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Termination of engagement upon death, C3S55 CPRA

Section 55, Canon III

SECTION 55. Termination of engagement upon death. – The death of the lawyer or client shall terminate the lawyer-client relationship. The death of such lawyer shall not extinguish the lawyer­ client engagement between the law firm and the client handled by such law firm. (2023 Code of Professional Responsibility and Accountability or CPRA)

1. Termination of engagement upon death

a. Death of a lawyer or client

Under this section, the death of a lawyer or client results in the termination of the lawyer-client relationship.

1) Death of a lawyer

If a lawyer dies, and he/she does not belong to a law firm partnership, it is incumbent upon the client to duly notify the court of this circumstance.

2) Death of a client

Under the rules, it is the duty of the attorney for the deceased defendant to inform the court of his client’s death and to furnish the court with the names and residences of the executor, administrator, or legal representative of the deceased. (Regoso v. CA, G.R. No. 91879, July 6, 1992, Per Griño-Aquino, J.)

The rules operate on the presumption that the attorney for the deceased party is in a better position than the attorney for the adverse party to know about the death of his client and to inform the court of the names and addresses of his legal representative or representatives. (Regoso v. CA [1992], supra.)

Regoso v. CA, G.R. No. 91879, July 6, 1992, Per Griño-Aquino, J.:

• In the case at bar, no such notice of death, nor a motion for substitution of the deceased defendant, was ever made. Hence, the trial court could not be expected to know or take judicial notice of the death of defendant, Maximo Regoso, without the proper manifestation from his counsel. It must be remembered that the fault or negligence was Attorney Javier’s alone.

• The supervening death of the defendant, Maximo Regoso, did not extinguish his wife’s action for partition of their conjugal assets, for it is an action that survives. The trial of the case on the merits was already finished before the defendant died. Since it was not informed about that event, the trial court may not be faulted for proceeding to render judgment without ordering the substitution of the deceased defendant. Its judgment is valid and binding upon the defendant’s legal representatives or successors-in-interest, insofar as his interest in the property subject of the action is concerned…

• Attorney Javier’s appeal from the decision of the trial court was correctly dismissed by the appellate court for upon the death of Maximo Regoso, Attorney Javier’s authority to represent him also expired. Then notice of appeal, which Attorney Javier filed on behalf of the decedent was an unauthorized pleading, hence, invalid…

• However, the validity of the judgment of the trial court was not affected by the defendant’s demise for the action survived. The decision is binding and enforceable against the successors-in-interest of the deceased litigant by title subsequent to the commencement of the action…

a) Substitution

[A] deceased party may be substituted by his heirs, but it must be emphasized that substitution may only be allowed in actions that survive the death of a party thereto… [T]he determination of whether an action survives the death of a party depends on the nature of the action and the damage sued for. (Torres v. Rodellas, G.R. No. 177836, September 4, 2009, Per Chico-Nazario, J.)

In the causes of action which survive the wrong complained affects primarily and principally property and property rights, the injuries to the person being merely incidental, while in the causes of action which do not survive the injury complained of is to the person, the property and rights of property affected being incidental. (Bonilla v. Barcena, G.R. No. L-41715, June 18, 1976, Per Martin, J.)

b. Law firm and the client

However, if the engagement is between a law firm and a client, the death of the handling lawyers does not result in the extinguishment of the lawyer-client engagement between the law firm and the client.

Amatorio v. People, G.R. No. 150453, February 14, 2003, Per Azcuna, J.:

• It is also established that Atty. Barrera was part of a law firm and had other partners who could have taken over his cases or settled his professional affairs after he died. The allegation that his partners formed their own law offices after he died, deserves scant consideration. We reiterate that it is not the duty of the courts to inquire during the progress of a case whether the partnership continues to exist lawfully, or whether the partners are still alive or its associates are still connected with the firm.

Bernardo v. CA, G.R. No. 106153, July 14, 1997, Per Panganiban, J.:

• Did the trial court deny due process to the petitioner by its refusal to grant new trial and/or to reopen the case in spite of the fact that the defendant was unable to participate and to present his evidence due to the death of the handling lawyer of the law firm representing him and the failure of the new attorney to follow the rules on substitution of counsel?

• Under Section 26, Rule 138 of the Rules of Court and established jurisprudence, a valid substitution of counsel has the following requirements: (1) the filing of a written application for substitution; (2) the clients written consent; (3) the consent of the substituted lawyer if such consent can be obtained; and, in case such written consent cannot be procured, (4) a proof of service of notice of such motion on the attorney to be substituted in the manner required by the Rules. Where death of the previous attorney is the cause of substitution of the counsel, a verified proof of the death of such attorney (usually a death certificate) must accompany the notice of appearance of the new counsel.

• Clearly, petitioner failed to comply with the above requirements. His new counsels notice of appearance merely mentioned that Atty. Jose B. Puerto recently died. A verified certificate of death was not attached thereto. It has been held that courts may not presume that the counsel of record has been substituted by a second counsel merely from the filing of a formal appearance by the latter.

• In any event, mere mention of the death of Atty. Puerto was of no moment for it was the law firm of Puerto Nuez & Associates, — not merely Atty. Jose Puerto — which was the legal representative of petitioner. The death of said attorney did not extinguish the lawyer-client relationship between the firm and Bernardo.

• This Court is not unmindful of the belated attestation of the former secretary of said law office that the other partner, Dr. Constantino Nuez, allegedly died even before 1986; that two associates ceased to be connected with the firm since 1989; while a third associate, Atty. Jose Acejas predeceased Atty. Puerto in March 1990, thereby leaving Atty. Puerto as the only lawyer in the office. But, obviously, it was petitioners former counsel who misled the trial court into believing that Puerto Nuez and Associates, a law firm consisting of more than one lawyer, continued to legally represent Bernardo. Courts may presume that a law firm that represented itself as such, with at least two name partners and more than one associate is composed of at least three lawyers. It is not the duty of the courts to inquire during the progress of a case whether the partnership continues to exist lawfully, or the partners are still alive or its associates are still connected with the firm.

• Jurisprudence teems with pronouncements that a client is bound by the conduct, negligence and mistakes of his counsel. Only when the counsels actuations are gross or palpable, resulting in serious injustice to the client, that the courts should accord relief to the party. A thorough review of the instant case reveals that the negligence of the law firm engaged by the petitioner to defend his cause, and the error of his new counsel in giving a defective substitution and notice of the death of his former counsel, did not result in deprivation of due process to said party. Hence, a nullification of the Respondent Courts Amended Decision grounded on grave abuse of discretion is not warranted.

References

Canon III, 2023 Code of Professional Responsibility

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