The Supreme Court En Banc recently promulgated a decision effectively reshaping the process of acquisition and registration of all untitled lands currently in the possession of persons and entities other than the Philippine Government.
In a 39-page decision penned by Justice Dante O. Tinga, the Court held that in connection with Section 14 (1) of the Property Registration Decree, Section 48 (b) of the Public Land Act recognizes that “those who by themselves or through their predecessors in interest have been in open, continuous and exclusive possession and occupation of alienable and disposable lands of the public domain, under a bona fide claim of ownership, since June 12, 1945” have acquired ownership of, and registrable title, to such lands based on the length and quality of their possession. The Court clarified that the Public Land Act merely requires possession since June 12, 1945 and does not require that the lands should have been alienable and disposable during the entire period of possession. The possessor is thus entitled to secure judicial confirmation of title as soon as the land it covers is declared alienable and disposable. This is, however, subject to the December 31, 2020 deadline imposed by the Public Land Act, as amended by R.A. 9176.
The Court also held that the New Civil Code must be considered in complying with Section 14 (2) of the Property Registration Decree with regard to the acquisition of property of the public domain, specifically those that become patrimonial property. The Court held that under the New Civil Code, prescription is recognized as a mode of acquiring ownership of patrimonial property. However, public domain lands become patrimonial property or private property of the government only upon a declaration that these are alienable or disposable lands, together with an express government manifestation that the property is already patrimonial or no longer retained for public service or the development of national wealth. Only when the property has become patrimonial can the prescriptive period for the acquisition of property of the public domain begin to run, said the Court. Patrimonial property may be acquired through ordinary acquisitive prescription (possession for at least 10 years in good faith and with just title) or extraordinary acquisitive prescription (uninterrupted, adverse possession for at least 30 years regardless of good faith or just title).
Applying these doctrines, the Court denied an application for confirmation of title in a land registration case filed by the heirs of one Mario Malabanan, herein petitioners, over a parcel of land in Cavite in this case. The Court dismissed the petitioners’ application for registration because there was insufficient evidence to show that the petitioners or their predecessors have been in possession of the land on or before June 12, 1945. The Court also denied acquisition of ownership by virtue of Section 14 (2) of the Property Registration Decree because the petitioners failed to show competent evidence declaring that the land in question is no longer intended for public use or service, ruling that the classification of the subject property as alienable and disposable land of public domain does not change its status as property of the public dominion. Concurring are Justices Consuelo Ynares- Santiago, Antonio T. Carpio, Ma. Alicia Austria- Martinez, Conchita Carpio Morales, Presbitero J. Velasco, Jr., Antonio Eduardo B. Nachura, Diosdado M. Peralta and Lucas P. Bersamin.
Justice Minita V. Chico–Nazario, in her Concurring and Dissenting Opinion, agreed with the majority in denying petitioners’ application for registration. However, she asserted that the Property Registration Decree refers only to private lands and not to lands of the public domain. She declared that it is the Public Land Act, and not the Property Registration Decree, which governs the process of acquisition of agricultural public lands. She opined that the Public Land Act gives an exclusive enumeration of the ways by which agricultural land may be acquired, and the list does not include acquisition by prescription. As for the Property Registration Decree, Justice Chico-Nazario said that it cannot confer title to land, but can only confirm title that already exists or has vested. Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno and Justice Teresita J. Leonardo de Castro join her Concurring and Dissenting Opinion.
In his Dissenting Opinion, Justice Arturo D. Brion declared as erroneous the ruling that the classification of public lands as alienable and disposable does not need to date back to 12 June 1945. He based his assertion on the Constitution’s Regalian Doctrine; on the interpretation that the Public Land Act applies only from the time a public land is classified as alienable and disposable; and on the law established by the Civil Code that public land may only be appropriated upon its prior classification as alienable and disposable. He opined that the case must not be viewed as an authority on the rules on effective possession prior to classification, and a more binding set of guidelines must be established once an actual case regarding this matter has been filed and reaches the Supreme Court. Justice Brion’s dissent is joined by Justice Renato C. Corona. (GR No. 179987, Heirs of Mario Malabanan v. Republic of the Philipipnes, April 29, 2009)