A LAW EACH DAY (KEEPS TROUBLE AWAY) - Jose C. Sison - The Philippine Star

This is a case involving a public land acquired by private individuals through a grant of free patent. The core issues raised and resolved here are: (1) if two parties are claiming ownership or possession de jure of said land, can regular courts conclusively resolve the conflicting claims of ownership? (2) If said land has already been registered in the name of a private owner and another person is illegally occupying it, will the owner’s right to recover possession be barred by laches or inaction for long lapse of time or by prescription. These are the two major issues resolved in the case of brother and sister, Lino and Lina, who is married to Romy with whom she had two legitimate children Nina and Jenny.

Lino and Lina are the legitimate children of Alex who, during his lifetime, possessed two parcels of public land designated as Lot 9652 and Lot 6251 with a combined area of 172,000 square meters. Later on, Alex transferred his possessory rights over said lots in favor of Lina. So upon the death of Alex 25 years later, the government granted free patents covering said lots in favor of Lina and her family on the basis of the document signed by her father Alex transferring the possessory rights to her. Consequently, the Register of Deeds issued Original Certificates of Title (OCTs) Nos. 16750, 17590 in the names of Lina; OCT 17591 in the name of her daughter Nina; and OCT 17592 in the name of Jenny.

Sometime after the issuance of said titles, Lino filed a protest before the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), claiming that his father Alex transferred possession of said lots to him and he had been in possession since that time. On the other hand, Lina and her daughters filed an unlawful detainer case against Lino before the Municipal Trial Court (MCTC) of the province where the land is situated. About a year after the filing of the case, the MCTC dismissed Lina’s ejectment case without prejudice, because of the pending protest of Lino before the DENR. This dismissal was affirmed by the Regional Trial Court (RTC) without prejudice to the filing of the proper action before the proper forum.

Soon after, the DENR dismissed Lino’s protest after finding that Lina and her daughters had met all the requirements for a public land grant. The DENR upheld the validity of the grant of patents to Lina and her daughters. Lino did not appeal the DENR’s dismissal of his protest.

Subsequently, Lina and her family filed another action against Lino with the RTC for Recovery of Possession and damages. On the other hand, Lino also filed a complaint against Lina’s family for Re-conveyance of Title and Damages. The two cases were consolidated and jointly heard by the RTC.

Lina testified to prove her case by narrating the transfer to her of the possessory rights over the lands, which was the basis of the grant of free patents and the titles. Lino, on the other hand, claimed that the lands were also transferred to him by his father and he asked Lina for assistance to cause the titling of the property in his name but Lina took advantage of his lack of education and fraudulently acquired free patents. He also testified that the transfer of rights in favor of Lina was a forgery. After the presentation of the testimonial evidence, Lino was given several opportunities to make a Formal Offer of his documentary evidence but failed to do so. The RTC then ruled that the transfer of right and the subsequent issuance of free patents to Lina and her daughters were valid as there was no clear and convincing evidence to substantiate Lino’s claim of forgery.

However, the RTC also ruled that Lina’s family was no longer entitled to recover possession due to inaction for a long period of time against Lino, who was able to introduce several improvements on the subject lots such as the construction of his house, planting of several fruit bearing trees and getting all the harvests. On appeal to the Court of Appeals (CA), this ruling was reversed and set aside as it validated the OCTs in the name of Lina’s family and ordered Lino to surrender possession of the subject lot.

On review by the Supreme Court (SC) upon petition of Lino, the CA decision was affirmed. The SC ruled that a free patent like the one issued to Lina is an instrument by which the government conveys a grant of public land to a private person. Pursuant to the Administrative Code and the Public Land Act, the DENR has exclusive jurisdiction over the management and disposition of public lands unless said land has attained a private character, which Lino failed to prove. For public land to attain private character by operation of law, the applicant must have openly, continuously and notoriously possessed and occupied said land in the concept of an owner since June 12, 1945. Lino’s failure to prove the private character of said land divests the regular courts of jurisdiction to resolve his claim of ownership thereon.

The CA is also correct in ruling that Lina’s right to recover possession of the property had not been barred by laches. As registered owners of the subject properties, Lina and her daughters have the imprescriptible right to recover possession thereof from the person illegally occupying it. Prescription and laches cannot apply to land registered under the Torrens system. No title to registered land shall be acquired by prescription or adverse possession in derogation of the registered owners (De Leon vs. De Leon et.al., G.R. 205711, May 30, 2016).

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