SECTION 4. Standard of service. -A lawyer shall observe the same standard of service for all clients, regardless of remuneration, except for the higher standard required for representation of vulnerable persons. (2023 Code of Professional Responsibility and Accountability or CPRA)
Under this section, lawyers are required to “observe the same standard of service for all clients, regardless of remuneration.”
[L]awyers are duty-bound to maintain at all times a high standard of legal proficiency, morality, honesty, integrity, and fair dealing. If the lawyer falls short of this standard, the Court will not hesitate to discipline the lawyer by imposing an appropriate penalty based on the exercise of sound judicial discretion. (De Borja v. Mendez, Jr., A.C. No. 11185, July 04, 2018, Per Peralta, J.)
The relationship between an attorney and his client is one imbued with utmost trust and confidence. In this light, clients are led to expect that lawyers would be ever-mindful of their cause and accordingly exercise the required degree of diligence in handling their affairs. Verily, a lawyer is expected to maintain at all times a high standard of legal proficiency, and to devote his full attention, skill, and competence to the case, regardless of its importance and whether he accepts it for a fee or for free. (Vda. De Saldivar v. Cabanes, Jr., A.C. No. 7749, July 08, 2013, Per Perlas-Bernabe, J.)
The practice of law is a privilege bestowed on those who show that they possessed and continue to possess the legal qualifications for it. Indeed, lawyers are expected to maintain at all times a high standard of legal proficiency and morality, including honesty, integrity and fair dealing. They must perform their fourfold duty to society, the legal profession, the courts and their clients, in accordance with the values and norms of the legal profession as embodied in the Code of Professional Responsibility [now the CPRA]. (Lijauco v. Terrado, A.C. No. 6317, August 31, 2006, Per Ynares-Santiago, J.)
Clients are led to expect that lawyers would always be mindful of their cause and, accordingly, exercise the required degree of diligence in handling their affairs. On the other hand, the lawyer is expected to maintain, at all times, a high standard of legal proficiency, and to devote his full attention, skill, and competence to the case, regardless of its importance and whether or not he accepts it for a fee. To this end, he is enjoined to employ only fair and honest means to attain lawful objectives. (Padilla v. Samson, A.C. No. 10253, August 22, 2017, Per Peralta, J.)
De Borja v. Mendez, Jr., A.C. No. 11185, July 04, 2018, Per Peralta, J.:
• In the instant case, Atty. Mendez’ guilt as to his failure to do his duty to his client is undisputed. His conduct relative to the non-filing of the appellant’s brief falls below the standards exacted upon lawyers on dedication and commitment to their client’s cause. An attorney is bound to protect his clients’ interest to the best of his ability and with utmost diligence. Failure to file the brief within the reglementary period despite notice certainly constitutes inexcusable negligence, more so if the failure resulted in the dismissal of the appeal, as in this case.
Manalang v. Buendia, En Banc, A.C. No. 12079, November 10, 2020, Per Curiam:
• Sometime in 2011, Manalang engaged the services of Atty. Buendia for the declaration of nullity of his marriage. Atty. Buendia told Manalang that the proceeding usually lasts from one (1) to two (2) years, but with her services, it can be hastened to six (6) months to one (1) year. Manalang hesitated at first, but Atty. Buendia assured him that everything was legal. Thus, an agreement was made where Manalang would pay legal fees amounting to ₱275,000.00 plus documentation and out of pocket expenses.
• On two (2) separate dates, Manalang paid ₱10,000.00 and ₱15,000.00, for the full payment of the acceptance fee. He also made a partial payment, for the proceedings amounting to ₱120,000.00. On another date, Manalang met with Atty. Buendia in Chowking at San Juan to pay ₱30,000.00 representing legal fees.
• When Manalang followed up on the status of the case sometime in April 2012, Atty. Buendia assured him that everything was going smoothly. At that time, Manalang manifested that if there were problems in expediting the resolution of the case, he was willing to go through the usual process even if it takes longer. However, Atty. Buendia replied: “Ed, hindi na pwede kasi magbabayad na naman ikaw niyan. Di bale maiksing panahon na lang naman, matatapos na din.” She then told him to put his trust and confidence in her.
• From June to September 2012 Manalang tried to contact Atty. Buendia to follow-up his case but she never answered his calls. Manalang also visited Atty. Buendia’s office three times but she was always unavailable.
• On September 7, 2012, Atty. Buendia eventually agreed to meet Manalang in the office of one Atty. Neil Salazar (Atty. Salazar) located along Visayas Avenue. During the meeting, Manalang learned from Atty. Buendia that Atty. Salazar was actually the one handling his case. He also found out that his case was filed in Ballesteros, Cagayan. Atty. Buendia explained that she and Atty. Salazar knew someone in Cagayan who can help them, and that they will get results by November 6, 2012. She also promised that she will update Manalang within 15 days, but never did.
• Manalang tried to contact Atty. Buendia from September 22, 2012 to April 2013, to no avail. It was only on April 15, 2013 that Atty. Buendia messaged Manalang to say the annulment case was finally resolved and the decision was already available. However, Manalang remained doubtful of his case being filed because he was never furnished a copy of the decision.
• On April 28, 2013, Manalang met Atty. Buendia in her office in Kamuning and asked for a copy of the decision. Atty. Buendia initially refused, but when Manalang insisted, she hesitatingly gave him a copy of a decision rendered by the 33rd Branch of the Regional Trial Court in Ballesteros, Cagayan dated December 28, 2011.
• The caption in the decision said that the case is for “Declaration of Nullity” entitled “Eduardo B. Manalang, Petitioner versus Rosa Brutas-Manalang” docketed as “Civil Case No. 33-268-2010.” Atty. Buendia also gave Manalang a copy of a Certificate of Finality dated February 17, 2012, from the same court.
• Afterwards, Atty. Buendia demanded ₱ 50,000.00 for processing the registration of the nullity with the National Statistics Office, an amount which Manalang deposited to Atty. Buendia’s BPI Account on May 10, 2013. By that time, Manalang already paid a total of ₱ 225,000.00.
• When Manalang inspected the decision, he observed that it contained fabricated details regarding his marriage, such as physical violence allegedly inflicted on him. He also noticed that the facts therein were different from what he had narrated to Atty. Buendia. These made him doubt the veracity of the documents.
• Manalang then contacted Atty. Buendia to clarify the discrepancies in the decision. He made at least 50 phone calls and 40 text messages to Atty. Buendia from May 2013 to January 2014, but she never responded. Manalang also visited Atty. Buendia’s office in Kamuning four (4) times, but she never showed up.
• This made Manalang grow even more suspicious which is why he took it upon himself to go to Ballesteros, Cagayan to find out the status of his case. There, he learned that there was “absolutely no case filed for the dissolution of [his] marriage.” As soon as he found out, he contacted Atty. Buendia but she never responded.
• On June 27, 2014, Manalang filed a Complaint14 against Atty. Buendia before the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.
• In her Answer, Atty. Buendia said that she has never handled a nullity case before and for this reason, she referred Manalang to Atty. Neil Tabbu (Atty. Tabbu). She claimed that Manalang insisted on not appearing in the proceedings-something she did not take seriously as she advised Manalang to talk to Atty. Tabbu instead.
• Atty. Buendia also alleged that she only agreed to be an intermediary between Manalang and Atty. Tabbu who practices in Cagayan. She said they also agreed that Atty. Tabbu will handle the case for ₱ 275,000.00.
• Atty. Buendia admitted to receiving the following payments: (a) ₱ 10,000.00 and ₱ 15,000.00 acceptance fees; (b) ₱120,000.00 partial payment for nullity proceedings; and (c) ₱ 30,000.00 legal fees. However, she claimed she only received these as an intermediary and not as the lawyer of Manalang.
• Further, Atty. Buendia averred that she updated Manalang of the status of his case, but only as relayed to her by Atty. Tabbu. As to Manalang’s allegation that no case was filed, Atty. Buendia stated that she has no knowledge as to the truthfulness of this claim. She further asserted that Manalang long knew that a different lawyer was handling the case.
• She also disavowed giving a copy of the decision, and the Certificate of Finality to Manalang. Further, she denied demanding an additional P50,000.00 for the registration of the nullity in the National Statistics Office. She averred that no payments accrued to her as the amount formed part of the payment for Atty. Tabbu and it was deposited in her account only because she agreed to be an intermediary.
• Here, it is clear that respondent violated her sworn duties under the Lawyer’s Oath and the Code of Professional Responsibility when she deliberately misled and deceived her client by fabricating a court decision.
• Respondent denies that she was engaged as counsel for complainant’s nullity case and alleges she only acted as an intermediary. Yet, respondent failed to present any evidence to support her argument that it was indeed Atty. Tabbu whose services were engaged.
• As to the payment for the services, respondent argues that she only received such payments, again, as an intermediary. However, the acknowledgement receipts did not show that she received them on behalf of Atty. Tabbu. Moreover, respondent never rebutted the assertion of complainant that no nullity case was filed yet she claims to have updated complainant on its status as relayed by Atty. Tabbu.
• Verily, respondent handled the case of complainant. Her denials, assertions, and inconsistencies failed to support her case and overcome the substantial evidence presented against her which shows how she failed to uphold the duties required from a lawyer.
• For her failure to uphold the standards required in the legal profession, respondent no longer deserves to be a member of the bar. Not only did she fail to observe the duties of competence and diligence required from lawyers, she also continuously deceived her client in utter disregard of the duties and obligations required from a member of the legal profession.
• WHEREFORE, this Court finds respondent Atty. Cristina Benosa Buendia GUILTY of violating Canon 1, Rules 1.01 and 1.02 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. She is hereby DISBARRED from the practice of law and her name stricken from the Roll of Attorneys. Respondent is ORDERED to return to complainant Eduardo B. Manalang, within 30 days from notice, the sum of ₱270,000.00 with an interest at the rate of six percent (6%) per annum from the date of the promulgation of this Resolution until fully paid. Respondent is further DIRECTED to submit to this Court proof of her payment within 10 days therefrom.
The above duty on same standard of service is subject to this exception: “except for the higher standard required for representation of vulnerable persons.”