The Doctrine of Laches

This article discusses the doctrine of laches, or when there is an unjustifiable delay in invoking one’s rights. Hence, the Latin maxim “Vigilantibus non dormientibus æquitas subvenit”. Equity aids the vigilant, not the negligent or those who sleep on their rights.

The doctrine of laches bars a party from invoking claims and defenses, both in and out of court. It is an equitable principle such that, where a party has a right or relief at the onset but the same is lost due to the party’s actuations, and delay in invoking such right or relief.

In the case of Regalado v. Go, G.R. No. 167988, 06 February 2007, the Supreme Court defined the concept of laches as follows:

“Laches is defined as the “failure or neglect for an unreasonable and unexplained length of time, to do that which, by exercising due diligence, could or should have been done earlier, it is negligence or omission to assert a right within a reasonable length of time, warranting a presumption that the party entitled to assert it either has abandoned it or declined to assert it.”

In laches, a claimant (either the plaintiff or the defendant in a civil case) possesses a right that he or she could ordinarily assert if not for his or her delay in doing so. This delay in asserting the right unfairly misleads the court and the opposing party into believing it has been waived. Therefore, to raise the claim belatedly, considering the circumstances of the case, would be unjust.

The principle of estoppel by laches is often seen in civil litigation. The time-honored rule anchored on public policy is that relief will be denied to a litigant whose claim or demand has become ‘stale’ or who has acquiesced for an unreasonable length of time, or who has not been vigilant or who has slept on his rights either by negligence, folly or inattention. In other words, public policy requires, for the peace of society, the discouragement of claims grown stale for non-assertion; thus laches is an impediment to the assertion or enforcement of a right which has become, under the circumstances, inequitable or unfair to permit.

Laches in Civil Cases

A case often cited in relation to this principle is the case of Tijam vs Sibonghanoy G.R. No. L-21450, 15 April 1968. In this case, the Supreme Court found that a substantial delay in raising the issue of jurisdiction unfairly prejudices the party invoking laches, as they were led to believe that this defense had been abandoned.

In this case, the Supreme Court referred to the doctrine of laches, as the doctrine of “stale demands”. The Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine is “based upon grounds of public policy which requires, for the peace of society, the discouragement of stale claims and, unlike the statute of limitations, is not a mere question of time but is principally a question of the inequity or unfairness of permitting a right or claim to be enforced or asserted.”

In this case, there was a challenge  in the jurisdiction of the court hearing the case. However, the Supreme Court disregarded the challenge due to the actuations of the claimant and the belated invocation of his right. The Supreme Court regarded the fifteen (15)-year delay in challenging subject matter jurisdiction as constituting estoppel by laches.

In another case, Bernardo v. Heirs of Villegas, G.R. 183537, 15 March 2010, where the Supreme Court also denied the jurisdictional issue raised by the claimant in the proceedings. The High Court noted the delay of ten (10) years in raising jurisdictional issues, thus:

“As already shown, nowhere in the complaint was the assessed value of the subject property ever mentioned. There is no showing on the face of the complaint that the RTC has jurisdiction exclusive of the MTC. Indeed, absent any allegation in the complaint of the assessed value of the property, it cannot readily be determined which of the two trial courts had original and exclusive jurisdiction over the case.

The general rule is that the jurisdiction of a court may be questioned at any stage of the proceedings. Lack of jurisdiction is one of those excepted grounds where the court may dismiss a claim or a case at any time when it appears from the pleadings or the evidence on record that any of those grounds exists, even if they were not raised in the answer or in a motion to dismiss.  The reason is that jurisdiction is conferred by law, and lack of it affects the very authority of the court to take cognizance of and to render judgment on the action.

However, estoppel sets in when a party participates in all stages of a case before challenging the jurisdiction of the lower court.” [Emphasis, Capitalization, and underscoring supplied.]

In addition to the decade-long delay in making the claim in the said case, the Supreme Court also emphasized on the conduct of the claimant in the proceedings, noting that when the case was being heard, the claimant actively participated in all stages of the proceedings. It would, thus, have been inequitable to sustain the jurisdictional challenge because it had unfairly prejudiced the other party to the proceedings, and more importantly, the trial court hearing the case, who were both mislead into believing that the jurisdiction challenge had been waived.

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