Part 1: The annulment business

MANILA, Philippines – During a regular review of annulment cases, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) noticed something unusual. Courts in certain areas were issuing a large number of annulment decrees: in Imus, Cavite, Paniqui, Tarlac and as far as Cotabato, Mindanao. 

“There are too many cases for such rural places. Are there that many people getting annulments there?” remarked Noel Segovia, OSG senior prosecutor.

As the designated “defender of the marital bond,” the OSG is charged with representing the state’s interest in protecting marriage as the basic family institution in annulment cases. The OSG also acts as the data repository of all annulment cases in the country. (SEE: INFOGRAPHIC: How to get annulled)

It was not only the OSG that was troubled by the numbers. The Supreme Court looked into some of these cases and confirmed the complicity of judges and court personnel in issuing annulment decrees in bulk.

In a Paniqui, Tarlac court under Judge Liberty Castañeda, the Supreme Court conducted a judicial audit or investigation “prompted by reports that Branch 67 is fast becoming a haven for couples” who want to sever marital ties.

A first investigation was conducted in October 2008. The judicial audit team found that out of the 1,123 total cases in Castañeda’s court, 73% involved nullity of marriage, annulment and legal separation. (SEE: EXPLAINER: Untying the marriage knot 101 on the differences between nullity of marriage, annulment and legal separation)

That was just the beginning of a long list of anomalies. How can a single-sala court (one that hears both criminal and civil cases) churn out a large volume of annulment cases?

The answers lay in the initial judicial audit’s findings of “blatant irregularities” in the decisions for nullity of marriage: 

(The full report may be accessed here.) 

Moreover, some of the parties involved in the cases also raised the issue of improper venue.

One particular case cited in the Court documents named a certain Lea Borrero-Benaid who wrote a letter to the Chief Justice about a petition for nullity of marriage filed by her husband.

Borrero-Benaid declared that neither she nor her husband are residents of Tarlac, that she never received a court summons informing her of the proceedings, and that she had never met the psychologist whose report declaring her psychologically incapacitated was submitted as evidence. She further claimed that she had not undergone any psychological test of any kind.

Overzealousness

The Court noted that at the time of the audit, Castañeda granted 175 cases involving nullity or annulment of marriage and legal separation with “extraordinary speed and overzealousness” and “reprehensible haste.” In one instance, 11 cases were decided between a period of 16 days to 4 months from the date of their filing.  

As a result of these findings, Castañeda was placed on preventive suspension in November 2009.

In her defense, Castañeda denied that she failed to comply with the rules on nullity of marriage. She claimed that her predecessor left her a huge caseload apart from “rickety typewriters, limited office supplies and lack of personnel.”  

She asserted that it is not the duty of the court to verify details like the addresses of the parties involved in an annulment proceeding. She insisted she checked all decisions she had rendered and blamed the court staff for improper documentation of cases.

For instance, Castañeda blamed her clerk-in-charge for forgetting to attach court orders requiring collusion investigations. (Annulment cases require an investigation of non-collusion between the two parties. The husband and wife are not supposed to agree to end their marriage.)

On petitioners' absence during pre-trials without a special power of attorney allowing their lawyers to represent them, Castañeda said that either the lawyers forgot to sign the minutes or the staff forgot to ask them to sign.

Similarly, the clerk of court, Paulino Saguyod, passed the blame for the miserable state of record keeping and the dismal condition of the office premises to his staff.

In March 2010, Castañeda wrote the Court saying that she had answered all their questions and that any lapses on documentation were the fault of her staff and not hers. She reported back to work without waiting for the Court’s reply and without a clear directive lifting her temporary suspension.

More than one decision a day

Back on the bench, Castañeda lost no time in granting annulment cases. Her preventive suspension did not curb the zealousness the Court had earlier noted in her handing out of decisions.

In 2010 Castañeda granted a total of 410 petitions of nullity or annulment of marriage or legal separation. These translate to about 34 annulment decrees per month or more than one annulment decision per day which was physically impossible.

Two years later, in October 2012, the Court found Castañeda guilty of dishonesty, incompetence, and ignorance of the law and procedure.

In its decision, the Court tagged “as most disturbing and scandalous of her infractions was the haste which she disposed of cases” and pointed out that “her reprehensible haste with which she granted petitions for nullity of marriage, annulment and legal separation despite non-compliance with appropriate rules and evident irregularities” was an indication of her utter lack of competence and grave abuse of authority.

As evidence, the Supreme Court cited cases that would usually be submitted for decision within a month from the filing of the petition and decided as quickly as two months, not allowing enough time for the required legal processes in an annulment proceeding such as testimonies of witnesses and lead time required for parties to respond to court summons.

Castañeda was ordered dismissed from the service with forfeiture of all retirement benefits. Her clerk of court, Saguyod, was suspended for 6 months for failing to perform his duty to supervise orderly management of court records. Other members of the court were fined P5,000 each for neglect of duties. ­ – Rappler.com

This story is part of the series, “The annulment business,” on annulment mills and annulment scams. Reporting for this project was supported with a grant from the Journalism for Nation Building Foundation.