Lawyer-client relationship, C3S3 CPRA

Section 3, Canon III

SECTION 3. Lawyer-client relationship. – A lawyer-client relationship is of the highest fiduciary character. As a trust relation, it is essential that the engagement is founded on the confidence reposed by the client on the lawyer. Therefore, a lawyer-client relationship shall arise when the client consciously, voluntarily and in good faith vests a lawyer with the client’s confidence for the purpose of rendering legal services such as providing legal advice or representation, and the lawyer, whether expressly or impliedly, agrees to render such services. (2023 Code of Professional Responsibility and Accountability or CPRA)

1. Lawyer-client relationship

a. When lawyer-client relationship arises

A lawyer-client relationship – arises “when the client consciously, voluntarily and in good faith vests a lawyer with the client’s confidence for the purpose of rendering legal services such as providing legal advice or representation, and the lawyer, whether expressly or impliedly, agrees to render such services.”

The lawyer-client relationship begins from the moment a client seeks the lawyer’s advice upon a legal concern. The seeking may be for consultation on transactions or other legal concerns, or for representation of the client in an actual case in the courts or other fora. From that moment on, the lawyer is bound to respect the relationship and to maintain the trust and confidence of his client. No written agreement is necessary to generate a lawyer-client relationship, but in formalizing it, the lawyer may present a retainer agreement to be considered and agreed to by the client. As with all contracts, the agreement must contain all the terms and conditions agreed upon by the parties. (Diongzon v. Mirano, A.C. No. 2404, August 17, 2016, Per Bersamin, J.)

1) Voluntarily entertains a consultation

A lawyer client relationship is established when a lawyer voluntarily entertains a consultation; regardless of the close relationship between the parties or the absence of a written contract or non-payment of legal fees.  (Sison v. Dumlao, A.C. No. 11959, April 28, 2021, Per Leonen, J.)

2) Regardless of close ties

A lawyer-client relationship is established when lawyers consistently manifest to a person consulting them that they would provide legal representation or assistance, regardless of the close ties between the parties, or the lack of a written contract, or the non-payment of legal fees. Lawyers who later on decide not to represent their client have the duty to inform their client. Failure to do so will be cause for administrative sanction. (Sison v. Dumlao, A.C. No. 11959, April 28, 2021, Per Leonen, J.)

Hadjula v. Madianda, A.C. No. 6711, July 3, 2007, Per Garcia, J.:

• In [the Complaint-Affidavit], complainant alleged that she and [respondent-lawyer] used to be friends as they both worked at the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) whereat respondent was the Chief Legal Officer while she was the Chief Nurse of the Medical, Dental and Nursing Services. Complainant claimed that, sometime in 1998, she approached respondent for some legal advice. Complainant further alleged that, in the course of their conversation which was supposed to be kept confidential, she disclosed personal secrets and produced copies of a marriage contract, a birth certificate and a baptismal certificate, only to be informed later by the respondent that she (respondent) would refer the matter to a lawyer friend. It was malicious, so complainant states, of respondent to have refused handling her case only after she had already heard her secrets.

• Continuing, complainant averred that her friendship with respondent soured after her filing, in the later part of 2000, of criminal and disciplinary actions against the latter. What, per complainant’s account, precipitated the filing was when respondent, then a member of the BFP promotion board, demanded a cellular phone in exchange for the complainant’s promotion.

In her answer, styled as COUNTER-AFFIDAVIT, respondent denied giving legal advice to the complainant and dismissed any suggestion about the existence of a lawyer-client relationship between them. Respondent also stated the observation that the supposed confidential data and sensitive documents adverted to are in fact matters of common knowledge in the BFP.

• As it were, complainant went to respondent, a lawyer who incidentally was also then a friend, to bare what she considered personal secrets and sensitive documents for the purpose of obtaining legal advice and assistance. The moment complainant approached the then receptive respondent to seek legal advice, a veritable lawyer-client relationship evolved between the two. Such relationship imposes upon the lawyer certain restrictions circumscribed by the ethics of the profession. Among the burdens of the relationship is that which enjoins the lawyer, respondent in this instance, to keep inviolate confidential information acquired or revealed during legal consultations. The fact that one is, at the end of the day, not inclined to handle the client’s case is hardly of consequence. Of little moment, too, is the fact that no formal professional engagement follows the consultation. Nor will it make any difference that no contract whatsoever was executed by the parties to memorialize the relationship.

• With the view we take of this case, respondent indeed breached his duty of preserving the confidence of a client. As found by the IBP Investigating Commissioner, the documents shown and the information revealed in confidence to the respondent in the course of the legal consultation in question, were used as bases in the criminal and administrative complaints lodged against the complainant.

• The purpose of the rule of confidentiality is actually to protect the client from possible breach of confidence as a result of a consultation with a lawyer.

• The seriousness of the respondent’s offense notwithstanding, the Court feels that there is room for compassion, absent compelling evidence that the respondent acted with ill-will. Without meaning to condone the error of respondent’s ways, what at bottom is before the Court is two former friends becoming bitter enemies and filing charges and counter-charges against each other using whatever convenient tools and data were readily available. Unfortunately, the personal information respondent gathered from her conversation with complainant became handy in her quest to even the score. At the end of the day, it appears clear to us that respondent was actuated by the urge to retaliate without perhaps realizing that, in the process of giving vent to a negative sentiment, she was violating the rule on confidentiality.

3) Regardless of lack of written contract

[A] written contract or retainer agreement, is not an essential element in the employment of an attorney; a contract may be express or implied. To establish a lawyer-client relationship, it is sufficient that the advice and assistance of an attorney is sought and received in any matter pertinent to his profession, as in this case. Neither is the claim that no payment was received, defeat the existence of the relationship. It is not necessary that any retainer should have been paid, promised, or charged for, to constitute professional employment. (Quitazol v. Capela, En Banc, December 09, 2020, Per Lopez, J.)

Sison v. Dumlao, A.C. No. 11959, April 28, 2021, Per Leonen, J.:

• Sometime in July 2013, Dr. Eusebio D. Sison (Dr. Sison) consulted Atty. Dumlao, his friend, for the purpose of filing an annulment case against his wife, Dr. Cynthia V. Cervantes-Sison (Dr. Cervantes-Sison). He deposited P35,000.00 in Atty. Dumlao’s bank account for the psychiatric evaluation fee.

• Dr. Sison alleged that after nine months, Atty. Dumlao failed to give any updates on the filing of the case. Since Dr. Sison already lost interest in filing the case, he instead wrote a demand letter to Atty. Dumlao for the return of the deposited P35,000.00.3 When Atty. Dumlao refused, Dr. Sison then filed a verified Complaint.

• In her Answer, Atty. Dumlao alleged that she had referred Dr. Sison to Mr. Nhorly Domenden (Mr. Domenden), a psychologist to whom the P35,000.00 was paid on July 29, 2013. Dr. Sison was able to meet and consult with him, and a Psychological Evaluation Report9 was later emailed to him on November 2013.

• Atty. Dumlao alleged that Dr. Cervantes-Sison was her fifth-degree relative by consanguinity and that Dr. Cervantes-Sison’s mother, Celedonia V. Cervantes, approached her and asked her not to handle the case because it would offend the family. This prompted her to decline Dr. Sison’s case due to conflict of interest.

• In a February 16, 2015 Report and Recommendation, Investigating Commissioner Jose Villanueva Cabrera recommended the dismissal of the Complaint since there was no contract to engage in legal services between them and that conflict of interest was a valid ground to decline an engagement. He likewise found that Atty. Dumlao did not profit from Dr. Sison, considering that the amount he paid was indeed used for the preparation of a psychological evaluation.

• A lawyer client relationship is established when a lawyer voluntarily entertains a consultation; regardless of the close relationship between the parties or the absence of a written contract or non-payment of legal fees. Once a lawyer agrees to take up the client’s cause, the lawyer must serve the client with diligence and competence. A lawyer who is negligent in attending to a client’s cause may be grounds for administrative sanction.

• While respondent may later refuse to represent complainant, as in this case when she ws requested by complainant’s mother-in-law to refrain from interfering in complainant’s domestic issues, it was still incumbent upon respondent to inform complainant that she would no longer be able to represent him.

• When complainant asked respondent for an update on his case on February 26, 2014, respondent did not inform him that she would no longer be connected with the case due to conflict of interest, even though she was approached by complainant’s mother-in-law sometime before November 2013. It was only when she filed her Answer before the Integrated Bar of the Philippines that complainant learned of the reason why respondent would not be representing him.

• This Court has stated that “[t]he fact that one is, at the end of the day, not inclined to handle the client’s case is hardly of consequence.” Respondent’s duty as a lawyer compels her to act not only with diligence, but with candor as well. She should have been upfront with complainant once she decided that she would no longer interfere in complainant’s troubles.

4) Regardless of non-payment of legal fees

After agreeing to take up the cause of a client, a lawyer owes fidelity to both cause and client, even if the client never paid any fee for the attorney-client relationship. Lawyering is not a business; it is a profession in which duty to public service, not money, is the primary consideration. (Burbe v. Magulta, A.C. No. 5713, June 10, 2002, Per Panganiban, J.)

Burbe v. Magulta, A.C. No. 5713, June 10, 2002, Per Panganiban, J.:

• [Respondent-lawyer] wants this Court to believe that no lawyer-client relationship existed between him and complainant, because the latter never paid him for services rendered. The former adds that he only drafted the said documents as a personal favor for the kumpadre of one of his partners.

• We disagree. A lawyer-client relationship was established from the very first moment complainant asked respondent for legal advice regarding the former’s business. To constitute professional employment, it is not essential that the client employed the attorney professionally on any previous occasion. It is not necessary that any retainer be paid, promised, or charged; neither is it material that the attorney consulted did not afterward handle the case for which his service had been sought.

• If a person, in respect to business affairs or troubles of any kind, consults a lawyer with a view to obtaining professional advice or assistance, and the attorney voluntarily permits or acquiesces with the consultation, then the professional employment is established.

• Likewise, a lawyer-client relationship exists notwithstanding the close personal relationship between the lawyer and the complainant or the nonpayment of the former’s fees. 8 Hence, despite the fact that complainant was kumpadre of a law partner of respondent, and that respondent dispensed legal advice to complainant as a personal favor to the kumpadre, the lawyer was duty-bound to file the complaint he had agreed to prepare — and had actually prepared — at the soonest possible time, in order to protect the client’s interest. Rule 18.03 of the [old Code of Professional Responsibility] provides that lawyers should not neglect legal matters entrusted to them.

• This Court has likewise constantly held that once lawyers agree to take up the cause of a client, they owe fidelity to such cause and must always be mindful of the trust and confidence reposed in them. They owe entire devotion to the interest of the client, warm zeal in the maintenance and the defense of the client’s rights, and the exertion of their utmost learning and abilities to the end that nothing be taken or withheld from the client, save by the rules of law legally applied.

• Similarly unconvincing is the explanation of respondent that the receipt issued by his office to complainant on January 4, 1999 was erroneous. The IBP Report correctly noted that it was quite incredible for the office personnel of a law firm to be prevailed upon by a client to issue a receipt erroneously indicating payment for something else. Moreover, upon discovering the “mistake” — if indeed it was one — respondent should have immediately taken steps to correct the error. He should have lost no time in calling complainant’s attention to the matter and should have issued another receipt indicating the correct purpose of the payment.

b. Fiduciary character

Under this section, a lawyer-client relationship is characterized as “of the highest fiduciary character.”

[I[n the creation of lawyer-client relationship, there are rules, ethical conduct and duties that breathe life into it, among those, the fiduciary duty to his client which is of a very delicate, exacting and confidential character, requiring a very high degree of fidelity and good faith, that is required by reason of necessity and public interest based on the hypothesis that abstinence from seeking legal advice in a good cause is an evil which is fatal to the administration of justice. (Regala, etc. / ACCRA v. Sandiganbayan, En Banc, G.R. No. 105938. September 20, 1996, Per Kapunan, J.)

[T]he relationship between a lawyer and her client is regarded as highly fiduciary. Between the lawyer and the client, it is the lawyer that has the better knowledge of facts, events, and remedies. While it is true that the client chooses which lawyer to engage, he or she usually does so on the basis of reputation. It is only upon actual engagement that the client discovers the level of diligence, competence, and accountability of the counsel that he or she chooses. In some cases, such as this one, the discovery comes too late. Between the lawyer and the client, therefore, it is the lawyer that should bear the full costs of indifference or negligence. (Ramirez v. Buhayang-Margallo, En Banc, A.C. No. 10537, February 3, 2015, Per Leonen, J.)

b. Confidence reposed by the client

It is essential that the lawyer-client engagement is founded “on the confidence reposed by the client on the lawyer” as a lawyer-client relationship is “a trust relation.”

In modern day perception of the lawyer-client relationship, an attorney is more than a mere agent or servant, because he possesses special powers of trust and confidence reposed on him by his client. A lawyer is also as independent as the judge of the court, thus his powers are entirely different from and superior to those of an ordinary agent. Moreover, an attorney also occupies what may be considered as a “quasi-judicial office” since he is in fact an officer of the Court and exercises his judgment in the choice of courses of action to be taken favorable to his client. (Regala, et al. / ACCRA v. Sandiganbayan, En Banc, G.R. Nos. 105938, 108113, September 20, 1996, Per Kapunan, J.)

A LAWYER OWES FIDELITY to the cause of his client mindful always of the trust and confidence reposed in him. An attorney-at-law must serve his client with competence and diligence at all times, and never neglect a legal matter entrusted to him,3 for it is his sworn duty to delay no man for money or malice and to conduct himself in a proper manner not just to his client, but also to the court, the legal profession and society at large. (ECTHA v. Dioneda, A.C. No. 5162, March 20, 2003, Per Bellosillo, J.)

The relationship between a lawyer and client is strictly personal and highly confidential and fiduciary. In engaging the services of an attorney, the client reposes upon him or her special powers of trust and confidence. The relation is of such delicate, exacting and confidential nature that is required by necessity and public interest. Only then can the public be encouraged to entrust their confidence in lawyers. Thus, the duty of a lawyer to preserve his or her client’s secrets and confidences outlasts the termination of an attorney-client relationship. (Kang Tae Sik v. Tan, A.C. No. 13559, March 13, 2023, Per Lazaro-Javier, J.)

The failure to exercise that degree of vigilance and attention expected of a good father of a family makes such lawyer unworthy of the trust reposed in him by his client and makes him answerable not just to his client but also to the legal profession, the courts and society. (ECTHA v. Dioneda [2003], supra.)


Canon III, 2023 Code of Professional Responsibility

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