SC to Judges, Lawyers, and Litigants: Comply with Mandatory Referral Mechanism in Agrarian Disputes
The Supreme Court has issued a reminder to the Bench, the Bar, and all party-litigants to comply with the procedure laid out in the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law and its implementing rules to avoid unnecessary and prolonged litigation.
In a Decision penned by Associate Justice Samuel H. Gaerlan, the Supreme Court’s Third Division emphasized that “compliance with mandatory referral mechanism becomes even more imperative in criminal cases because a person’s liberty is at stake” as it granted the petition for review on certiorari filed by Roberto Bacar (Bacar) and denied the petition for review on certiorari filed by Vicente Tan (Tan).
Bacar’s petition challenged the rulings of the Court of Appeals (CA) which had affirmed the Regional Trial Court’s (RTC) denial of Bacar’s motion to quash the Information charging him of qualified theft.
Tan’s petition, on the other hand, assailed the CA’s rulings ordering the RTC to refer to the Department of Agrarian Reform Adjudication Board (DARAB) – Region VI-B – Office of the Provincial Adjudicator the criminal case against Bacar’s brother-in-law, Michael Mercado (Mercado).
In 2008, Bacar and Mercado filed before the Office of the Provincial Adjudicator of the DARAB a petition against Tan for the reinstatement of their tenancy status.
Bacar and Mercado were subsequently charged before the RTC, in separate Informations, with the crime of qualified theft for taking away copra from the coconut plantation owned by Tan.
In 2011, the Office of the Provincial Adjudicator of the DARAB rendered a Decision on Bacar and Mercado’s petition, declaring them tenants de jure of the landholdings owned by Tan. This was used as basis by Bacar and Mercado to file their respective motions to quash the Informations against them, arguing that the RTC had no jurisdiction as the cases involve an agrarian dispute.
The RTC, however, denied Bacar’s and Mercado’s motions, ruling that the criminal cases neither pertained to the implementation of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) nor involved an agrarian dispute.
Bacar and Mercado filed separate petitions for certiorari and prohibition with the CA. In a 2016 Decision, the CA denied Bacar’s petition and affirmed the RTC’s denial of Bacar’s motion to quash. However, in a separate Decision in 2017, the CA granted Mercado’s petition and ordered the RTC to refer the case to the Office of the Provincial Adjudicator of the DARAB. This prompted the parties to file their respective petitions before the Supreme Court.
In resolving the petitions, the Court addressed the issue of whether the RTC has jurisdiction to hear and decide the criminal cases of qualified theft against Bacar and Mercado, despite the DARAB Decision declaring them as tenants de jure of the landholdings owned by Tan.
The Court cited Section 50-A of Republic Act No. (RA) 6657, or the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law, as amended by RA 9700, which provides that when a case before a judge or prosecutor involves the implementation of the CARP, or when the case is agrarian in nature and there is an allegation that one of the parties is a farmer, farmworker, or a tenant, the judge or prosecutor is mandated to refer the matter to the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) for the determination of the existence of an agrarian dispute.
Reiterating its 2018 ruling in Chailese Development Company, Inc. v. Dizon, the Court identified the twin requirements for the automatic referral of a case to the DAR: (a) there is an allegation from any one or both of the parties that the case is agrarian in nature; and (b) one of the parties is a farmer, farmworker, or tenant.
Further, the Court issued Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) Circular No. 62-10 enjoining all courts and judges to strictly observe Section 50-A of RA 6657, as amended, and to refer all cases before it alleged to involve an agrarian dispute to the DAR for the necessary determination and certification.
The DAR likewise issued Administrative Order No. (AO) 03-11, adopting the OCA Circular and providing, among others, that upon referral, the Provincial Agrarian Reform Officer (PARO) may only give a ruling as to two issues: (1) whether or not the cause of action of the pending case with the referring Court or Office of the Public Prosecutor is agrarian in nature, the jurisdiction of which is lodged exclusively with the DAR; or (2) whether or not a matter within the exclusive jurisdiction of the DAR is a prejudicial question to the issue pending with the referring Court or Office of the Public Prosecutor. No other issue may be adjudicated or determined by the PARO.
AO 03-11 also provides that when the presence of, among others, a previous determination by the DAR that an agrarian reform dispute exists or that the case is agrarian in nature, or the existence of a pending action with the DAR involving the same landholding, automatically gives rise to a prima facie presumption that an agrarian dispute exists or that the case is agrarian in nature.
The Court, however, clarified that the recommendation of the DAR is not automatically conclusive upon the courts because the courts must still assess and determine whether the recommendation is based on and supported by evidence.
The Court likewise acknowledged that the RTC has jurisdiction over criminal cases of qualified theft, in accordance with Batas Pambansa Blg. (BP) 129, or the Judiciary Reorganization Act. However, BP 129 should be interpreted in relation to the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law, as amended.
The Court noted the 2015 case of Ligtas v. People where it ruled that the DARAB’s declaration that an accused is a tenant may negate the finding of guilt beyond reasonable doubt in the crime of theft because “tenants having rights to the harvest cannot be deemed to have taken their own produce.”
Clearly, referral to the DAR is even more imperative in criminal cases because the DAR’s findings vis-a-vis the existence of an agricultural dispute and a tenancy relationship may have an effect on the guilt or innocence of an accused, the Court stressed.
Applying the foregoing, the Court ruled that the requirements for mandatory referral to the DAR have been satisfied in the present case.
Both Bacar and Mercado alleged in their respective motions to quash that, as evinced by the DARAB Decision, their cases involve an agrarian dispute, and that they are tenants de jure of Tan’s landholdings.
The Court added that the DARAB Decision already provides a prima facie presumption that the case involves an agrarian dispute, which must be referred to the DAR.
The Court, however, noted that the proceedings in this case did not strictly follow the procedure under AO 03-11, as follows: (1) the case would immediately be referred to the DAR; (2) the DAR would issue a recommendation following a finding that an agrarian dispute exists; and (3) the court would review the recommendation and dismiss the case accordingly.
Instead, the DARAB already made a determination that an agrarian dispute exists and that Bacar and Mercado are tenants de jure even before the matter could be referred to the DAR.
The foregoing procedure notwithstanding, the Court ruled that referring the case to the DAR would be redundant and would serve no further purpose. “[A] referral to the DAR in this case would unnecessarily prolong litigation, especially when all submissions before this Court are sufficient for the Court to proceed and resolve the case.”
The Court thus resolved to dismiss the criminal cases for qualified theft filed against Bacar and Mercado, holding that the DARAB’s findings that both are tenants de jure in Tan’s landholdings are supported and based on substantial evidence. As tenants de jure, Bacar and Mercado have authority to harvest the produce in Tan’s landholdings, said the Court. (Courtesy of the Supreme Court Public Information Office)
FULL TEXT of G.R. Nos. 226098 and 233817 (Bacar v. People; and Tan v. Mercado, August 23, 2023) at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/226098-233817-roberto-bacar-vs-people-of-the-philippines-and-vicente-tan-vicente-tan-vs-michael-mercado/