What does it mean when the LCR certifies a document as ‘missing’?

By Atty. Eduardo T. Reyes III

Entering its third year the prognosis on the pandemic is still gloomy.

While the Omicron strain of Covid-19 had been said to be less severe, its high transmissibility rate makes it deadlier in terms of locking down the economy. Like a weary refrain, local government units in the country are poised to impose stricter measures which necessarily include the significant scaling down of work forces of private companies and government offices.  Trapped in the vicious cycle are business enterprises, government workers, and sadly, the ordinary citizen who needs to avail the services of both.

With the looming tightening of restrictions delivery of public service will yet again be hamstrung. Daily requests for government-issued papers like certifications and certified true copies of birth certificates, marriage contracts, and others, mount. To be sure, the release date of the documents will see more delays.

Or, troublingly, the time lapse could cause the official records to be misplaced or destroyed.

Relatedly, given that a record of birth and/ or marriage is often required either in school or a job application, what would be the probative weight or value of a certification from the local civil registrar that says “the requested document is missing” or “cannot be found” in the register?

Borne of the presumption of regularity of performance of public duty (People of the Philippines v. Jessie Bancud Cauilan, G.R. No. 249853. September 14, 2021), and in accordance with Section 24 in tandem with Section 29 of Rule 132 of the 2019 Revised Rules on Evidence, the certification issued by the local civil registrar is considered as prima facie evidence of the facts stated therein. Prima facie is defined as evidence good and sufficient on its face. Such evidence as, in the judgment of the law, is sufficient to establish a given fact, or the group or chain of facts, constituting the parties’ claim or defense, and which if not rebutted or contradicted, will remain as sufficient.(Pulido v. People, G.R. No. 220149. July 27, 2021).

For instance, when a certification is issued by the local civil registrar that one’s marriage was celebrated devoid of a marriage license, this will give rise to the presumption that the marriage is void for lack of an essential requisite unless the prosecution is able to rebut the same with more compelling proof.

In the recent case of Pulido v. People, supra, the accused who was charged with bigamy was acquitted based on a certification from the local civil registrar that the The original documents of the marriage license and marriage application cannot be retrieved nor found in their custody. However, the Registrar states that these documents could possibly be among those unnumbered marriage application and marriage license that were destroyed due to termite infestation”.

Yet the ruling in Pulido presupposes that there is absence of “circumstance of suspicion”.

So what does “circumstance of suspicion” mean?

In Philip Hernandez Piccio v. House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal and Rosanna Vergara Vergara, G.R. No. 248985 which came down on October 5, 2021, the Supreme Court underlined the “motivation” of the presenter of a certification involving a missing public document as the primordial factor in according probative value to the said document. Thus:

“The appreciation of the probative value of the certification cannot be divorced from the purpose of its presentation, the cause of action in the case, and the context of the presentation of the certification in relation to the other evidence presented in the case. We are not prepared to establish a doctrine that a certification that a marriage license cannot be found may substitute for a definite statement that no such license existed or was issued. Definitely, the Office of the Civil Registrar of Imus, Cavite should be fully aware of the repercussions of those words. That the license now cannot be found is not basis per se to say that it could not have been issued. A different view would undermine the stability of our legal order insofar as marriages are concerned. Marriage licenses may be conveniently lost due to negligence or consideration. The motivation to do this becomes greatest when the benefit is to evade prosecution”.

It was further held that the “circumstance of suspicion” becomes a stronger motivating factor when the certification as to a missing document is being introduced in a criminal case and such certification is the key piece of evidence which could lead to an acquittal. By contrast, it is less of a factor when it is being adduced in a civil case where the presenter’s liberty is not at stake, such as in a proceeding for declaration of nullity of marriage, to wit:

“In the earlier-discussed case of Vitangcol, the Court rejected, as proof of the alleged non-existence of marriage between petitioner (the husband charged with Bigamy) and his first wife, the OCR Certification stating that the marriage license cannot be located. Apart from the lack of a categorical declaration in the Certification that no such marriage license exists, the Court likewise appreciated the “circumstance of suspicion” that the petitioner fraudulently caused the issuance of the document to evade conviction for Bigamy. Vitangcol differentiated itself from Republic v. Court of Appeals and Castro (Castro)- a case involving an action for declaration of nullity of a marriage, wherein the plaintiff presented a similar certification from the OCR that the marriage license “cannot be located as said license x x x does not appear from [the local civil registrar’s] records”. (Philip Hernandez Piccio v. House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal and Rosanna Vergara Vergara, G.R. No. 248985. October 5, 2021).

One’s motive therefore plays an important role in the presentation of a certification that a public document is either “missing” or “cannot be located”. The presenter’s motive could either infuse the certification with credibility and weight; or suffuse it with the unwanted doubt which will divest it of reliability.

Three (3) years into the pandemic many lessons have been learned. From the philosophical, the economic, to the legal. But what threads all these is what motivates our actions.

We must always be free of the “circumstance of suspicion”.

(The author is the senior partner of ET Reyes III & Associates- a law firm based in Iloilo City. He is a litigation attorney, a law professor and a book author. His website is etriiilaw.com).