SC Recalls Judgment of Conviction of Accused After Negligent Lawyer Fails to Appeal

To deprive an accused, who relied in good faith on his or her counsel, the right to appeal is a violation of the right to due process.

Thus ruled the Supreme Court’s Third Division in a Decision, penned by Justice Samuel H. Gaerlan, granting the Petition for Review on Certiorari filed by Rodrigo O. Conche and recalling the Entry of Judgment issued by the Court of Appeals (CA). The Court also directed the CA to give due course to Conche’s appeal and elevate the records of the case for this purpose.

In 2012, the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of ParaƱaque City convicted Conche of violating Republic Act No. 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. Through his counsel de parte, Gutierrez and Trinidad Law Office (GT Law Office), he sought reconsideration but was denied by the RTC.

Conche appealed, but his conviction was sustained by the CA in its Decision dated September 21, 2015, affirming the penalty of life imprisonment and fine of PhP500,000.00.

GT Law Office received a copy of the CA Decision on October 7, 2015, but did not timely file a motion for reconsideration or appeal, which resulted in the Decision becoming final and executory. An Entry of Judgment was thus issued on October 23, 2015 and sent by registered mail to GT Law Office and to Conche, through the Director of the Bureau of Corrections in Muntinlupa City.

Conche and his wife, Donna May L. Conche (Donna), were surprised to receive the Entry of Judgment, given that Atty. Evelyn Gutierrez from GT Law Office promised them that an appeal would be filed to elevate the case to the Supreme Court.

This prompted the Conches to immediately seek legal assistance from BNG Humanitarian Outreach Volunteer Paralegal Services (BNG) to verify the status of their appeal. BNG Chairperson Calixto G. Ballesteros, Jr. then spoke to Atty. Gutierrez who informed him that she appealed Conche’s case. When asked for a copy of the Notice of Appeal, however, Atty. Gutierrez could not provide one.

BNG thus inquired with the CA, which certified, in a letter dated July 15, 2016, that Atty. Gutierrez did not file any appeal or motion for reconsideration of the CA Decision.

Conche then sent a letter to the Office of the Chief Justice (OCJ) for assistance. In response, the OCJ: (1) sent a letter to the CA Fourth Division Clerk of Court to take the appropriate action on Conche’s case; (2) endorsed the case to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) for possible legal assistance; and (3) endorsed the case to the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO).

On November 29, 2016, Atty. Gutierrez filed before the CA a Motion to Withdraw Appearance as Counsel, following BNG’s request. PAO subsequently entered its appearance as Conche’s counsel and filed a Motion to Recall Entry of Judgment and Notice of Appeal. The CA, however, denied the motion on the ground that Conche was also guilty of contributory negligence for the loss of his right to appeal. This prompted Conche to file the present petition before the Supreme Court.

The Court, in granting Conche’s petition, stressed that the accused’s right to be heard, expressly provided in the Constitution, is critical to protecting the right to due process.

Reiterating its previous ruling in Hilario v. People, the Court held that while the right to appeal is merely statutory, it is nevertheless an essential part of our judicial system, and thus must be afforded to every party. “Once [the right to appeal] is granted by law,… its suppression would be a violation of due process, a right guaranteed by the Constitution,” the Court said.

The Court further ruled that even if a judgment had become final executory, it may still be recalled, and the accused afforded the opportunity to be heard by himself/herself and counsel. “This is grounded on the principle that ‘[c]ases should be determined on the merits after full opportunity to all parties for ventilation of their causes and defenses, rather than on technicality or some procedural imperfections… [so] the ends of justice would be served better,’” held the Court.

The Court also clarified that the right of the accused to be heard includes the right to be assisted by “effective counsel,” which, under the Code of Professional Responsibility (CPR), means a lawyer who serves the client with competence and diligence. The Court also underscored the responsibility of lawyers under the CPR not to neglect a legal matter entrusted to them, noting that lawyers shall be liable for any such negligence.

The Court further cited the Canons of Professional Ethics, which requires lawyers of a person accused of crime “to present every defense that the law of the land permits, to the end that no person may be deprived of life or liberty but by due process of law.”

The Court added the while it has been the rule that negligence of counsel binds the client, this rule is not absolute, such as: (1) when the reckless or gross negligence of counsel deprives the client of due process of law; (2) when its application will result in the outright deprivation of the client’s liberty or property; or (3) where the interests of justice so require. The Court also stressed that in these cases, the courts must intervene to accord relief to a party-litigant.

In the present case, the Court found that Atty. Gutierrez’s gross negligence and misrepresentations denied Conche his right to due process, specifically his rights to appeal and to be assisted by effective counsel.

Atty. Gutierrez promised Conche she would appeal the CA ruling that affirmed his conviction but failed to do so. Worse, Atty. Gutierrez misrepresented that she was able to successfully file the Notice of Appeal, all to the prejudice of Conche, said the Court.

On the part of Conche, the Court held that his lawyer’s negligence does not bind him. Conche, a paying client, was a detained prisoner at that time and thus had limited means to monitor his case. It is hence only reasonable to expect Conche to believe Atty. Gutierrez, who handled his case during both the trial stage and his appeal to the CA. The Court thus ruled that Conche cannot be faulted for believing in Atty. Gutierrez’s promise and misrepresentations.

Neither did the Court find Conche guilty of contributory negligence, for he and his wife were very diligent in trying to exhaust all available remedies within their means to revive his appeal. This was evidenced by the Conches’ efforts to confer immediately with BNG, and, in less than a month, send out handwritten letters to the OCJ, the PAO, and the IBP for assistance.

The Court also noted that while it cannot rule on the substantive merits of the case, a cursory perusal of the facts of the case shows there could have been basis for the appeal had it been timely filed. Hence, a review by the Court is warranted “in the fulfillment of its duty to reach a just and proper disposition of this case.” (Courtesy of the Supreme Court Public Information Office)

Full text of G.R. No. 253312 (Conche v. People, March 1, 2023) at: