When does land become subject to private ownership?
(First of two parts)
When may a natural or legal person cause the registration in his or its name of property that he or it claims to possess? This is what the Supreme Court has addressed in the recent case of Republic of the Philippines v. Pasig Rizal Co., Inc.
Here, Manuel Dee Ham was the registered owner of the subject property, which upon his death, was inherited by his wife, Esperanza Gerona, and their children. They eventually transferred their beneficial ownership over the property to their family corporation, respondent Pasig Rizal Co., Inc. (PRCI).
Gerona filed before the Regional Trial Court (RTC) an application for original registration of title over the subject property on PRCI’s behalf. In her application, Gerona asserts PRCI’s ownership over the subject property since it and its predecessors have been in open, continuous, exclusive, and notorious possession thereof for more than 50 years.
At the trial on the merits, PRCI presented evidence, such as, among others, a certification from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Forest Management Service Regional Technical Director that the same property is within the alienable and disposable land of public domain.
In its decision, the RTC “confirmed and affirmed” PRCI’s title over the subject property. Upon appeal by petitioner Republic of the Philippines, the Court of Appeals affirmed the RTC’s decision.
In its petition before the Supreme Court, the Republic continues to dispute PRCI’s claim, arguing that lands of the public domain, particularly those of public dominion, may be the subject of ownership only when there is an express government manifestation that they are no longer retained for public service or the development of national wealth. This manifestation should be in the form of a law or when so authorized, a presidential declaration, which is absent in this case. Moreover, PRCI failed to present a copy of the subject property’s land classification approved by the DENR Secretary and certified as a true copy by the legal custodian of the official records.
The Supreme Court denied the Republic’s petition and directed the case to be remanded to the Court of Appeals for reception of evidence on the subject property’s land classification status.
In arriving at this decision, the Supreme Court emphasized that lands not appearing to be clearly under private ownership are presumed to form part of the public domain belonging to the State. Meanwhile, public lands remain part of the inalienable land of the public domain unless the State has reclassified or alienated them to private persons.
Properties of the public domain are either public dominion or patrimonial in character. Properties are patrimonial when the State, provinces, cities, and municipalities own them in their private capacity—that is, the subject properties are either not intended for public use, some public service, or for the development of the national wealth or are no longer used or intended for said purpose. Otherwise, these properties are of public dominion.
Pursuant to the Constitution, forest, timber, and mineral lands, and national parks are lands of the public domain which fall under the property of public dominion. Meanwhile, agricultural lands subject to the State’s current or intended use remain property of public dominion, unless they are declared as alienable and disposable and thus, “converted” patrimonial properties of the State. In this regard, the Executive Department is solely vested with the power to classify or reclassify land.
Being private in nature, patrimonial properties may be alienated and disposed of in the same manner as those owned by private individuals, and be the object of contracts. Meanwhile, properties of public dominion are outside the commerce of men—that is, they cannot be appropriated or made the subject of contracts.
One of the modes of acquiring ownership of patrimonial properties is through prescription, over which PRCI bases its claim. This means that ownership over real property may be acquired through the lapse of time either through uninterrupted possession in good faith and with just title for 10 years or for 30 years without need of just title or good faith. (To be continued)