Divorce in the Philippines: House panel approves bill for deliberation

For the first time in Philippine history, a divorce bill is approved by a House of Representatives committee, a significant step forward for divorce in the Philippines.

The issue of divorce in the Philippines has been a hotly contested matter in a predominantly Catholic country. But for the first time in history, the House of Representatives Committee on Population and Family Relations just submitted a divorce bill for deliberation in Congress. 

There are only two countries in the world that do not have divorce laws. One is Vatican City, because there’s nobody to divorce in an ecclesiastical sovereign city-state with celibate citizens. Guess what the other one is. 

The Philippines is the last remaining vestige of a group of fiercely Catholic countries who have fought hard to enforce its opinions on the “sanctity of marriage.” Even Pope Francis had to urge bishops here in the Philippines to adopt a more forgiving stance on divorce. This time however, lawmakers have agreed to test the measure, despite political party lines.

Legalizing divorce in the Philippines

There have been proposals to legalize divorce in the Philippines before. This time, a house committee approved a substitute bill that consolidated all these proposals to legalize divorce in the Philippines. The as yet unnumbered bill is titled “An Act Providing for Absolute Divorce and Dissolution of Marriage in the Philippines.”

Albay 1st District Representative Lagman, who led the technical working group that sent the substitute bill, expresses confidence in the bill. He says it will be easier to enact divorce in the Philippines than the Reproductive Health Law, which he co-authored.

“You recall yung reproductive health bill, gusto nila palitan ng responsible parenthood. We married the two proposals and now it's known as the Reproductive Health and Responsible Parenthood law," he said.

The bill seeks to offer “the opportunity to spouses in irremediably failed marriages to secure an absolute divorce decree under limited grounds and well-defined judicial procedures to terminate a continuing dysfunction of a long broken marriage.”

We'd like to remind readers that it is not a law yet. It will go through plenary deliberations, further debates and three readings in Congress, before it can go through the Senate. Once it gets out of the halls of congress, only then can the president sign it before it is enacted.

Grounds for divorce in the Philippines

Reasons for the dissolution of marriage may include abuse, infidelity, and irreconcilable differences. The following grounds for divorce in the Philippines listed in the bill are just a few in a longer list:

  • The spouses have been separated de facto for at least five years.
  • One of the spouses contracted a bigamous marriage.
  • The spouses have been legally separated by judicial decree for two years or more.
  • One of the spouses has been sentenced to imprisonment for six years even if subsequently pardoned.
  • One of the spouses has undergone sex reassignment surgery.

There’s a more extensive list of provisions and grounds in the following link, which you can read here.

Alimony and child custody

There were many compromises that they had to adopt in order for the bill to push through. Lagman said one of them is having two options when paying alimony: one time or periodically.

"Most probably, this would depend on the means of the spouse who's supposed to give alimony and also the needs of the recipient," he said.

According to the bill, the court will determine child custody “in accordance with the best interests” of the children. It explains further that minors under seven years of age cannot be separated from their mother unless there are “compelling reasons” to support it.

The bill entitles an “innocent spouse” to (up to) a year of support from the other, if he or she is not gainfully employed.

"The proper court shall have the discretion to grant alimony, child support, and child custody pursuant to the pertinent provisions of the Family Code of the Philippines," the bill adds.

Making divorce in the Philippines affordable

The authors of the bill want to stress that the bill will be friendly to indigents. The substitute bill defines indigents to be couples who own do not own real property worth more than P5 million.

The bill seeks to provide a cheaper and faster alternative to annulment, which can cost applicants upwards of P250,000. In some annulment cases, the process takes years to become final.

One of the provisions in the bill is that it will allow applicants to settle the divorce through summary proceedings instead of a full-blown trial. Usually, full-blown trials are lengthy, tedious, and expensive.

The proposed bill will also waive filing fees for those who cannot afford it. It will also allow the court to appoint a counsel de officio (an attorney assigned to a plaintiff if he/she cannot afford a lawyer), psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker for the applicant of divorce.

Lagman added, “We have provided that the indigent petitioner will be exempt from payment of filing fees and counsel de oficio. She or he will be afforded counsel de officio and the court can assign a social worker, a psychiatrist or a psychologist that will assist the court.”

Why people need divorce in the Philippines

Deputy Speaker Pia Cayetano says they based the bill on public consultations with OFWs. She made the following statement:

"It might sound strange now, P5 million. This is based on the public consultation we had with a lot of OFWs and even Filipinos here that you may be gainfully employed, you may be earning 20,000 a month but you will not spend that money on a divorce you badly need. They would rather continue the status quo and not obtain a divorce because it is beyond their capacity to pay so in all the public consultations we had, that was the request na please make a bill that's accessible to us, that is affordable to us. That’s why we set the threshold focusing on amount of properties. Even if people have this much property, they might have to sell it to access the amount, [thus the P5 million threshold].”

According to ACTS OFW party-list Rep. Ancieto Bertiz, people need a remedy for broken marriages, especially OFWs whose spouses have left them.

“This will help the case of our Overseas Filipino Workers who have been divorced by their former husbands who are foreigners, and those whose husbands back home already had a family with another woman while they were abroad,” Bertiz says in a statement.

“I have attended a public hearing on this measure in Hong Kong, and there was a case wherein the wife, who toiled for long years working in Hong Kong came home to the Philippines only to find out that the home that she worked hard for is being occupied by her husband and her husband’s mistress. Our laws should address these cases of aggrieved parties,” Bertiz adds.

Cooling off period

The bill still makes concessions regarding the sanctity of marriage. So, it mandates a six-month “cooling off” period for couples “as a final attempt of reconciling the concerned spouses.”

The “cool off” period begins immediately after the petition is filed. It is only lifted before the end of the period if the case involves acts of violence. The act of violence may be against women and their children. Or it may be an attempt on the life of the other spouse or a common child.

Divorce proceedings can halt any time if the couple decides to reconcile. If a court grants divorce to a couple who then decides to reconcile, the court is allowed to recall the decision. 

“These provisions prove that we are upholding the state’s obligation to protect the family by healing them from broken marriages and giving them the opportunity to have a second chance at marital bliss, with full protection of the children considered,” Lagman says.

 

Source: Rappler, CNN, ABS-CBN News, Manila Times

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