MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – A pro-divorce group said the role of the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) in annulment cases is just a "waste of taxpayer's money."
At the first Senate hearing on the absolute divorce bill on Tuesday, September 17, Luz Frances Chua of Catholics for Reproductive Health said the OSG should instead use their resources elsewhere.
"We believe that it is a waste of taxpayers' money with the Office the Solicitor General defending the denial of nullity cases before the Supreme Court…whereas the OSG can focus its efforts in filing for petitions for certiorari on the countless rape cases dismissed by the courts," Chua said on Tuesday.
Some lawmakers had initially expressed support on relaxing the requirements to make legal termination of marriage a "more efficient process." Part of it is removing the review powers of the OSG on annulment cases. (LOOK: INFOGRAPHIC: How to get annulled)
The OSG is mandated to represent the state's interest in protecting marriage as a basic family institution in annulment cases. The office also acts as a data repository of all annulment cases in the country.
At the hearing, State Counsel Mary Grace Sadian said the Department of Justice would review the measure should there be proposals to change the annulment procedure.
"Our present procedure deputizes our prosecutors to oversee the prosecution of these cases in courts. We shall look at the bill if there are any proposals to change these procedures," Sadian said.
Abused spouses' stories
During the hearing, several resources persons shared their tragic marital experiences and their attempts to nullify their marriages, among them, Stella Sibonga who was forced to marry her husband at the age of 18 because he got her pregnant.
She said her husband was a womanizing, hard-drinking bum who inflicted emotional scars on her to the point of driving her to attempt to die by suicide. When she finally saved up enough money, she filed for annulment, but got duped by her first lawyer who only took her payment without working on her case.
Sibonga said she got another lawyer, and she finally granted a certificate of finality of annulment after 5 years. But when she was about to get a copy of the certificate, Sibonga was informed that the OSG had filed a motion for reconsideration on her case.
“Tuwang-tuwa ako nadesisyunan…. Ang sakit nito, sasabihin nilang 'di ako mabibigyan ng certified copy [ng certificate of finality] dahil nag-motion ang Solicitor General, motion for reconsideration,” Sibonga said.
(I was so happy that the case had been decided. Unfortunately, I was told that I couldn't get the certified copy of the certificate of finality because the Solicitor General had filed a motion for reconsideration.)
Former seaman Marc Luna shared how he tried his best to save his marriage – he took back his wife after she had an affair, and even moved to another city so they could start fresh – but to no avail. He said he did not consider pursuing annulment as he knew that it was just "one of the milking cows of lawyers."
Journalist Ana Santos told the Senate panel that her investigative stories for Rappler uncovered that the annulment process in the Philippines has "spawned a legion of scammers and con artists who prey on the desperation of the heartbroken."
Change in semantics
Senator Risa Hontiveros, chairperson of the Senate commiteee on women, children, family relations, and gender equality chairperson, said advocates were open to changing the term "divorce," if other lawmakers had an issue with semantics.
"The term dissolution of marriage is acceptable already for the advocates. Okay lang sila kung contentious ang salitang 'divorce,' as long as saklaw ang grounds nila sa paghingi ng second chance," Hontiveros told reporters in a media interview.
(The term dissolution of marriage is acceptable already for the advocates. It's fine with them if the word divorce is already contentious, as long as the grounds they are asking for to have a second chance [in life] is covered.)
Senate President Vicente Sotto III had earlier said a measure with the term "dissolution of marriage" has a better fighting chance in the upper chamber.
But in a separate interview, Senator Joel Villanueva, a staunch anti-divorce advocate, said on Tuesday he would not support the measure if the dissolution of marriage would just be the same as what a divorce would offer.
"If it is just the same as divorce, pinalitan lang ng collar the same shirt, hindi tayo papayag. Equal access to annulment ang kailangan ng ating kababayang mahirap," said Villanueva.
(If it is just the same as divorce, and you just changed the collar of the same shirt, we will not allow it. What our poor citizens need is equal access to annulment.)
Apart from Hontiveros, Senator Pia Cayetano also filed an absolute divorce bill that seeks legal termination of marriages by Philippine courts. (READ: IN NUMBERS: The state of the nation's marital woes)
The absolute divorce bill seeks to go beyond psychological incapacity, lack of consent, and the incapability to bear children, among others, as acceptable reasons for annulment.