Thoughtless Extravagance in times of Acute Public Want

In 2008, Baguio City suspended the issuance of permits for motorcades along its roads, citing the a Civil Code provision against splurging during critical times. In 2002, a court in Nueva Vizcaya issued a “temporary restraining order (TRO) preventing the Sangguniang Panlalawigan members from buying 13 luxury vehicles” for their own individual use, citing the same Civil Code provision.

Anyone, of course, is entitled to spend his money in any manner he pleases, so long as it is not against the law. Perhaps this is captured by the saying: “Work hard, party hard”. The law, however, provides for a limitation against thoughtless extravagance. The Civil Code reads:

Article 25. Thoughtless extravagance in expenses for pleasure or display during a period of acute public want or emergency may be stopped by order of the courts at the instance of any government or private charitable institution.

The rationale for this legal provision is succinctly pointed out by a respected civil law author: “When the rich indulge in thoughtless extravagance or display during a period of acute public want or emergency, they may unwittingly kindle the flame of unrest in the hearts of the poor who thereby become more keenly conscious of their privation and poverty and who may rise against the obvious inequality.” (Tolentino, I Civil Code of the Philippines [1990], p. 91)

There is yet no definitive Supreme Court ruling which involves this legal provision. Nevertheless, it would appear that three requisites must be present for this provision to apply. First, there must be an acute public want or emergency. Second, there must be a thoughtless extravagance in expenses for pleasure or display. Third, only government or private charitable institutions could file the action seeking to stop the thoughtless extravagance.

3 thoughts on “Thoughtless Extravagance in times of Acute Public Want

  1. nerveending

    Just a few thoughts.

    1. On the first requisite for the application of the law, the text provides that extravagance “may be stopped”. To me this means that the extravagance must be at least an act that is to be done or that is currently being done. When the act is already done, there is nothing to be stopped.

    2. If government funds were used to fund the dinner, I wonder if the requisites of a taxpayer suit are in order. That being said, the purpose of a taxpayer suit is to prevent taxes from being spent unnecessarily. Since the deed has been done, I think it stands to reason that through the rationale of a taxpayer suit, such a suit can be used to demand private accountability from public officials to pay for the dinner from their personal accounts.

    3. There is no jurisprudence that defines “private charitable institution” for the purpose of interpreting the law. I argue that the rationale of the law should allow for loose people’s organizations or people’s movements, even if unincorporated or unregistered in the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Cooperative Development Agency, as the case may be.

    4. The Civil Code operates to protect people from each other. What protects us from the excesses of government is the Constitution. In relation to my second point, I think the text of Sec. 1 Art. XI, Phil. Const., mandating that government officers should live modest lives should be a sufficient cause of action to take back the money spent under the principle of continuing mandamus (G.R. Nos. 171947-48, MMDA v. Concerned Residents of Manila Bay, December 18, 2008)

    5. The question for me is whether Philippine laws, including Rep. Act No. 6713 (Code of Ethics for Government Employees) apply to the sovereign and their entourage outside Philippine territory. I submit that they do.

    Reply
  2. Atty. Fred Post author

    Francis,

    Thanks for this incisive discussion. I agree with you that the word “stop” in the second requisite means that the act “is to be done or that is currently being done”. The practical difficulty, of course, is the speed (or lack of it) that the TRO could be secured (if the act is ongoing). On the other hand (for academic discussion), if the act is still in the planning stage, is it possible to argue that the application for TRO is premature since the organizers could very well decide not to pursue it?

    There seems to be no distinction whether the act is done by a private person or y a public employee. The Civil Code itself provides for the liability of public officers/employees who violate certain constitutional rights. It also seems that there’s no distinction between the use of private or public funds, without prejudice to the applicability of other laws governing public employees (like you mentioned).

    P.S. Thanks for noting that the discussion on the president’s power to grant pardon should also fall under the Political Law category.

    Reply
  3. nerveending

    Thanks for the kind words.

    As to actions by private individuals, I think there is no question that acts or events, even if still in the planning stage, may be the subject of this provision. Such acts of extravagance, especially if they grow quite large, are not spontaneous events. For example, a very extravagant debut of some socialite that I noticed several years ago as a law student was carried as a paid advertisement in a broadsheet that shall today remain nameless. In any case, such an event, including its paid coverage involved days, if not months of meticulous planning. Such planning consists of overt acts that have no other end result. In this case, and for the purpose of an academic discussion, I believe it cannot be said that a TRO is premature. If anything, it can be said that these events (and the determination of their relative extravagance) are the raison d’etre for having a limited duration to a preliminary TRO.

    I think the trend in recent Court decisions, in as far as public officials are concerned, is to use a bastardized version of the political question doctrine and to label an action for Injunction grounded on this provision (as a taxpayer suit) as premature. I submit that an Injunction may be sustained against a planned act. Again, the planning for such an act consists of overt acts, which in themselves show unity of purpose and can only produce one end result.

    A final point, if I may. The provision uses the word “extravagance”, but it does not say extravagant to whom. For example, what may seem as a simple dinner to the manor born may be extravagant to the urban poor. Where do we draw the line? Perhaps we can use the same relative standards of morality used in drawing the line in free speech discussions (as in Miller v. California, as adopted in our jurisdiction).

    At any rate, I think that such complexities keep the letter of this nobly-intended law dead. I can only wish someone will put it to good use.

    Reply

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