MANILA - Chronic unhappiness and a no-fault divorce have been dropped in the consolidated proposal to legislate absolute divorce in the Philippines that is pending in a panel of the House of Representatives.
A technical working group (TWG) of the committee on population and family relations approved for endorsement to the main committee an unnumbered substitute bill that consolidates 4 bills, including proposals from TWG Chair Edcel Lagman, Representative Ace Barbers, Gabriela Party-List and the group of House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez.
Lagman said no-fault divorce is not allowed in their proposal "because this could be a possible ground for collusion of the parties."
"As a matter of fact, in all of these grounds, the office of the public prosecutor in provinces, cities and capital towns is authorized to conduct investigations to find out whether or not the parties are in collusion, and there are severe penalties for parties found guilty of collusion," he said.
Under the bill, the penalty for collusion is a prison term of not less than 5 years and a fine of P200,000.
"That will just underscore the commitment of the state to protect the sanctity of the marriage as a foundation of the family," Lagman said.
He also explained why it dropped the Alvarez bill’s proposal to include chronic unhappiness as a ground for divorce.
“With respect to irreconcilable differences and with respect to right of spouses to file a joint petition, we have already removed the ground of chronic unhappiness. It's hard to determine, it's so subjective. It approximates an esoteric ground," he said.
Alvarez has publicly admitted being in another relationship after a public separation from his wife.
Lagman, however, said the bill would give judges latitude to determine irreconcilable differences in a marriage.
“We have a generic definition of irreconcilable differences, which would result to total breakdown of the family, and the differences are so grave that the parties cannot reconcile despite repeated efforts. But this is a general provision on irreconcilable differences because the statute should not make hard and fast definitions, which may exclude other circumstances within the the concept of irreconcilable differences," he said.
"We follow the suggestion of the Supreme Court in one case that it would be good for Congress not to make a categorical definition of psychological incapacity because that definition could be constrictive, that other circumstances within the ground will be excluded. According to SC, it will be best to address this in a case-to-case basis so that the court will be able to adjust its decisions according to prevailing circumstances," he added.
'SEXUAL REASSIGNMENT' A GROUND FOR DIVORCE
Lagman said the grounds for absolute divorce are the same as the existing grounds for legal separation, annulment of marriage, and nullification of marriage--more particularly on psychological incapacity--but there are additional grounds, such as de facto separation for 5 years and the marriage is "irremediable or beyond repair," or when the spouses have already gotten a judicial decree of legal separation for 2 or more years.
Irreconcilable differences which have resulted to the total breakdown of the marriage and despite earnest efforts the spouses cannot reconcile is also among the grounds, he said.
Lagman also said that another ground would be one of the spouses has undergone a sex change operation or what is known as sexual reassignment surgery.
This proposal will be inexpensive and faster compared to present processes for ending marriages, he said.
“Indigent litigants or petitioners will be given the opportunity to file their petitions without paying the filing fees and other costs of litigation. The court will appoint counsel de oficio for said litigant who are indigent and the court will also assign social workers, psychologist and psychiatrist to assist the petitioners and also to assist the court," he said.
Lagman said some grounds can be resolved through ex parte or without a full-blown trial.
“There are also provisions here where some grounds can be subject to summary judicial procedure, in which case there will be a more speedy resolution of the case without much technicalities and the court can conduct a presentation of evidence ex parte when warranted by the circumstances in divorce proceedings," he said.
Under the summary procedure, the decision of the court will be final and executory immediately, he added.
The petition can be filed by one of the spouses or jointly in certain circumstances or grounds, he said.
DIVORCE FOR OFWs
Lagman said that under the proposal, overseas Filipino workers will be entitled to some preferences when applying for an absolute divorce.
”If the petitioner is an OFW, then the court will give the petitioner preference in the scheduling of hearing and the court shall allow presentation of evidence upon the availability of the petitioner OFW and the hearing with respect to presentation of evidence will be set for not more than 2 continuous days," he said.
For Lagman, their proposal would allow divorces to be finalized in a matter of months.
“In summary proceedings where the ground is the other party contracted bigamous marriage, all that has to be presented is a second marriage, which is invalid or a decision of court convicting the party of bigamy. Nothing else will have to be presented,” he said.
However, Lagman said there is a 6-month "cooling-off period" between the time a petition is filed and when the court actually starts working on the case.
“Again, this is just to emphasize the concern of the state that as much as possible, marriages should be preserved. This is a mandatory 6-month cooling-off period after the petition is filed. The court will not start the trial before the lapse of the 6-month mandatory cooling period, wherein the court will actively intervene in attempting to reconcile the parties. However, this cooling-off period will not apply to cases of violence against women and children, and cases of attempt against the life of the petitioner, a common child or a child of the petitioner,” he said.
Lagman said the proposal is significantly cheaper than the P250,000 cost of annulment proceedings today.
"If petitioner is indigent, he or she will be freed from filing fees and other cost of litigation. If they are not indigent, they will have to have their own lawyers, pay their professional fees [and the fees] of the psychiatrist, psychologist and social worker," he said.
Lagman said the bill will also make it easy for couples to reconcile, with a provision that would underscore the government's concern on the preservation of marriage.
"Despite the fact that parties already filed petition for divorce or even after the divorce had been already decreed, if they want to reconcile, they will have to file a joint manifestation before the court on their desire to reconcile, and upon the discretion of the court, the proceedings will be terminated at any stage of the divorce proceedings," he said.
"If the divorce had already been granted, then it will be set aside to allow the parties to really reconcile but the reconciliation should not adversely affect the interest of the children and also it should protect the interest of marriages," he added.
Alvarez's bid to have the proposal named “dissolution of marriage” instead of “divorce" was also junked by the Lagman panel.
“We have maintained the original proposition in my HB 116 that it should be called absolute divorce this time. Let’s call a spade a spade,” he said.
Last week, Alvarez playfully referred to his proposal as D.O.M, for dissolution of marriage, though the D.O.M acronym is often used to refer to dirty old men.
Divorce critic, Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano, however, said he would have to study the proposals first even as he noted "the effect of a broken family to the children.”
Asked about the plight of couples where there is a risk of violence, Alejano said: "If that is the problem, it’s hard for us to apply for annulment. I think we should look at that provision of that law in order to provide sanctuary or option for that kind of relationship.
"Yun ang tignan natin: paano yan mapagaang instead of being a prohibitive undertaking. Dapat na-address yung problema.”
Lagman, for his part, said, “the guiding principles also highlighted that this divorce bill is a pro-woman legislation because in most cases, it is the wife who is entitled to an absolute divorce in order to be liberated from an abusive situation and also for her to regain her dignity and self respect.”