By Rey Panaligan
Can a government official or employee or a police officer or even a private individual be held criminally, civilly or administratively liable when he or she intervenes, within the scope of the law, to ensure the safety of victims in cases involving violence against women and children?
There will be no liability, said the Court of Appeals (CA), in a decision promulgated on November 15 and written by Associate Justice Gabriel T. Ingles who is based in Cebu City.
In its decision, the CA pointed out a provision in Section 34 of Republic Act No. 9262, the Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004.
It states that “in every case of violence against women and their children… any person, private individual or police authority or barangay official who, acting in accordance with law, responds or intervenes without using violence or restraint greater than necessary to ensure the safety of the victim, shall not be liable for any criminal, civil or administrative liability….”
Since two minor children are involved in the case, the Manila Bulletin decided not to print the true names of the parents to safeguard the identity of their children.
Case records showed that in 2008, May Joy, the estranged wife of Albert, wrote a letter to then Secretary Esperanza Cabral of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to seek assistance in notifying the Bureau of Immigration (BI), the airports, and sea ports to stop the departure from the country of her husband and their two minor children.
Mary Joy confessed that she and her children fled from their conjugal home because of the “violence and philandering“ of her husband for which she was able to obtain a temporary protection order (TPO) from the court.
Her lawyer also sent a letter to Secretary Cabral to cite the urgency of the request.
The two letters were forwarded by Cabral to lawyer Sally Escutin, who was then Director IV of the DSWD’s legal service. Escutin advised Mary Joy to seek redress from the courts on the custody of the children. Mary Joy said the threat that her estranged husband would take their children abroad “was imminent.”
Escutin forwarded Mary Joy’s letter to the BI stating that “please be informed that (Mary Joy) does not consent to the taking of her children outside the country for fear that her children will not return and that they will be used to force her to reconcile with the husband.” Mary Joy’s letter was attached.
On Dec. 24, 2009, Albert and his two minor children and their nannies were about to board their flight from Manila to Hongkong when BI officers at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport stopped the children from leaving because of the Watch List Order (WLO) issued by BI Commissioner Marcelino Libanan on the children.
Albert claimed he lost P259,541 in the costs of airline tickets and other expenses when the departure was aborted.
When he learned that it was Escutin who “authored” the placement of his children under WLO, he wrote a letter requesting the DSWD official to reconsider the issuance of the order.
On Albert’s insistence, Escutin was persuaded to recommend the lifting of the WLO since May Joy failed to present to the DSWD the documents to show that she (Mary Joy) had sought appropriate legal remedies on the custody of the children.
Despite this, Albert filed a complaint for damages against Escutin on Sept. 21, 2010 before the regional trial court (RTC) claiming the DSWD official failed to exercise due process in recommending the issuance of WLO against her children and that her action caused him damages.
On March 6, 2017, the trial court dismissed Albert’s complaint “for lack of merit.”
Albert elevated the issue before the CA in Cebu City claiming, among other things, that Escutin violated his children’s right to travel.
The CA dismissed Albert’s petition as it affirmed the trial court’s order.
It said Escutin cannot be held liable for damages because the DSWD official merely referred Mary Joy’s letter to the BI without any recommendation that the children be placed on WLO.
“Writing a referral letter is part and parcel of defendant-appellee’s (Escutin) official duties as head of the legal services department of the DSWD in the face Mary Joy’s distraught request for assistance,” it said.
“Given the circumstances of the case, and the set of facts that were presented to the defendant-appellee when Mary Joy and counsel sought the DSWD’s assistance, defendant-appellee had in fact acted with prudence and restraint in referring Mary Joy’s request to the BI,” it stressed.
The CA pointed out that before and at the time of the controversy on the WLO, Albert and Mary Joy were engaged in a bitter court battle on the issuance of a permanent protection order (PPO).
It cited records that when the trial court granted Albert’s motion to dismiss the issuance of PPO, Mary Joy elevated the case to the CA which reversed the trial court and directed the immediate resolution of the issue on its merits.
It then pointed out the provision of Section 34 of RA 9262, the law on the anti-violence against women and children “on persons intervening exempt from liability.”
Finally, the CA pointed out that Albert’s allegation on the violation of his children’s right to travel “fails to persuade this Court because appellant (Albert) is arguing as if in a vacuum, totally disregarding the factual nuances of this case particularly the fact that the two minors are caught in the crossfire of their parents’ bitter litigation against each other.”
“Moreover, as correctly ruled by the trial court, the impairment of one’s right to travel is not among the violations enumerated under Article 32 of the Civil Code,” it said.
“In sum, we find no cogent reason to reverse the trial court’s studied decision in this case,” it ruled.
The decision was concurred in by Associate Justices Edward B. Contreras and Dorothy Montejo Gonzaga.