The Supreme Court’s New Perspective on an Old Issue

Maria Celia H. Poblador

On Nov. 11, 2020, the Supreme Court promulgated a landmark decision involving the fundamental equality between women and men before the law. In Alanis v. Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court ruled on a legitimate child’s right to use and adopt his mother’s maiden name — a matter which not only allows a legal option for the use of a surname, but also elevates the level of mothers from a legal perspective.

The underlying facts of Alanis are simple and straightforward and do not immediately call to mind issues of patriarchy and discrimination against women. The case stemmed from a petition filed by one Anacleto Ballaho Alanis III, who sought to change the name appearing on his birth certificate to “Abdulhamid Ballaho,” a name using his mother’s maiden name. He alleged that his parents had separated when he was five years old, and that it was his mother who had single-handedly raised him and his siblings. As a result, all of his school records and other government-issued documents indicate his name as “Abdulhamid Ballaho.” He asserted that, under such circumstances, his formal adoption of the name and change in his birth certificate would avoid confusion.

Setting aside the technical aspects of the case, both the trial and appellate courts declined to grant his petition. The trial court in particular held that granting his petition would actually create, rather than avoid, confusion since changing the name appearing on his birth certificate would “trigger much deeper inquiries regarding [his] parentage and/or paternity,” considering his status as a legitimate child of a technically subsisting marriage.

The issue brought before the Supreme Court in Alanis is not a novel one. The Supreme Court has, on more than one occasion, ruled on a legitimate child’s right to use their mother’s maiden name.

In Oshita v. Republic of the Philippines (G.R. No. L-21180, March 31, 1967), the Supreme Court held that the Civil Code provision directing that legitimate children principally use the surname of their father does not preclude their adoption of their mother’s maiden name on the basis of “sufficient reasons” or “proper and reasonable cause.” In Oshita, the reasons found to be sufficient by the Supreme Court were Antonina Oshita’s desire to have a “Filipino” surname to reflect her elected Filipino citizenship and avoid the “embarrassment” of having a Japanese surname when certain post-war prejudices were still prevalent.

In Alfon v. Republic of the Philippines (G.R. No. L-51201, May 29, 1980), the Supreme Court explained that the word “principally” used in the Civil Code provision signifies that legitimate children were not meant to use the surnames of their fathers exclusively. Accordingly, there would be no legal obstacle to a legitimate child’s adoption of their mother’s maiden name, considering they are equally entitled to use the same under law.

Significantly, the Supreme Court found that Maria Estrella Veronica Primitiva Duterte’s long use of her mother’s maiden name, as evidenced by her school records since childhood and other government-issued documents, warranted the change of name sought in order to avoid confusion.

In the more recent case of Wang v. Cebu City Civil Registrar (G.R. No. 159966, March 30, 2005), the Supreme Court refused to allow Julian Lin Carulasan Wang to omit his mother’s maiden name from his registered name. According to Wang, doing so would make his integration into Singaporean society easier, considering that Singapore does not ordinarily use or recognize middle names and “Carulasan” would be too difficult to pronounce for Mandarin-speakers. The Supreme Court considered the grounds invoked by Wang to be insufficient. Further, because Wang had only been a minor at the time of the filing of the petition, the Supreme Court held that he may not have understood or appreciated the value of his mother’s maiden name, and that the change he sought may eventually prejudice him in his rights under law.

These cases show that the Supreme Court has consistently recognized that a legitimate child has a right to use both their father’s and mother’s names, and there is no mandatory rule requiring the exclusive use of their father’s name under law. What sets Alanis apart, however, is how the Supreme Court framed this issue as one involving gender equality and the State’s need to correct cultural norms that tend towards patriarchy.

In Alanis, the Supreme Court based its ruling on the Constitutional guarantee ensuring the fundamental equality of women and men before the law, the state policy underlying the Women in Development and Nation Building Act, the Philippines’ obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the emerging custom under international law against the discrimination of women. The Supreme Court thus based its ruling on the State’s positive duty to “dismantle the existing patriarchy by addressing the culture that supports it.” On this premise, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its ruling in Alfon and held that legitimate children were not meant to use the surnames of their fathers exclusively. According to the Supreme Court, to rule otherwise would have been tantamount to further “encoding” patriarchy into Philippine society, rendering the mother and maternal line invisible in a person’s heritage, and reinforcing antiquated gender roles positioning the father in the public sphere and the mother in the private. Ultimately, the Supreme Court held that the change in name sought by Alanis would result in the avoidance of confusion, following its ruling in Alfon.

While some may view the Supreme Court’s framing of issues in Alanis as an attempt at unwarranted judicial activism, or mere incidental statements without the authority of binding precedent, others may see the same as the Supreme Court breathing new life into our laws to keep pace with changing norms and values on the ground. Only time will tell if this will be an isolated incident in this Supreme Court’s judicial legacy.

This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not offered and does not constitute legal advice or legal opinion.

Maria Celia H. Poblador is an Associate of the Litigation and Dispute Resolution Department of the Angara Abello Concepcion Regala & Cruz Law Offices (ACCRALAW) located at Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City, Metro Manila, Philippines.

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