Constitutional Law, Political Law, Remedial Law

RICARDO VALMONTE, et al. vs. FELICIANO BELMONTE, JR.. G.R. No. 74930 February 13, 1989 Right to Information; Mandamus; GSIS Law; “public concern” and “public interest”

 

FACTS:

 Petitioners in this special civil action for mandamus with preliminary injunction invoke their right to information and pray that respondent be directed:

(a) to furnish petitioners the list of the names of the Batasang Pambansa members belonging to the UNIDO and PDP-Laban who were able to secure clean loans immediately before the February 7 election thru the intercession/marginal note of the then First Lady Imelda Marcos; and/or

(b) to furnish petitioners with certified true copies of the documents evidencing their respective loans; and/or

(c) to allow petitioners access to the public records for the subject information.

 

Such request was on the premise that Art. IV, Sec. 6 of the Constitution provides

The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, shall be afforded the citizen subject to such limitation as may be provided by law.

The Deputy General Counsel of the GSIS replied to such letter, however, not having yet received the reply of the Deputy General Counsel, petitioner Valmonte wrote respondent another letter, saying that for failure to receive a reply, “(W)e are now considering ourselves free to do whatever action necessary within the premises to pursue our desired objective in pursuance of public interest.”

Valmonte, joined by the other petitioners, filed the instant suit.

On July 19, 1986, the Daily Express carried a news item reporting that 137 former members of the defunct interim and regular Batasang Pambansa, including ten (10) opposition members, were granted housing loans by the GSIS. Separate comments were filed by respondent Belmonte and the Solicitor General. After petitioners filed a consolidated reply, the petition was given due course and the parties were required to file their memoranda. The parties having complied, the case was deemed submitted for decision.

In his comment respondent raises procedural objections to the issuance of a writ of mandamus, among which is that petitioners have failed to exhaust administrative remedies, hence, petitioners have no cause of action.

 

ISSUES:

  1. Whether or not this case falls under one of the exceptions to the principle of exhaustion of administrative remedies.
  2. Whether or not mandamus lies to compel respondent to perform the acts sought by petitioners to be done, in pursuance of their right to information
  3. Whether petitioners are entitled to access to the documents evidencing loans granted by the GSIS

 

RULING:

  1. YES.

Among the settled principles in administrative law is that before a party can be allowed to resort to the courts, he is expected to have exhausted all means of administrative redress available under the law.

The courts for reasons of law, comity and convenience will not entertain a case unless the available administrative remedies have been resorted to and the appropriate authorities have been given opportunity to act and correct the errors committed in the administrative forum. However, the principle of exhaustion of administrative remedies is subject to settled exceptions, among which is when only a question of law is involved.

The issue raised by petitioners, which requires the interpretation of the scope of the constitutional right to information, is one which can be passed upon by the regular courts more competently than the GSIS or its Board of Trustees, involving as it does a purely legal question.

Thus, the exception of this case from the application of the general rule on exhaustion of administrative remedies is warranted.

The pertinent provision under the 1987 Constitution is Art. 111, Sec. 7 which states:

The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents, and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.

In this system, governmental agencies and institutions operate within the limits of the authority conferred by the people. Denied access to information on the inner workings of government, the citizenry can become prey to the whims and caprices of those to whom the power had been delegated.

The postulate of public office as a public trust, institutionalized in the Constitution (in Art. XI, Sec. 1) to protect the people from abuse of governmental power, would certainly be were empty words if access to such information of public concern is denied, except under limitations prescribed by implementing legislation adopted pursuant to the Constitution.

Petitioners are practitioners in media. As such, they have both the right to gather and the obligation to check the accuracy of information the disseminate. For them, the freedom of the press and of speech is not only critical, but vital to the exercise of their professions. The right of access to information ensures that these freedoms are not rendered nugatory by the government’s monopolizing pertinent information.

2. YES.

Before mandamus may issue, it must be clear that the information sought is of “public interest” or “public concern,” and is not exempted by law from the operation of the constitutional guarantee [Legazpi v. Civil Service Commission]

The Court has always grappled with the meanings of the terms “public interest” and “public concern”. As observed in Legazpi:

In determining whether or not a particular information is of public concern there is no rigid test which can be applied. “Public concern” like “public interest” is a term that eludes exact definition. Both terms embrace a broad spectrum of subjects which the public may want to know, either because these directly affect their lives, or simply because such matters naturally arouse the interest of an ordinary citezen. In the final analysis, it is for the courts to determine on a case by case basis whether the matter at issue is of interest or importance, as it relates to or affects the public.

The information sought by petitioners in this case is the truth of reports that certain Members of the Batasang Pambansa belonging to the opposition were able to secure “clean” loans from the GSIS immediately before the February 7, 1986 election through the intercession of the former First Lady, Mrs. Imelda Marcos.

The GSIS is a trustee of contributions from the government and its employees and the administrator of various insurance programs for the benefit of the latter. Undeniably, its funds assume a public character.

 

In sum, the public nature of the loanable funds of the GSIS and the public office held by the alleged borrowers make the information sought clearly a matter of public interest and concern.

 

A second requisite must be met before the right to information may be enforced through mandamus proceedings, viz., that the information sought must not be among those excluded by law.

 

Neither can the GSIS through its General Manager, the respondent, invoke the right to privacy of its borrowers. The right is purely personal in nature, and hence may be invoked only by the person whose privacy is claimed to be violated.

Respondent asserts that the documents evidencing the loan transactions of the GSIS are private in nature and hence, are not covered by the Constitutional right to information on matters of public concern which guarantees “(a)ccess to official records, and to documents, and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions” only.

 

First of all, the “constituent — ministrant” dichotomy characterizing government function has long been repudiated. In ACCFA v. Confederation of Unions and Government Corporations and Offices, the Court said that the government, whether carrying out its sovereign attributes or running some business, discharges the same function of service to the people.

Consequently, that the GSIS, in granting the loans, was exercising a proprietary function would not justify the exclusion of the transactions from the coverage and scope of the right to information.

Considering the intent of the framers of the Constitution which, though not binding upon the Court, are nevertheless persuasive, and considering further that government-owned and controlled corporations, whether performing proprietary or governmental functions are accountable to the people, the Court is convinced that transactions entered into by the GSIS, a government-controlled corporation created by special legislation are within the ambit of the people’s right to be informed pursuant to the constitutional policy of transparency in government dealings.

3. YES.

In fine, petitioners are entitled to access to the documents evidencing loans granted by the GSIS, subject to reasonable regulations that the latter may promulgate relating to the manner and hours of examination, to the end that damage to or loss of the records may be avoided, that undue interference with the duties of the custodian of the records may be prevented and that the right of other persons entitled to inspect the records may be insured

 

The petition, as to the second and third alternative acts sought to be done by petitioners, is meritorious.

 

However, the same cannot be said with regard to the first act sought by petitioners, i.e., “to furnish petitioners the list of the names of the Batasang Pambansa members belonging to the UNIDO and PDP-Laban who were able to secure clean loans immediately before the February 7 election thru the intercession/marginal note of the then First Lady Imelda Marcos.”

Although citizens are afforded the right to information and, pursuant thereto, are entitled to “access to official records,” the Constitution does not accord them a right to compel custodians of official records to prepare lists, abstracts, summaries and the like in their desire to acquire information on matters of public concern.

 

It must be stressed that it is essential for a writ of mandamus to issue that the applicant has a well-defined, clear and certain legal right to the thing demanded and that it is the imperative duty of defendant to perform the act required. The corresponding duty of the respondent to perform the required act must be clear and specific.

 

The request of the petitioners fails to meet this standard, there being no duty on the part of respondent to prepare the list requested.

The petition was granted and respondent General Manager of the GSIS was ordered to allow petitioners access to documents and records evidencing loans granted to Members of the former Batasang Pambansa, as petitioners may specify, subject to reasonable regulations as to the time and manner of inspection, not incompatible with this decision, as the GSIS may deem necessary.

 

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