In a significant legal development, the Supreme Court established guidelines for private complainants seeking to appeal judgments and orders in criminal proceedings. The decision, written by Justice Mario V. Lopez, denied a petition filed by Mamerto Austria challenging a Court of Appeals (“CA”) ruling that overturned his acquittal on criminal charges of acts of lasciviousness. The Supreme Court reviewed existing laws and rulings regarding the legal personality of private complainants in criminal proceedings.
In the said case, the Supreme Court first discussed that in any criminal case or proceeding, only the Office of the Solicitor General (“OSG”) has the authority to bring or defend actions on behalf of the Republic of the Philippines or represent the People or the State before the Supreme Court and the CA. This is stated in Section 35 (1), Chapter 12, Title III, Book III of the 1987 Administrative Code of the Philippines.
The reason for this rule is that in a criminal case, the State is the party affected by the dismissal of the criminal action, not the private complainant. The private complainant’s interest is limited to the civil liability of the accused. The private complainant’s role is mainly that of a witness for the prosecution, so if a criminal case is dismissed or results in an acquittal, only the State, through the OSG, can appeal the criminal aspect of the case.
However, the Supreme Court also acknowledged that there have been divergent rulings in the past that paved the way for private complainants to question judgments and orders in criminal proceedings even without the involvement of the OSG.
The Supreme Court has recognized that private complainants have legal standing to challenge the acquittal of the accused or the dismissal of a criminal case equivalent to an acquittal. They can do this by filing a Petition for Certiorari under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court based on grave abuse of discretion or denial of due process. Thus, in People v. Judge Santiago, 255 Phil. 851 (1989), the Supreme Court ruled that the victim can avail of the remedy of certiorari to question the validity of acquittal, since there was no doubt that the acquittal of the accused is a nullity for want of due process.
The Supreme Court also recognized that private complainants have the right to appeal or file a Petition for Certiorari to question decisions and orders that dismiss a criminal action which is not necessarily an acquittal. This includes cases where the criminal charges are dismissed due to lack of probable cause, improper venue, or insufficiency of information. This was applied in Perez v. Hagonoy Rural Bank, Inc., 384 Phil. 322 (2000).
In Morillo v. People, 775 Phil. 192 (2015), the Supreme Court allowed the private complainant to appeal the dismissal of criminal cases without the involvement of the OSG. This decision was based on the unique circumstances of the case and in the interest of substantial justice. In this particular case, both the Regional Trial Court and the Metropolitan Trial Court had convicted the accused. However, the CA dismissed the cases without prejudice due to improper venue. The private complainant then filed a Petition for Review on Certiorari under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court. The OSG, in turn, agreed with the CA’s position that the venue was improperly laid. The Supreme Court explained that, as a general rule, a judgment of acquittal can be challenged through a Petition for Certiorari under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court. Thus, a Petition for Review on Certiorari under Rule 45, not under Rule 65, and not filed by the OSG, should be summarily dismissed. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the circumstances warranted its consideration. In the interest of substantial justice, the Supreme Court concluded that it should give due course to the petition and rule on its merits. The unique circumstances of the case left the petitioner with no other suitable recourse but to appeal on her own. Not only was there a lack of support from the OSG, but the government office also took a position that contradicted the rights and interests of the petitioner.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court had also recognized that private complainants could question interlocutory orders in criminal proceedings that do not involve the acquittal of the accused or dismissal of the case. Examples of such orders are those that suspend the criminal case due to a prejudicial question, give due course to a notice of appeal, or grant bail. This was applied in the case of Rodriguez v. Gadiane, 527 Phil. 691 (2006), where the Supreme Court ruled that if the criminal case is dismissed by the trial court, or if there is an acquittal, the appeal on the criminal aspect of the case must be instituted by the Solicitor General on behalf of the State. The capability of the private complainant to question such dismissal or acquittal is limited only to the civil aspect of the case. However, if the order which the petitioner seeks to assail is not one dismissing the case or acquitting respondents, there is no limitation to the capacity of the private complainant to seek judicial review of the assailed order.
Finally, in the case of Austria v. AAA and BBB, G.R. No. 205275, decided on 28 June 2022 and published on 4 February 2023, the Supreme Court clarified that these divergent rulings cannot be interpreted as a blanket grant of legal personality to private complainants to question judgments and orders in criminal proceedings on grounds of grave abuse of discretion or denial of due process. The Supreme Court emphasized that the People, through the OSG, has a legal interest over the criminal aspect of the proceedings, whereas the private complainant has a legal interest over the civil aspect of the case. Case law allowing private complainants to question judgments and orders in criminal proceedings should not be stretched to the degree of violating the mandate of the Administrative Code as to the nature and extent of the OSG’s power and authority.
Thus, the Supreme Court formulated the following guidelines to harmonize case law and ensure clarity on the legal standing of private complainants in questioning judgments or orders in criminal proceedings before the Supreme Court and the CA:
The private complainant has the legal personality to appeal the civil liability of the accused or file a petition for certiorari to preserve his or her interest in the civil aspect of the criminal case. The appeal or petition for certiorari must allege the specific pecuniary interest of the private offended party. The failure to comply with this requirement may result in the denial or dismissal of the remedy.
The reviewing court shall require the OSG to file a comment within a non-extendible period of thirty (30) days from notice if it appears that the resolution of the private complainant’s appeal or petition for certiorari will necessarily affect the criminal aspect of the case or the right to prosecute (i.e., existence of probable cause, venue or territorial jurisdiction, elements of the offense, prescription, admissibility of evidence, identity of the perpetrator of the crime, modification of penalty, and other questions that will require a review of the substantive merits of the criminal proceedings, or the nullification/reversal of the entire ruling, or cause the reinstatement of the criminal action or meddle with the prosecution of the offense, among other things).The comment of the OSG must state whether it conforms or concurs with the remedy of the private offended party. The judgment or order of the reviewing court granting the private complainant’s relief may be set aside if rendered without affording the People, through the OSG, the opportunity to file a comment.
The private complainant has no legal personality to appeal or file a petition for certiorari to question the judgments or orders involving the criminal aspect of the case or the right to prosecute, unless made with the OSG’s conformity.
The private complainant must request the OSG’s conformity within the reglementary period to appeal or file a petition for certiorari. The private complainant must attach the original copy of the OSG’s conformity as proof in case the request is granted within the reglementary period. Otherwise, the private complainant must allege in the appeal or petition for certiorari the fact of pendency of the request. If the OSG denied the request for conformity, the Court shall dismiss the appeal or petition for certiorari for lack of legal personality of the private complainant.
The reviewing court shall require the OSG to file a comment within a non-extendible period of thirty (30) days from notice on the private complainant’s petition for certiorari questioning the acquittal of the accused, the dismissal of the criminal case, and the interlocutory orders in criminal proceedings on the ground of grave abuse of discretion or denial of due process.
These guidelines shall be prospective in application.
With these new guidelines, the Supreme Court has struck a delicate balance between the powers of the OSG and the rightful participation of private complainants in the pursuit of justice. This recent clarification serves to further reinforce the existing clarity on the matter, emphasizing that private complainants must seek the OSG’s conformity to appeal or file a Petition for Certiorari.
As these guidelines are set to be applied prospectively, they mark a turning point in our legal system, providing a clearer framework for private complainants to navigate the complex terrain of criminal proceedings.
This article is for general information and educational purposes only and not offered as legal advice or opinion.
Erin Candice P. Canceko is an associate of the Litigation and Dispute Resolution Department of the Angara Abello Concepcion Regala & Cruz Law Offices (ACCRALAW).