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Philippine Legal System

Philippine Legal System

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Published by Gabriel Ray Luzano
An overview of the legal system of the Philippines from the Pre-Spanish era to the Present.
An overview of the legal system of the Philippines from the Pre-Spanish era to the Present.

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Published by: Gabriel Ray Luzano on Aug 31, 2014
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03/01/2015

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Gabriel Ray L.

Luzano
[GABZ_LZN@yahoo.com]


M E M O R A N D U M


Re: Understanding the Philippine Legal System

Date: July 13, 2014


Introduction
This memorandum aims to briefly discuss an overview of the Philippine legal system. The
Philippines is a country imbued with several characteristics that would count it as unique. It is an
archipelago made up of 7,107 islands located in the region of Southeast Asia. It is nestled in an area
surrounded by other larger landmasses that would make it a strategic location as a gateway to Asia from
the Pacific as history shows us. It is also this history that makes the Philippine legal system unique and
interesting.
The Philippine legal system can be completely described as a harmonious blend or mixture of
customary usage, and Roman (civil law) and Anglo-American (common law) systems.
1
Many authors point
out that to understand this legal system, we must understand it from a historical perspective. There are
many periods in Philippine history however only three stand out as the most influential in shaping the
country’s legal system. The first is the Pre-Spanish Period, that is, the legal system present in the islands
even before the 1521 arrival of Ferdinand Magellan. The Second is the period under the Spanish regime,
from 1565 to 1898. And the last is the Post-Spanish regime or the period under American Sovereignty
from 1898 to1935.
2
The period after the Philippine independence shows that the growth of their legal
system stayed within these three systems.
The discussion in this memorandum shall follow the evolution of the Philippine legal system
using these three periods.

Factual Background
The Pre-Spanish Period
Before the arrival of the first Spaniards in 1521, the Philippine islands were home to early
Filipinos who lived in numerous independent communities called barangays.
3
The barangay was a
communal organization that regarded a family as the primary political unit
4
, much like what is recognized
in the Philippines’ modern constitution. The State recognizes the Filipino family as the foundation of the
nation.
5
The political structure of the barangays was simple, a typical barangay is headed by their
chieftain, or a datu, or a rajah depending on their tradition and social stratification which is conformed to
be common to the Southeast Asian pattern, which distinguished between the chiefly classes and the
commoners and slaves.
6
However, regardless of whether the chieftain was a sultan, datu, or rajah, the
chieftain had sweeping powers. He was, as a rule, the executive, military commander, legislator and
judge.
7
The laws present were both written and unwritten. The unwritten laws were the customs and
traditions of the barangays and they were generally handed down orally from generation to generation.
The written laws were promulgated by the datus with the council of elders but many were lost because of

1
ASEAN, Philippine Legal System: Historical Overview, available at
http://www.aseanlawassociation.org/papers/phil_chp1.pdf (last accessed July 6, 2014).
2
MELQUIADES GAMBOA, INTRODUCTION TO PHILIPPINE LAW 60 (1969).
3
ASEAN, supra note 1.
4
MELQUIADES, supra note 60.
5
PHIL. CONST. art. XV, § I.
6
BUREAU OF NATIONAL AND FOREIGN INFORMATION: DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC INFORMATION, THE
PHILIPPINES 27 (1976).
7
Id. at 49.

Gabriel Ray L. Luzano 1F Legal Research Exercise 1 MEMORANDUM

2
either (1) flimsy writing materials or (2) the texts were burned or destroyed by Spanish missionaries.
8
A
prime example of these is the Code of Calantiao describing penal laws. Regardless, the datus had all the
power to supersede these laws.
9
These customary laws (Law consisting of customs that are accepted as
legal requirements or obligatory rules of conduct; practices and beliefs that are so vital and intrinsic a part
of a social and economic system that they are treated as if they were laws
10
) are still used nowadays
especially within indigenous tribes of the country.

The Spanish Era
This era introduced a system of laws which were not based on the customs and usages of the
native people. This system was accomplished by the Spaniards through the introduction of centralization.
The Spanish government would take the separated barangays and consolidate them into a more
manageable centralized system instead of the earlier self-governing ones.
1112
The Spanish laws were laws
based on the famous Roman Law (Civil Law) system.
13
This system in a nutshell is a codification of all laws
where all issues such as crime and punishment is judged on. Issues are compared directly with the codes
that pertain to them.
All of the laws of the islands originated in Spain. The method and general guidelines followed was
the Laws of the Indies and the Constitution of Spain. This however is where most of the problems started
to originate as most of the benefits that were normally received by a Spanish citizen did not apply to the
natives or what the Spaniards termed as indios. Other laws extended to the Islands directly through the
royal decrees of the king. Many of the important laws of Spain were made effective in the Philippines,
some of these are even enforced until the present, even if some have had major revisions.
14


The Post-Spanish Regime or the American Sovereignty
Following the victory of Admiral Dewey in the battle of Manila Bay and the ratification of the
Treaty of Paris, the sovereignty over the Philippines was transferred over to the United States. This
marked the inception of a new tendency in the development of the Philippine legal system. The Anglo-
American juridical thought has come to the Philippines.
Upon the American occupation, the laws regulating the relations between the sovereign and the
people of the Philippines were completely abrogated. In other words, all laws related to politics were
struck down. What remained were municipal laws that pertained to private rights of persons and
property, regulated local institutions, and laws providing for the punishment of crimes.
15

The last big change in the Philippine legal system is the move from Spanish Civil Law to a
Common Law system more commonly known as case law. Black’s Law Dictionary defines the system as
“The body of law derived from judicial decisions, rather than from statutes or constitutions.”
16
Or much
more simply, the courts now used decisions in previous cases as precedents to decide on the cases at bar.
This is evident in the Philippine Civil Code’s Article 8 which states that “Judicial decisions applying or
interpreting the laws or the Constitution shall form a part of the legal system of the Philippines.”
17
Until
the foreseeable future these three systems combined shall constitute the characteristics of the Philippine
legal system.

8
GREGORIO F. ZAIDE, PHILIPPINE GOVERNMENT DEVELOPMENT, ORGANIZATION, AND FUNCTIONS 15
(1968).
9
MAXIMO M. KALAW, PHILIPPINE GOVERNMENT 13 (1948).
10
BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY 443 (9
th
ed. 2009).
11
JOSE ARUEGO, ET AL., THE EVOLUTION OF THE PHILIPPINE GOVERNMENT 16 (1974).
12
Id. at 25.
13
ZAIDE, supra note 15, at 26.
14
KALAW, supra note 13, at 21-22.
15
MELQUIADES, supra note 60, at 72.
16
BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY 313 (9
th
ed. 2009).

17
An Act to Ordain and Institute the Civil Code of the Philippines [CIVIL CODE], Republic Act No. 386
(1950).

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