Published 3 January 2020, The Daily Tribune

A lawyer-client relationship is established once a lawyer is sought, in his professional capacity, for legal advice and/or assistance. In Burbe vs Magulta (AC 99-634, 10 June 2002), the Supreme Court (SC) elucidated that “if a person, in respect to business affairs or troubles of any kind, consults a lawyer with a view to obtaining professional advice or assistance, and the attorney voluntarily permits or acquiesces with the consultation, then the professional employment is established. Likewise, a lawyer-client relationship exists notwithstanding the close personal relationship between the lawyer and the complainant or the non-payment of the former’s fees.”

As soon as it begins, the lawyer’s utmost loyalty and fidelity to protect his client’s interest is required. To be sure, the relationship between a lawyer and his client is imbued with the highest level of trust and confidence.

However, when a professional relationship turns sour, or the client becomes unsatisfied with the services of his lawyer, or that the client simply wants to engage another counsel whom he believes may better attend to his legal concerns, may the client terminate the services of the lawyer at once? YES.

In our jurisdiction, the rule is, a client has the absolute right to terminate the attorney-client relation at any time with or without cause (Francisco vs Portugal, AC 6155, 14 March 2006).

How about the lawyer, does he or she have the absolute right to terminate the lawyer-client relationship? NO.

The lawyer’s right to withdraw from a case before its final adjudication arises only from the client’s written consent or a good cause. As it is, the right of a lawyer to withdraw or terminate the relation other than for sufficient cause is, however, considerably restricted. Surely, the ethical rule of thumb for lawyers is that if he undertakes to conduct an action, he impliedly stipulates to carry it to its conclusion (Venterez vs Cosme, AC 7421, 10 October 2007).

Section 26, Rule 138 of the Rules of Court provides that an attorney may retire at any time from any action or special proceeding, by the written consent of his client filed in court. He may also retire at any time from an action or special proceeding, without the consent of his client, should the court, on notice to the client and attorney, and on hearing, determine that he ought to be allowed to retire.

From the above rule, when the client does not consent to the withdrawal of the lawyer, the latter must prove in court that his withdrawal from the case is based on reasonable or justifiable grounds. Thereafter, the lawyer may only withdraw from the case once the court so permits.

Rule 22.01, Canon 22 of the Code of Professional Responsibility enumerates the good causes for the withdrawal of a lawyer’s services, namely:
a. When the client pursues an illegal or immoral course of conduct in connection with the matter he is handling;
b. When the client insists that the lawyer pursue conduct violative of these canons and rules;
c. When his inability to work with co-counsel will not promote the best interest of the client;
d. When the mental or physical condition of the lawyer renders it difficult for him to carry out the employment effectively;
e. When the client deliberately fails to pay the fees for the services or fails to comply with the retainer agreement;
f. When the lawyer is elected or appointed to public office; and
g. Other similar cases.

Needless to state, a lawyer is an officer of the court, and his services to his client are likewise imbued with public interest. Hence, the State is likewise invested in ensuring that a lawyer does not have the utmost liberty to easily terminate his services and leave his client in the cold, alone and unprotected.

Notably, however, while the lawyer-client relationship subsists, the rule is that the client is bound by the acts, even mistakes and negligence, of his or her lawyer in handling the case. But as in any rule, this admits exceptions as: “(1) where reckless or gross negligence of counsel deprives the client of due process of law; (2) when its application will result in outright deprivation of the client’s liberty or property; or (3) where the interests of justice so require (Uyboco vs People, GR 211703, 10 December 2014).”

In the celebrated case of Legarda vs Court of Appeals (GR 94457, 18 March 1991), the SC applied the exception to the agency rule between client and lawyer, as when therein lawyer repeatedly failed to file the necessary answer and other pleadings in court, leading to an adverse decision against the client (who was then abroad during the pendency of the proceedings), until said decision became final and executory, and ultimately leading his client to lose his property to satisfy the judgment award. In said case, the SC found that therein lawyer appears to have abandoned the case, and despite several chances afforded to him by his client to remedy the situation, the lawyer still exhibited repeated negligence and inaction. Thus, the High Court ruled that therein lawyer’s negligence was so gross and inexcusable, and consequently ordered the reconveyance of the subject property to the lawyer’s client.

Surely, when a lawyer fails to conduct himself in the highest degree of diligence, morality and professionalism exacted from him, the errant lawyer shall be rendered liable and be meted out the appropriate penalty as the SC may determine.

Hence, to all lawyers alike, let us always act with the utmost zeal, vigilance, and diligence in handling cases entrusted to us by our clients — of course, always with the end view of rendering equity and justice above all else. As to all clients, know your rights and be as vigilant and diligent in your cases and transactions. You, as much as your lawyer, have the basic duty to protect your interests.

To be sure, however, at the onset, choose well your lawyer. The battle, at the very least, is already half-won when you get the right one.

Here is to wishing that you secure the best lawyer for your legal needs. Happy New Year and decade!

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