The Value of Title Deeds Under Threat
by Manuel L. Quezon III
Since the turn of the last century, the ownership of land in our country has been determined through Torrens titles. An Australian definition is as follows: “Under the Torrens Title system a certificate of title exists for every separate piece of land. The certificate contains a reference that consists of a volume and folio number, ownership details, easements and/or rights of way affecting the land and any encumbrances including mortgages, leases and other interests in the land.”
From the prefaratory statement of a Senate report comes a synopsis of why property owners in Caloocan are concerned over what they believe is a crucial challenge to the Torrens system:
“In the August 12, 1997 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, these landowners reiterated their request for a Senate inquiry into the land titling crisis affecting properties covered by the Hacienda Maysilo. They called on the government to stop claimants from titling big tracts of already titled and developed commercial and industrial properties in the areas. They stressed that unless swift action is taken, the Torrens system of land title registration would become useless, public confidence in commercial transactions would be destroyed, and overall economic development adversely affected.”
So what was — and is — the actual dispute? Let me point to one instance, brought to my attention by the family adversely involved. Let’s begin with the mother property, so to speak. On May 3, 1917,
An Original Certificate of Title (OCT), No. 994, was issued. OCT 994 covered 1,660 hectares in what is now Caloocan and parts of Quezon City. That property was eventually subdivided; one of the smaller properties being Lot 25-A3 of OCT 994, known as the Tuason Estate. This lot was recognized by no less than four Supreme Court decisions: G.R. No. L-22510, dated Feb. 6, 1925; G.R. No. L-23239, dated Dec. 31, 1925; G.R. No. L-30668, dated Aug. 28, 1929; G.R. No. L-33646, dated Dec. 29, 1930.
This lot, 25 A-3, was bought from Jose Rato Tuason in 1947 by the Aranetia Institute of Agriculture Inc. (AIA), which established a school, today known as De La Salle-Araneta University. In all the years since the or4iginal purchase (which was undertaken in good faith), AIA occupied the land, faithfully paid real estate taxes, constructed buildings and subdivided portions approved by appropriate government agencies regulating land titling.
Thirty-two years later, a certain Jose B. Dimson filed a complaint against AIA. In his Dec. 18, 1979, complaint, Dimson alleged that he discovered his land had been illegally occupied! Dimson alleged he received his title as attorney’s fees from a certain Bartolome Rivera. Bartolome Rivera alleged in turn that he inherited his title as an heir of Ma. Concepcion Vidal, although, as the AIA legal team points out, government findings showed the physical and genetic impossibility of the claimed relationship. Yet despite everything — the Senate hearing on the Maysilo Estate, for one — the good people at AIA have suffered legal reverses, not least because their case has been lumped together with other cases. AIA has appealed the Supreme Court’s decision upholding a Court of Appeals decision which upheld a decision made by the Regional Trial Court in favor of Dimson in 1997.
To my mind, having asked some lawyers I know for their opinions on the case, there is a legal principle at work, here, too: the Doctrine of Laches. It is to land what the statute of limitations, which sets specific periods for the filing of cases is, to certain suits or in the case of certain crimes.
Basically it would be like this: you buy a piece of land in good faith. You develop it, improve it; you may even, at certain points, sell off parts of the original property you bought to other people who themselves bought from you in good faith. Decades after you bought the land, someone comes along and claims no, the land is theirs, and claims your land and stands to benefit from all the improvements you put on the land. Along the way, anyone who bought from you or bought from someone who purchased a lot from you, stands to lose their land because of this claim. Had you been fairly warned, that a dispute over the property you bought existed, would you have improved it the way you did, or would other people have bought lots from you on good faith? And if the claim, made decades after the land has so obviously and publicly been improved, is allowed to prosper, isn’t it unfair both to you and everyone else who now has title to parts of the land you originally bought? That’s the Doctrine of Laches: to allow the claim to prosper would be unfair.
One thing is sure: this case involves many people, and much land, If AIA loses its appeal, the case will become the third precedent case affirming that OCT 994 of May 3, 1917 as not real. Anyone holding a TCT with this OCT registered date in essence will be considered by the Courts to be holding a fake title. Others holding OCT 994 registered May 3, 1917? They include: the National Government: 450 hectares, covered by 1,254 land titles of roads, national highways, portions of North Expressway, EDSA, the Bonifacio Monument, public markets and other public areas. Private/Business Owners: 1,210 hectares, covered by thousands of land titles including those belonging to Manila Central University, University of the East, Eternal Garden Memorial, Ever Grand Central, Sony Corporation Compound, Mojica Properties to name a few.
Indeed, it will be a historic verdict on the whole system that determines the ownership of property, that its resolution requires a decision by the entire Supreme Court of the Philippines sitting en banc. This is one question that deserves determination by the whole, and not just a division, of our highest court.