Published 4 September 2023, The Daily Tribune

Stripped of all the legal technicalities, the power of eminent domain is the right of the State to take one’s property and use it for public purpose upon payment of just compensation, even against the will of its owner. While primarily lodged with Congress, this power may also be delegated to local government units, other public entities, and public utility corporations, albeit much more restrictive in the sense that compliance with the limitations of the delegating law is a must for the exercise of the power to be held valid.

Essentially, the exercise of the power of eminent domain has two stages namely: First, the determination of the authority of the plaintiff to exercise the power of eminent domain and the propriety of its exercise in accordance with the surrounding facts; and second, that the taking of the land be subject to payment of just compensation. Once both requirements have been satisfied, the Court may issue a writ of possession without even conducting a hearing on the merits of the case.

In view of this, is the issuance of a writ of possession a ministerial duty on the part of the trial court upon the filing of the complaint and payment of the deposit money?

Answering in the negative, the Supreme Court in the case of Iloilo Grains v. Hon. Enriquez-Gaspar (G.R. 265153, 12 April 2023) explained that in cases where there is a question on whether the entity exercising the right to expropriate does so in conformity with its delegating law, the same should be heard and determined first by the court pursuant to its vested authority.

In this case, the expropriating entity is the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines or NGCP which was vested by the right of eminent domain under Republic Act 9511. Notably, one of the conditions under NGCP’s franchise is the need for prior approval by the Energy Regulatory Commission or ERC of any plan for expansion or improvement of the facilities of TransCo.

The Supreme Court emphasized that in expropriation cases, questions regarding the validity of the exercise of the power of eminent domain which primarily pertains to its necessity must first be resolved before the court may even tackle the issue of the propriety of just compensation. Furthermore, in cases where such power is merely delegated as in this case, it is imperative to ensure that the exercise of such right conforms with the delegating law. Lastly, it must also be shown that the complaint is sufficient not just in terms of form but more importantly, in terms of the substance of its allegations.

Pursuant to this, the Court has laid down the following criteria used to determine the sufficiency of a complaint namely: (1) That the property taken must be private property; (2) there must be genuine necessity to take the private property; (3) the taking must be for public use; (4) there must be payment of just compensation; (5) and the taking must comply with due process. Lastly, for entities exercising a mere delegated power of expropriation, there is a need to demonstrate possession of the authority to exercise such power of expropriation.

Applying the foregoing to the present case, the Supreme Court held that the failure of NGCP to allege in its complaint that it had secured the required ERC approval for the projects that were used as the basis of the expropriation proceedings as well as NGCP’s failure to choose the portion that is least burdensome to the landowner rendered the complaint insufficient in substance.

Accordingly, a hearing must first be conducted to resolve these matters as they essentially hinge on the issue of necessity vis-a-vis the expropriator’s compliance with the statutory requirements for a valid exercise of the power of eminent domain. In essence, courts should not issue a writ of possession if the very authority of the plaintiff is in question.

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