu.

The existence of the Deed of Sale executed by Uela in 1948, conveying a 2-ha land to Centa is undisputed. Since then, Centa was publicly and openly in possession of the subject property in the concept of owner, and she paid the taxes due.

In 1958, Uela filed an application for the registration of her entire property including that portion sold to Centa, who did not pursue her opposition in the registration case. Uela, as well as her counsel, had assured the eventual conveyance to Centa of the latter’s rightful portion. They entered into this agreement, so as to facilitate the land registration case. Uela reiterated these assurances in writing.

Q: What is the effect of Uela being a Blaan, a cultural minority, on the sale of the property, if any?

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A: In this case none. The fact that Uela never intimated to Centa that she was a Blaan should be taken against her. Uela never denied the validity of the sale for lack of approval by the CNI.

Moreover, Uela, based on the transactions she had on the other portions of the OCT, showed that she did not regard herself as a non-Christian who should be assisted by the CNI. Several of those contracts had long been executed and titles issued to the respective vendees.

Under these circumstances, Uela never raised, at the earliest opportunity, the nullity of the sale on the basis of her alleged Blaan origin. On the contrary, she raised her belated claim only in 1973, when Centa filed an action for specific performance, docketed as Civil Case No. 1365. By then, almost 25 years had lapsed.

Q: What is laches?

A: Laches, or staleness of demand, had likewise set in. It arises when there is failure or neglect, for an unreasonable length of time, to do that which by exercising due diligence could or should have been done earlier. When there is laches, there is a presumption that the party entitled to assert a right has either abandoned or declined to assert that right.

Indeed, by her silence for 25 years—coupled with her Affidavits executed in 1969, in which she acknowledged her promise to convey a portion of her 2-ha property to Centa—she effectively induced Centa to feel secure that no action, or adverse claim for that matter, would be foisted upon her.

The Supreme Court repeatedly held that laches will bar recovery of a property, even if the mode of transfer used by an alleged member of a cultural minority lacks executive approval.

In fact, it has been said that courts cannot look with favor at parties who, by their silence, delay and inaction, knowingly induce another to spend time, effort and expense in cultivating the land, paying taxes and making improvements thereon for 30 long years, only to spring from ambush and claim title when the possessor’s efforts and the rise of land values offer an opportunity to make easy profit at his expense.

It must be noted that there is no imposition, fraud, or unfair advantage of any sort in this case. Uela was fully aware of what she was doing.

Q: Is it not a fact that being a member of the cultural community, Uela deserves outright protection under the law?

A: In this case, no. It is true that Sections 145 and 146 of the Administrative Code of Mindanao and Sulu aim to safeguard the patrimony of the less developed ethnic groups in the Philippines by shielding them against imposition and fraud when they enter into agreements dealing with realty.

In fact, the said statutory protection is in line with the public policy stated in Article 24 of the Civil Code, which enjoins courts to be vigilant in protecting parties who—in all contractual, property or other relations—are at a disadvantage on account of their moral dependence, ignorance, indigence, mental weakness, tender age or some other handicap.

The court’s duty to protect the native vendor, however, should not be carried out to such an extent as to deny justice to the vendee when truth and justice happen to be on the latter’s side. The law cannot be used to shield the enrichment of one at the expense of another.

More important, the law will not be applied so stringently as to render ineffective a contract that is otherwise valid, except for want of approval by the CNI. This principle holds, especially when the evils sought to be avoided are not obtaining.

Uela did not observe honesty and good faith, because it was she who misled Centa by giving the assurance that the subject property would be reconveyed to the latter, as soon as it was titled. After obtaining the title, Uela reneged on her promise, justifying her action by stating that she was a Blaan.

She thus manifested her lack of good faith by taking an unconscionable advantage of Centa through forms or technicalities of the law.

While the purpose of the law in requiring executive approval of contracts entered into by cultural minorities is indeed to protect them, the Court cannot blindly apply that law without considering how the parties exercised their rights and obligations. The strict letter of the law can never be at the expense of fairness, equity and justice.

(Source: Gatdula vs. Dimalanta, G.R. No. 139503, July 25, 2006)

Ma. Soledad Deriquito-Mawis is Dean, Lyceum of the Philippines University; Chairperson of the Philippine Association of Law Schools; and founder of Mawis Law Office

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