PHILIPPINE law and jurisprudence are rich with doctrines meant to protect the family as the basic unit of society, but emerging trends on family relations continue to pose challenges to the Philippine legal system.

This was the observation made by Supreme Court Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban in his lecture titled “Safeguarding Life and Family in the Constitution” during the 13th Human Life International (HLI) Asia-Pacific Congress on Faith, Life and Family last Oct. 8 at the Parklane International Hotel in Cebu City.

Recognizing the all-pervasive influence of the family as the “most important reference group and the core of a person’s alliance system,” Panganiban stressed that Art. XV, Sec. 2 of the 1987 Constitution “commands the State to protect marriage as an inviolable social institution and the foundation of the family.”

The Chief justice noted, however, that despite the Constitutional mandate and the various laws implementing it, most Filipino families still find themselves confronted with new challenges, such as changes in family structures, demographic ageing, and the rise of migration.

“While some of these problems stem from our own society, more and more emanate from changes and developments in other countries,” Panganiban said in the gathering of 700 participants from 13 HLI member-countries.

He observed that countries across the globe are now shifting from extended to nuclear families.

“Also on the rise are one-person households, as well as cohabitation without marriage. Falling fertility rates, migration and increases in divorce rates and number of older persons are responsible for smaller-size households,” he added.

Locally, the greatest threat to the inviolability of marriage is the misuse and abuse of “psychological incapacity” as a ground to declare a marriage void, based on Article 36 of the Family Code. More petitioners are resorting to Art. 36 as though it were a divorce law.

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Panganiban clarified that petitions for the declaration of nullity of a marriage should only pertain to cases where there is no marriage to speak of in the first place, because of a “fatal defect” existing at the time it was celebrated. “Thus, a nullity is not equivalent to a divorce, which cuts the bond of a previously valid marriage,” he explained.

Consequently, sexual infidelity, perversion, or abandonment, not to mention emotional immaturity and irresponsibility, do not by themselves constitute psychological incapacity for the purpose of obtaining a declaration of nullity in the Philippines, although in other countries these may be sufficient to secure a grant of divorce.

In the 1995 landmark case of Santos v. Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court interpreted psychological incapacity as “no less than a mental (not physical) incapacity that causes a party to be truly incognitive of the basic marital covenants that concomitantly must be assumed and discharged by the parties to the marriage.”

Two years later, in Republic v. Molina, the High Court further issued guidelines for determining when psychological incapacity may be used to nullify a marriage.

The guidelines provide that: the burden of proof to show the nullity of a marriage belongs to the complainant; the root cause of the psychological incapacity must be medically and clinically identified by experts; the incapacity must be proven to be existing at the time of the celebration of the marriage; and such incapacity must also be shown to be medically permanent or incurable. Moreover, such illness must be grave enough to bring about the disability of the party to assume the essential obligations of marriage under the Family Code.

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“Although this decision (Republic v. Molina) was unanimously carried by the full 15-member Court, it was criticized by many lawyers for its alleged ‘strictness.’ My standard reply was that Molina was strict only insofar as Art. 36 were to be construed as a divorce law, but reasonable if it were correctly deemed to be a ground for declaring a marriage void, not ended,” the chief magistrate said.

Marriage is a permanent union

The Family Code defines marriage as a special contract of permanent union between a man and a woman for the establishment of conjugal and family life.

“The inviolability of marriage is the basis for prohibiting divorce in our jurisdiction,” Panganiban emphasized. “Thus, only legal separation is recognized here.”

But he was quick to assert that even in cases where legal separation is allowed, the law decrees that courts must first take steps toward reconciling the spouses. Before discussing the issue of separation, the court must be fully satisfied that reconciliation is highly improbable.

Family courts, which serve as exclusive venues for settling purely familial disputes, were also created to uphold the integrity of the family.

“These courts are required to preserve the solidarity of the family, as well as to provide procedures for the reconciliation of spouses and the amicable settlement of family controversies,” he said.

Moreover, in keeping with the mandate of the Constitution and the precepts of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Panganiban said that the family courts were also tasked to provide a system of adjudication for youthful offenders, taking into account their “peculiar circumstances.”

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He also cited Philippine labor laws that render family support systems such as social security, disability benefits, paternity and maternity leaves and assistance to families that care for their dependents.

Further underscoring the importance of the family are the Constitutional principles granting equal protection to the life of the mother and the unborn from conception, thus outlawing abortion in the country.

Beyond the technicalities of law and jurisprudence, the purpose of the State in preserving marriage and protecting the family is ultimately to keep the society intact and functional.

“The union of a man and a woman is the most enduring human institution honored and encouraged in all cultures and by every religious faith. The commitment of a husband and a wife to love and serve each other promotes the welfare of children and the stability of the society,” Panganiban concluded. Anthony Andrew G. Divinagracia

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