Supreme Court disbars lawyer over Facebook posts

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 2) — The Supreme Court (SC) reminds lawyers to exercise prudence when posting on social media or making online remarks after it disbarred from law practice Atty. Berteni Causing for repeatedly violating his oath as a lawyer and the code of professional responsibility through his Facebook posts.

"[W]hile freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution, the lawyer's oath and his duties and responsibilities ultimately serve as a limit thereto," the SC said in a 10-page decision made public on Feb. 1.

"We caution lawyers to be circumspect in their postings online. They are reminded to always practice restraint in their conduct, be it in real life or online. Otherwise, the rule of law may very well be completely circumvented and rendered nugatory by blatantly seeking public trial on social media," it added.

The disbarment stemmed from a 2019 complaint filed by Jackiya Lao against Causing, alleging that the lawyer published on his Facebook account a draft of his plunder complaint against her and other government officials over alleged overpriced relief food packs during the Marawi war in 2017.

Causing, in his post in question, referred to Lao as the "Chairperson of the Bids and Awards Committee (BAC) of the DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development) Regional Office No. XII and the one that handled the bidding that ended up in the awarding of these food packs to Tacurong Fit Mart, Inc." Lao called this claim as "completely and absolutely wrong."

The SC found that at the time of posting, no such case was filed or pending before the Office of the Ombudsman.

"Atty. Causing's publication in his Facebook account of such defamatory accusation of Plunder subjected Lao to public hate, contempt and ridicule," the court said.

Causing admitted that he posted the complaint for plunder against Lao and others on his Facebook account but invoked his right to freedom of expression and of the press. The high court found his defense "untenable."

It said Facebook or any other social media platform is not the proper forum for Causing to air out his grievances and that the proper forum is to take his complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman.

In 2021, the court again sanctioned Causing with a one-year suspension for violating the confidentiality of an ongoing family court proceeding after he posted a pleading on Facebook in 2016.

Causing claimed his right to freedom of expression and of the press as he was acting as a "spokesman-lawyer" and a "journalist-blogger" when he published the post. The court, again, rejected his defense saying that a lawyer cannot divide his personality.

"The aforesaid case and the case at hand show that Atty. Causing has the propensity to divulge sensitive information in online platforms, such as Facebook, to the detriment of the people involved in the said cases," the SC said. "We believe that the appropriate penalty to be imposed herein is the ultimate penalty of disbarment."

Along with the disbarment, the high court directed the Office of the Bar Confidant to remove Causing from the Roll of Attorneys.

Causing's response

In a statement released Thursday night, Causing said his disbarment "virtually acquitted" the people he charged with plunder before the Ombudsman.

He also warned that his disbarment would discourage lawyers from exercising their right to freedom of expression, of speech, and of the press — which he described as the highest law.

"Hindi naman po nakasulat sa Konstitutusyon na exempted ang mga abogado sa 'freedom of expression, of speech, and of the press [It is not written in the Constitution that lawyers are exempted from 'freedom of expression, of speech, and of the press],'" Causing's statement read.

In a Facebook live stream early Thursday, Causing argued that he only learned about the court's decision over his 2016 post in June 2021. At that point, he had already made the post against Lao in 2019.

"Ginawa ko yung post ng aking reklamong plunder laban kay Lao nung 2019 pa, wala pa yung desisyon kung saan pinarusahan ako [ng one-year suspension]," he said.

[Translation: I posted my plunder complaint against Lao in 2019, the decision where I was punished (with a one-year suspension) was not yet out.]

"Kung wala yung desisyon, hindi ko pa alam na mali pala yun. Kung hindi ko pa alam na mali yun, hindi pa matatawag na inulit ko yung kasalanan," Causing maintained.

[Translation: Because there was no decision yet, I would not have known that it was wrong. If I hadn't known that it was wrong, it wouldn't be considered a repeat offense.]

Effect on Percy Lapid murder case

Causing is also the lawyer for the family of slain broadcaster Percy Lapid, although the online posts in question were not related to the murder case.

He said his disbarment has "crippled" him from giving his "100% support for the quest for justice" for Lapid.

"The bloggers, the fans and other supporters of suspended Bureau of Corrections Director General Gerald Quitaleg Bantag are now cheering and jeering against Engineer Causing, who has been the spokesman of the family," Causing's statement read.

Causing said he will be filing a motion for reconsideration in the next two weeks.

He added that he would still be the one who will cross-examine Bantag - the alleged mastermind in Lapid's killing — once his disbarment is lifted.