Benjie Oliveros | When the interpretation of the law becomes an injustice: the HLI case


In analyzing the democratic revolutions of the late 18th century, a political economist once said that the rallying call of liberty, equality, and fraternity became liberty from the constraints of the monarchy and the feudal set-up – freedom for the capitalists to expand their capital, and for peasants from feudal bondage – and equality before the law.

At first glance, there seems to be nothing wrong with equality before the law, or the equal application of the law. But this presupposes that the law promotes equality and that people are equal to begin with. If the law protects the rich and powerful and people are not equal politically, economically and socially then this principle of equality before the law would promote inequality.

The recent decision of the Supreme Court regarding the agrarian dispute at Hacienda Luisita is a perfect example of the truth of this dictum. One could clearly see this by going through the 90 pages of the decision (there are 92 pages if the signatures of the justices and the certification of the Chief Justice is included). What is wrong with the Supreme Court decision?

First, the Supreme Court refused to rule on the constitutionality of the Stock Distribution Option (SDO), saying that there is no compelling reason to do so. It said it would only rule on the constitutionality of a law if, 1. There is an actual case or controversy; 2. the issue is raised at the earliest possible opportunity; and 3. it is essential to the resolution of the case. Using this argument, the Supreme Court said that while there is an actual case, FARM, which raised the constitutionality issue, took 14 years to question it. And that essential issue in the case at hand is not the constitutionality of the SDO but the authority of the PARC and the basis it used to revoke the SDO.

Chief Justice Renato Corona is right in saying that the court must not hesitate to wield the power of judicial review if it sees that a law impairs basic rights. In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Corona said the SDO is a “grave violation of the Constitution” and “runs roughshod over the language and spirit” of the Charter. “Unless there is land distribution, there can be no agrarian reform. Any program that gives farmers or farmworkers anything less than ownership of land fails to conform to the mandate of the Constitution. In other words, a program that gives qualified beneficiaries stock certificates instead of land is not agrarian reform.” That is well said.

Adding insult to injury, while the 10 justices of the Supreme Court refused to rule on the constitutionality of the SDO, it proceeded to justify the SDO by equating the provision of the Constitution for collective ownership of farms to the SDO. It practically puts corporate ownership – which, in this case, is obviously controlled by the landlords – on the same level as farm workers’ cooperatives and peasant associations. On second thought, if this is the thinking of the majority in the Supreme Court, it could have been better that it did not rule on the SDO’s constitutionality.

Second, the Supreme Court decision upheld the revocation of the Stock Distribution Plan (SDP) of Hacienda Luisita on the basis that: the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) has the authority to revoke what it has approved; the HLI did not fully comply with the timeframe for the distribution of shares and the provision that it should distribute home lots to all farm worker beneficiaries; and the HLI, by using as incentive the distribution of shares to farm workers who were hired after 1989 – the year the SDP was approved – effectively diluted the shares of the 6,296 original qualified farm worker beneficiaries. However, it struck down a very important basis of the PARC for revoking the SDP in 2005: the SDP failed to improve the lives of the farm workers and that they were deeper in poverty than when the stocks were distributed. The Honorable Justices of the Supreme Court opined that the intention of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program is merely to provide farmers and farm workers with the OPPORTUNITY to “enhance their dignity and improve the quality of their lives through greater productivity of agricultural lands,” and not to guarantee it.

This goes to show that the Supreme Court, by merely interpreting the letter of the law, misses the essential point that the purpose of agrarian reform is to promote social justice. And social justice is about correcting inequities, promoting equality and improving the lives of the poor majority.

The worst part of the Supreme Court decision is that while it revoked the stock distribution plan of HLI, it called for a referendum to make the farm worker beneficiaries choose whether they would opt to retain their stocks or to get their piece of land.

Why on earth would the farm workers be made to choose between what has been declared as null and void and their right to the land?

The Supreme Court justified this by citing the “operative fact” doctrine. It claimed that the “operative fact” doctrine is being applied to avoid the commission of “undue harshness and resulting unfairness” with the declaration of a law or executive action as null and void. According to the Supreme Court, under the operative fact doctrine, a law or executive action is deemed legal and valid until declared null and void by a court. All acts, therefore, from the time the law or executive action was promulgated to the time it was declared invalid would be deemed legal and valid.

Against whom would the undue harshness and resulting unfairness be committed if the whole SDP was rescinded? Is it not the whole point of the Supreme Court decision to revoke the SDP to correct a wrong that was done to the farm workers? This is where I was lost with the legal gobbledegook.

But what can be concluded from the decision of the Supreme Court to call for a referendum? In interpreting the law, the Supreme Court has effectively committed an injustice against the farm workers by denying them their right to the land and leaving them at the mercy of the Cojuangco-Aquino clan. Previous referendums conducted by the Cojuangco-Aquino clan have shown how they exploited the poverty of the farm workers and manipulated them by promising them huge amounts of money in exchange for their vote to opt for the shares, only to be given meager amounts in the end. And after the referendum, it would back to business for HLI while the farm workers sink deeper into the quagmire of poverty.

As another political economist aptly said, for rights to be equal, it must be unequal. This means that for society to promote genuine equality then rights, as defined by law, must favor those who have less. And the courts must not merely interpret laws but must dispense justice. (

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