Loss of right to recover possession of registered land by reason of laches

Aside from finding that petitioners cause of action was barred by prescription, the trial court reinforced its dismissal of the case by holding that the action was likewise barred by laches.

Laches has been defined as the failure or neglect, for an unreasonable and unexplained length of time, to do that which, by exercising due diligence could or should have been done earlier. It is negligence or omission to assert a right within a reasonable time, warranting the presumption that the party entitled to assert his right has either abandoned or declined to assert it.

In a number of cases, the Court has held that an action to recover registered land covered by the Torrens System may not be barred by laches. Laches cannot be set up to resist the enforcement of an imprescriptible legal right. Laches, which is a principle based on equity, may not prevail against a specific provision of law, because equity, which has been defined as justice outside legality, is applied in the absence of and not against statutory law or rules of procedure.

In recent cases,  however, the Court held that while it is true that a Torrens title is indefeasible and imprescriptible, the registered landowner may lose his right to recover possession of his registered property by reason of laches.

Yet, even if we apply the doctrine of laches to registered lands, it would still not bar petitioners claim. It should be stressed that laches is not concerned only with the mere lapse of time. The following elements must be present in order to constitute laches:

(1) conduct on the part of the defendant, or of one under whom he claims, giving rise to the situation of which complaint is made for which the complaint seeks a remedy;
(2) delay in asserting the complainants rights, the complainant having had knowledge or notice, of the defendants conduct and having been afforded an opportunity to institute a suit;
(3) lack of knowledge or notice on the part of the defendant that the complainant would assert the right on which he bases his suit; and
(4) injury or prejudice to the defendant in the event relief is accorded to the complainant, or the suit is not held to be barred.
The Supreme Court notes that the certificate of title in the name of Anacleto Nieto was found in respondents possession but there was no evidence that ownership of the property was transferred to the municipality either through a donation or by expropriation, or that any compensation was paid by respondent for the use of the property. Anacleto allegedly surrendered the certificate of title to respondent upon the belief that the property would be expropriated. Absent any showing that this certificate of title was fraudulently obtained by respondent, it can be presumed that Anacleto voluntarily delivered the same to respondent. Anacletos delivery of the certificate of title to respondent could, therefore, be taken to mean acquiescence to respondents plan to expropriate the property, or a tacit consent to the use of the property pending its expropriation.

The Supreme Court has consistently held that those who occupy the land of another at the latters tolerance or permission, without any contract between them, are necessarily bound by an implied promise that the occupants will vacate the property upon demand. The status of the possessor is analogous to that of a lessee or tenant whose term of lease has expired but whose occupancy continues by tolerance of the owner. In such case, the unlawful deprivation or withholding of possession is to be counted from the date of the demand to vacate. Upon the refusal to vacate the property, the owners cause of action accrues.

In this case, the first element of laches occurred the moment respondent refused to vacate the property, upon petitioners demand, on February 23, 1994. The filing of the complaint on December 28, 1994, after the lapse of a period of only ten months, cannot be considered as unreasonable delay amounting to laches.

Moreover, case law teaches that if the claimants possession of the land is merely tolerated by its lawful owner, the latters right to recover possession is never barred by laches. Even if it be supposed that petitioners were aware of respondents occupation of the property, and regardless of the length of that possession, the lawful owners have a right to demand the return of their property at any time as long as the possession was unauthorized or merely tolerated, if at all.

Furthermore, the doctrine of laches cannot be invoked to defeat justice or to perpetrate fraud and injustice. It is the better rule that courts, under the principle of equity, will not be guided or bound strictly by the statute of limitations or the doctrine of laches when by doing so, manifest wrong or injustice would result.

Finally, the Supreme Court finds that the rentals being prayed for by petitioners are reasonable considering the size and location of the subject property. Accordingly, the award of rentals is warranted. (G.R. No. 150654; December 13, 2007)

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