Right to counsel in administrative cases - G.R. No. 185668

G.R. No. 185668

"x x x.

The circumstances and procedural deficiencies are different in this case. It is worthy to note that the respondent herein had signified her desire to be represented by a counsel during the proceedings before PAGCOR, and even requested to be furnished with documents during the investigations then being conducted by the petitioner. Her requests were evidenced by her counsel's letter[35] dated April 19, 2004 to the PAGCOR's Head of Investigation Unit. Instead of allowing these reasonable requests of the respondent, PAGCOR, in its letter[36] dated April 26, 2004 to the respondent's counsel, replied that her requests deserved scant consideration, and were even premature, due to the following reasons:

The presence of counsel is neither an antecedent nor indispensable element of administrative due process. In Sebastian, Sr. vs. Garchitorena (G.R. No. 114028, October 18, 2000 [343 SCRA 463]), Mr. Justice Sabino R. De Leon Jr. succinctly enunciated the dictum that:

“Entrenched is the rule that the rights provided in Section 12, Article III of the 1987 Constitution may be invoked only when a person is under 'custodial investigation' or is 'in custody investigation.' Custodial investigation has been defined as any questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in a significant way.

“While an investigation conducted by an administrative body may at times be akin to a criminal proceeding, the fact remains that under existing laws, a party in an administrative inquiry may not be assisted by counsel, irrespective of the nature of the charges and of the respondent's capacity to represent himself, and no duty rests on such a body to furnish the person investigated with counsel. x x x

x x x x

Ergo, Manahan's counsel has neither right nor privilege to be furnished with any information gathered during the investigation. Although Ms. Manahan may be advised regarding the technical intricacies akin to the fact in issue, she may not be accompanied or represented by her lawyer during the investigation. This absolute prohibition is consistent with the internal rules and/or customary practice of PAGCOR. Hence, a lawyer stands as a mere bystander or a distant observer during all phases of the investigation process. Needless to say, the witness' refusal to appear before the CIU shall be deemed a waiver of her right to be heard.[37] (emphasis supplied)

Thus, the petitioner did not refute Manahan’s allegation in her Written Statement dated April 26, 2004 that she was not allowed to be assisted by counsel during the scheduled meeting with the CIU on April 23, 2004, when the CIU was to ask her questions and take her statement. This stance of PAGCOR was in clear disregard of the respondent's rights protected under the cited Section 16 of CSC Resolution No. 99-1936. While due process in an agency investigation may be limited as compared to due process in criminal proceedings, where however a statute specifically provides for a procedure and grants particular rights to a party under investigation such as in the investigations of persons covered by the Civil Service Rules, these rights shall not be utterly disregarded, especially so when invoked by the party under investigation, as was Manahan, because these rights already form part of a procedural due process.

The finding that PAGCOR failed to comply with the required procedure is further supported by the fact that in PAGCOR's letter dated April 26, 2004, it explained that the investigation process against the respondent had just commenced.[38] If this were the case, i.e., that the investigation process had just began at that time, then the proceedings conducted by PAGCOR were clearly flawed, since a formal charge can be made only after a finding of prima facie case during investigations. Section 15 of CSC Resolution No. 99-1936 provides as follows:

Section 15. Decision or Resolution After Preliminary Investigation. If a prima facie case is established during the investigation, a formal charge shall be issued by the disciplining authority. A formal investigation shall follow.

In the absence of a prima facie case, the complaint shall be dismissed.

Even the filing by respondent Manahan of a motion for reconsideration of PAGCOR's decision to dismiss her from the service could not have cured the violation of her right to due process. After a clear denial of due process during the investigations, it was only through a decision that sufficiently apprised the respondent of the wrongful acts she supposedly committed and the rules she purportedly violated that Manahan could be able to truly defend herself. PAGCOR's letter dated June 2, 2004 to respondent Manahan on the BOD's decision to dismiss her from the service, again reproduced hereunder for emphasis, failed in this regard:

Please be informed that the Board of Directors in its meeting on June 1, 2004, resolved to dismiss you from the service effective April 16, 2004 due to the following offense:

“Gross neglect of duty; Violations of company rules and regulations; Conduct prejudicial to the best interests of the corporation; and Loss of trust and confidence; Failure to comply with Treasury rules and regulations which resulted in payment of a spurious Fund Transfer amounting to P4.2 Million last April 14, 2004.”[39]

While a liberal construction of administrative rules of procedure is allowed and applied in some cases, this is resorted to when it can promote their objective and aid the parties in reaching a just, speedy and inexpensive determination of their respective claims and defenses.[40] Without proper investigation and, thereafter, a decision that clearly indicated the facts constituting the offense imputed upon the respondent and the company rules she supposedly violated, the respondent did not get the chance to sufficiently defend herself; and more importantly, the petitioner, the CSC and the courts could not have had the chance to reasonably ascertain the truth which the CSC rules aim to accomplish.

This Court shall not delve into the sufficiency of grounds to justify the private respondent's dismissal from the service, as the said issue is among those for determination by PAGCOR following the remand of the case.
x x x."
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